You've gotta give Robert Ford credit -- he knows how to get people's attention.

As Yvonne Wenger reports today, the good senator from Charleston stood in the Statehouse on Thursday waving a Confederate battle flag and talking about how it should unite America.

Ouch. Yet another opportunity for folks in other parts of the country to say, "What's up with South Carolina?"

OK, so it was a little unorthodox, especially since Ford is black. But behind the flag -- understandably an inflammatory symbol, as it was co-opted by hate groups before and during the Civil Rights movement -- Ford actually had a point. As we approach the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, it's time to cut out the white-washing, the revisionism and the protesting.

It's time to start talking about history, and what it really means.

In the trenches

The real point Ford was trying to make can be distilled down to one quote: "I just want us to get along so we can have a better state."

Now, the senator is smart enough to know that had he simply said that, without the prop, not one person would have listened.

Given the flag he used, no one may listen to him anyway. It took the NAACP about 30 seconds to condemn Ford and his remarks. And they have a point. That battle flag is front and center in too many old news clips of racist idiots trying to deny black people their basic human rights.

But understand this: Ford was often on the other side of the street from those racist idiots. He played a prominent enough role in the Civil Rights movement that no one needs to question where his heart is.

In fact, Ford is a big part of the reason that flag no longer flies over the Statehouse dome. He was a crucial player in the legislative fight -- and it was a doozy -- that replaced the dome flag with a more historically accurate version at a Confederate soldier monument on Statehouse grounds.

And he was able to do that because he listened to the other side.

Common ground

At the Secession Ball here in December, a few hundred folks spent the evening inside the Gaillard Auditorium commemorating the anniversary of the day this state seceded. Outside, a group of people protested the event.

Ball attendees acknowledged and talked openly about the role slavery played in bringing about the secession, and condemned the practice. They called the evening a commemoration, not a celebration.

Probably no one outside would have disagreed with that approach. If they'd talked, they might've found common ground.

Ford knows the vast majority of people interested in the war are history buffs who want to know more about their past and their ancestors. He knows because he has talked to them.

And because he has listened to them, those people are more willing to hear Ford's point of view. It's called a discussion, something that rarely occurs in politics anymore.

Ford's gambit didn't work Thursday because no one can see beyond the symbols anymore, and he should have known better.

But he's trying, in his own unorthodox way, to change all that.