Heflin Took True Stand For Equality

Senator Howell Heflin recently stated that he will seek a fourth term. That he will run again for the U.S. Senate may surprise many Alabamians, especially since most of the state’s political observers, analysts, and pundits wrote an end to Senator Heflin’s political career last July 22nd. That’s the day he took to the floor of the senate and urged colleagues to reconsider their vote renewing the design patent for the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The patent was an honor that the Senate had routinely bestowed on the UDC every 14 years since 1898, even though the insignia features a wreath enclosing the flag of the confederacy.

Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, the freshman senator from Illinois, objected. The first African American woman to serve in the Senate and the daughter of parents who migrated to Chicago in the 1950s from Union Springs, Alabama, Senator Moseley-Braun, told her colleagues that the U.S. Senate should not give tribute to the flag of the Confederacy. She stood on the floor of the Senate and argued for tabling the tribute sponsored by Senator Jesse Helms. The Senate voted 52 to 48 against her motion to table and approved the measure as part of an unrelated bill. Undaunted by this vote, Senator Moseley-Braun shocked the Senate when she said that she would remain on the Senate floor “until this room freezes over” rather than allow the Helms measure to stand.

Responding to her courage and determination, one colleague after another rose to support her. The high point of the drama came when Senator Heflin rose and addressed his colleagues. He first spoke of his conflict with the issue, “¼ conflict that arises out of love for my southland.” Senator Heflin spoke of his family background deeply rooted in the Confederacy. He told colleagues, “I have many connections through my family with the Daughters of the Confederacy organization and the Children of the Confederacy, and I have a deep feeling, relative to my family’s background, that what they did at the time, they thought was right… But we live today in a different world. We live in a nation that every day is trying to heal the scars of racism that have occurred in the past. We are trying to heal problems of racism in the world in which we live today. Perhaps racism is one of the great scars and one of the most serious illnesses that we still suffer today.” Concluding his remarks, Senator Heflin said, “I feel that, today, this is a symbolic step. If we move forward to put the stamp of approval of the U.S. Senate and the Congress on a symbol that is offensive to a large segment of Americans, I think we will not be moving in the right direction, and it is a wrong approach to the ideals for which this country must stand.” After Senator Heflin’s speech, the vote to reconsider gave Senator Moseley-Braun’s motion the victory she sought with a 24 vote margin.

Senator Heflin’s speech served another purpose. It says that white southern politicians do not need to continue wrapping themselves in the failed ideology of the Confederacy¼ the idea of ‘white superiority’ is repugnant to our democracy. It’s this white supremacist aspect of Confederate ideology that’s disturbing to a lot people. That’s why so many Alabamians of all colors viewed the Confederate battle flag flying from the Capitol dome as a repugnant symbol of white superiority.

Last Spring, after Governor Jim Folsom, Jr. banned the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol, many individuals wrote letters to the editor of this newspaper expressing dissatisfaction. A close reading of some of these letters suggests that the writers are suffering-victims of Confederate ideology. The idea of ‘white supremacy’ is so seductive to some individuals that it renders them irrational, unable to accept the fact that white people and nonwhite people are equals. For these individuals, the Confederate battle flag serves as an antidote to the reality they are unable to confront.

Senator Heflin displayed much needed leadership by joining with Senator Moseley-Braun to deny this symbol of racism a position of honor in our society. He earned the admiration and respect of millions of Americans by sharing his struggle with the conflict between Confederate ideology and the American vision. He led his colleagues in the United States Senate to a new moral high ground with respect to race relations. His speech charts a redemptive path for others to follow.

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Originally Published: 2 February 1994, Montgomery Advertiser

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