What One Black Senator Can Do

July 26, 1993

United Daughters of the Confederacy have become increasingly irrelevant over the years. Dreams of the antebellum South with its belles and beaux, its magnolias and melodrama, have been replaced by a national awakening to the evil legacy of slavery and the need to ensure constitutional rights for all Americans.

There was a time when the UDC made a little news, here and there, by seeking to expunge "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" from school songbooks or protesting the casting of a woman not born in Dixie as Scarlett in "Gone with the Wind."

But lately, we suppose Sen. Jesse Helms was correct in asserting that most of the group's members are gentle ladies doing good deeds who expected Congress would give its approval, as it regularly has every 14 years, to the patent for the UDC seal displaying the original flag of the Confederacy.

It was a form of official recognition, however, that disintegrated when it encountered the rage of the first African-American woman ever to sit in the United States Senate. Carol Moseley-Braun, Democrat of Illinois, already had her dander up Thursday morning when Sen. Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, compared the Dred Scott decision upholding slavery with the Roe vs. Wade decision on abortion rights. When she was notified that Senator Helms was proposing to renew the UDC patent, she rushed to the Capitol and changed the chemistry and sensitivity of the Senate, perhaps forever.

Her voice rippling with anger, she asked how long members of her race would have to "suffer the indignity of being reminded time and time again that at one point in this country's history we were human chattel, we were property, we could be traded, bought and sold." Contrary to the Senate norm, her speech actually changed votes. On a 75-to-25 rollcall, renewal of the patent was denied.

The riveting event showed that even one African-American, backed up by one Native American, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, could introduce an important element of racial diversity in an institution still 98 percent white.

Sen. Howell T. Heflin, Democrat of Alabama, a Southerner with revered Confederate antecedents, was turned around. He said he could not "put the stamp of approval on a symbolism that is offensive to a large segment of America." Right.

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