Rebel flag remains a hot topic in Congress

Credit: Dave Martin

Credit: Dave Martin

On the House floor Friday, U.S. Rep. Lynn Westmoreland approached U.S. 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 widely circulated comments to reporters Thursday about the Confederate battle flag. When asked whether 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 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, a spokeswoman said.

While there were no floor votes Friday on the Confederate flag after Thursday’s drama, it was still a widely followed topic.

Lewis and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., met privately. Neither said 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 marking when Lewis and other civil rights marchers were beaten in 1965 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

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

Lewis has called for the removal of some statues of men who served in the Confederacy that stand in the Capitol.

“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.

He said he has not been asked to serve on any commission.

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.

U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, knows from experience. In 2001, Scott was the first Republican in the state House to work with Democrats on removing the Confederate battle emblem from Georgia’s flag.

But he is siding against the Democrats in this case.

“I grew up in the South. For a long time, I certainly had Confederate flags. And I stopped out of respect for other people’s opinion, and that was my choice,” Scott said. “I think we did the right thing in the state of Georgia when we did it. I think South Carolina has done the right thing (in removing the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of its Capitol).

“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,” Scott said. “If you have a side that wants to keep the wound open, then it becomes hard to get there.”

The latter comment 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.”