Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

Heritage? OK, which heritage do you choose?


“I think it wiser moreover not to keep open the sores of war, but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavoured to obliterate the marks of civil strife and to commit to oblivion the feelings it engendered.”

-- Gen. Robert E. Lee

In a speech last week at the National Press Club, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry talked with a rare degree of honesty about the difficulties that Republicans face in trying to reach black voters. Unlike some conservatives, he didn't belittle black Americans with talk about how they were being bought off with "free stuff". He didn't insult their character or intelligence by accusing them of living contently on the Democratic "plantation".

Instead, Perry admitted that black Americans have cause for feeling unwelcome. They do not listen to or consider the Republican Party as an option because the Republican Party has not cared to be that option.

"I know Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African-Americans," Perry said. "Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 ran against Lyndon Johnson, who was a champion for civil rights. They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964."

"For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote, because we found we didn’t need it to win. But when we gave up trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln, as the party of equal opportunity for all. It’s time for us, once again, to reclaim our heritage as the only party in our country founded on the principle of freedom for African-Americans."

And yet later today, at Republican insistence, the U.S. House of Representatives will be voting on an amendment that would reverse National Park Service policy in the wake of the Charleston shooting. If approved, it would once again allow the display of the Confederate battle flag over national cemeteries, and once again allow the sale of flag-related memorabilia at national parks. Large numbers of Republicans, most of them from here in the South, are reportedly refusing to support the larger appropriations bill unless the amendment to reinstate the Confederate battle flag is approved.

(UPDATE: At a press conference today, House Speaker John Boehner announced that he was pulling the appropriations bill from the calendar.

"We all witnessed the people of Charleston and South Carolina come together in a respectful way to deal with what was a very horrific crime and a very difficult issue with the Confederate flag," Boehner said. "I actually think it is time for some adults in Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue."

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.)

In his speech, Perry spoke of refurbishing his party's heritage as the party of abolition, as the party of Lincoln. But with their vote today, Republican legislators will reiterate and reinforce the notion that the heritage represented in that flag is more important to them than their heritage as the party of Lincoln. They will once again confirm in the minds of black Americans that the Republican Party is not interested in their votes, in their support or their loyalty.

Listen to state Rep. Jenny Horne, a South Carolina Republican and descendant of Jefferson Davis, in comments last night on the floor of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

One by one, Horne pointed out black colleagues in the House to whom that flag represents not just the battle to sustain slavery but the subsequent century-long battle to suppress the descendants of those slaves, to keep them in a state of officially mandated subservience.  To them, she now understood, that flag is and always will be a symbol of hate and repression, and having recognized that reality, she said, she could no longer support it. At a moment in the debate when the outcome was very much in doubt, Horne publicly shamed her colleagues into doing the right thing.

Yet today, up in Washington, we may very well see the opposite. I just find that remarkable.


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.