COLUMBIA — Waving the Confederate flag from the state Senate chamber floor, Charleston Democrat Sen. Robert Ford declared that blacks and whites should come together as South Carolina remembers the Civil War.
Ford, who is black, said that before the war, his ancestors were slaves. After the war, they were free men and women.
“Doesn’t that give me a reason to celebrate?” Ford said. “What it means is the war was able to unite America.”
Ford’s comments come as the nation marks the 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Sumter next week and the start of the Civil War.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, said she won’t be celebrating with Ford, nor does she expect most African Americans to do that.
“I think that statement is ludicrous,” Scott, who is black, said. “Had the Confederate states not fought, the slaves would still have been free, because that’s what they were fighting for, to not let that happen. Had they not fought, thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers on both sides would not have died.”
The Rev. Joe Darby, vice president of the Charleston NAACP, said Ford should hold a town hall meeting in his district.
“Senator Ford needs to start reflecting the views of his constituents,” Darby said. “I think he lives in his own universe.”
Ford said from the Senate floor that he suspects his comments will be taken out of context. He reminded his colleagues that he was arrested 73 times during the civil rights movement in his attempts to secure equal rights for African Americans.
“I want everybody in South Carolina to be united, to understand each other, to talk to each other; don’t be mean-spirited,” Ford said.
Ford said he is concerned that when black schoolchildren see the Confederate flag at commemorative events during the next four years they will become bitter and upset. He wants the public to think about things differently.
“I just want us to get along so we can have a better state,” Ford said.
Ford said he is connected to his constituents and holds events every week that engage those who live in his district. He also said that through his work to bring people together and not divide them, he was able to help secure thousands of jobs for his district.
Ford said Scott and Darby need to concentrate on bringing people together to move the state forward.
“Understand this if you’re African American: Before the war, you were a slave. After the war you were free. And in 2012 you can do anything that you want to do,” Ford said.
Sen. Darrell Jackson, a Hopkins Democrat who is black, objected to the remarks, although he noted that he respects Ford and considers him a friend.
Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, a Charleston Republican who is white, asked that Ford’s remarks be printed in the Senate journal, which is a way to commemorate them.
McConnell said he wanted Ford’s remarks recorded so they could be preserved in full, to ensure his comments would not be taken out of context. Ford intended to unite, not divide people, McConnell said.
Together Ford and McConnell helped forge a compromise in 2000 to remove the Confederate flag from the top of the Statehouse and move it to a monument on the grounds. The compromise also led to the establishment of a African American monument at the Statehouse.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has carried on an economic boycott of the state since the flag was repositioned to its current location, an arguably more prominent spot.
McConnell is a history buff and a war re-enactor. He said Ford had courage to make his comments.
“He was trying to bring people together and to heal the division and find a way through charity of understanding to bring our people forward,” McConnell said. “He was saying, ‘Look, there is an opportunity for all of us in this shared history to see some different things over the next four years. But the one thing together that we need to do is be one people at the end of this.’ It was a speech from the heart. There is no political gain for him in that.”
Todd Shaw, an associate professor of political science and African American studies, said he can see value in Ford’s comments as intended to unite the state.
The Confederate flag, however, has a difficult legacy, because of its use during the war and the civil rights movement, Shaw said. Separating the flag from that legacy may never be possible, Shaw said.
As far as Ford’s remarks that he will celebrate the anniversary of the Civil War, Shaw also noted that there is a difference between commemorating and celebrating.
To commemorate is to know the historical importance of an event and recognize the lessons that can be learned from its occurrence. To celebrate is to indicate that an event represents the best in something, Shaw said. South Carolina should be mindful of that at the anniversary of the Civil War.
“For some it is a reminder of slavery and race and oppression,” Shaw said.