WHEN Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the Lincoln Memorial and elegantly challenged America to live up to its founding creed, the air was charged with an electricity of all that was possible.
Now we seem to have difficulty even recognizing that there is work to be done, as exemplified by the debate in South Carolina over the state-sponsored display of the Confederate battle flag. The issue has left some disturbingly silent and others displaying a stilted grasp of fundamental elements of our nation's history.
During the Republican presidential primary campaign, both Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain passed when it came to the flag debate.
Mr. McCain later acknowledged that it was irresponsible to have ducked the question, but Governor Bush has not seen fit to follow suit. Too bad, because this is a matter that reaches far beyond the State House grounds in Columbia and it should be part of our national dialogue. It speaks to the very heart of what our agonizing Civil War should mean to us today -- that is, whether four years of horrible fratricide not only served to hold the nation together and made possible its continental expansion and eventual superpower status but also paved the way for an enlightened people to reach the ultimate fruition of their country's 18th-century rudiment that all men are created equal.
First, we should be candid about one thing: The Confederacy always carries with it the dreadful baggage of chattel slavery. Indeed, as the Confederate Constitution makes plain, it was slavery that was its central reason for being, and that goes a long way to explain why, even after several stunning battlefield victories, no other nations waited to recognize the South's independence. The battle flag, as the Confederacy's most recognized and enduring symbol, necessarily, bears the same ignoble burden.
Next, we should dispense with the romantic inclination to view the Civil War as an inevitable clash of cultures and philosophies in which the slavery issue merely played a part.
Surely vast economic and cultural differences made for division, distrust, and even hatred. But succession came because, as personified by Lincoln's election, the handwriting was on the wall bearing the message that, as new states joined the union, slave states would soon be a distinct minority.
Many things made the South unlike the rest of the country, but slavery made it impossible for it to remain in the union.
Correspondingly, it became apparent that the North, for all its industrial and population advantages, could not prevail, either militarily and in the court of public opinion, until it seized the moral high ground of emancipation. Once Lincoln, through his renowned proclamation, defined the conflict in moral terms, the Union cause was transformed from a battle for political survival to a righteous crusade for human rights, and one to which the Confederacy had no respectable answer.
Apologists for the South's moral dilemma attempt to characterize the Confederate cause in noble and patriotic terms, asserting that the South fought for self-government and the preservation of its historic way of life against an invading army.
But while wrapping the Southern cause in such noble mantle was an effective source of motivation for the South's prolific tenacity, it makes for myopic history. The Confederacy, at its core, was manifestly about the preservation of race-based slavery, an indelible scar.
Sadly, the ugliness of that scar was irretrievably deepened by the battle flag's subsequent appropriation to celebrate segregation, justice by lynching, violence in opposition to simple civil rights and all manner of despicable acts of racism. This history overtly sullied the flag and diminished any justification for its use as a symbol of reverence for those who gave so much in battle.
While there is an appealing argument that display of the battle flag is meant to honor those who fought so magnificently in such a long and bloody conflict, its troublesome heredity remains. Clearly the military excellence and bravery of those who fought for the South cannot be denied.
But we cannot be selective in the meaning we intend to invoke by the symbols we display; it is delusional to pretend that we do not see the scar on the flag under which they fought.
A symbol has voice and a message. In the case of the Confederate battle flag, the choice is whether to speak with defiance or reconciliation. The display of the flag may pay homage to some, but it surely causes understandable offense to many.
Honoring history is not a self-indulgent exercise in exalting the past.
The acts of our forebears are only meaningful if, in addition to remembering them, they are a living source of inspiration, strength, and growth.
To truly be respectful of history, we have an obligation to learn its lessons and put that insight to work for the greater good of our nation. To that end, perhaps the most heroic role the battle flag can play is through its retirement as a state-sponsored symbol. Then it would speak as evidence of the wisdom and compassion of a generation that chose, not to ignore the scar, but to try to heal it.
Raymond Daniel Burke is a partner with the Baltimore law firm of Freishtat & Sandler and gives tours of the Antietam battlefield.