John Lewis: 'I'm not going to get in a fight' with Lynn Westmoreland

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta. AJC file

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta. AJC file

WASHINGTON -- On the House floor today, Rep. Lynn Westmoreland approached Rep. John Lewis with a simple message.

"Don’t believe everything you read in the papers," Westmoreland said, as Lewis recalled later.

It was a reference to Westmoreland's

to a group of reporters Thursday about the Confederate battle flag. When asked if he understood the civil rights legend Lewis' strong feelings about the flag as a symbol of hate, Westmoreland replied: “Well, if I believe it comes from heritage, does he understand where I’m coming from?”

Lewis, D-Atlanta, said he told the Westmoreland: "Let’s just forget it all. I’m not going to get in a fight with any of my members of the Georgia delegation."

Westmoreland, R-Coweta County, did not want to discuss the private conversation, according to a spokeswoman.

While there were no floor votes today on the Confederate flag after Thursday's drama, it was still a popular topic.

Lewis and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met privately off the House floor. Neither would say much about the conversation, only that they were "good friends." McCarthy has twice traveled with Lewis to Selma, Ala., including this year for the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.

House Speaker John Boehner on Thursday proposed a bipartisan commission to address the Confederate flag and other such issues, in the wake of last month's racially motivated slayings in Charleston, S.C.

Lewis has called for the removal of some Confederate statues in the Capitol. He said he has not been asked to serve on any commission.

"We need to look at all of the signs and symbols and scars of division and separation and try to do something about it," Lewis said.

Any pending spending bill could provoke another floor fight on the flag, and House leaders hope to avoid further controversy. But a compromise among black and white Southern lawmakers from both parties is going to be difficult.

Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, knows from experience. In 2001 Scott was the first Republican in the state House to cross the aisle and work with Democrats on removing the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag.

But he is siding against the Democrats in this case:

"I also think that if a family of a Confederate soldier wants to put a Confederate flag on a Confederate grave on Confederate Memorial Day, I think that's their right to do that. ...

"I guess the question is: Where does it end? Taking the Dukes of Hazzard off of TV doesn't make sense to me. But I stopped wearing the Confederate flag out of respect for other people's opinion."

Scott said Boehner's "conversation" idea could be useful:

"I certainly think that we can find a solution that respects people's First Amendment rights, if we're having an adult conversation about this. If you have a side that wants to keep the wound open, then it becomes hard to get there."

The latter was an apparent reference to Democrats who seized upon the issue. Lewis defended his side's tactics:

"We had some drama on the floor that was necessary to help highlight the issue, to help inform and educate some people."