Opinion Extra

Putting things in perspective: monuments, basketball and a flag

South Carolina players celebrate after a second-round game against Duke in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Sunday in Greenville.
South Carolina players celebrate after a second-round game against Duke in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Sunday in Greenville. AP

On Saturday a large, diverse crowd gathered on the grounds of Penn Center in Beaufort County to dedicate the recently established Reconstruction Era National Monument. It was the culmination of a 17-year effort by hundreds of faith leaders, business people, professors, students, community activists and history buffs. It was also one more step toward a better understanding of who and what we are as a state and nation.

I sat with Congressman Mark Sanford, in whose district Penn Center sits. His welcoming remarks succinctly put things in their proper perspective. Mark shared with the audience that he grew up in Beaufort and spent a summer working at a facility a mile from Penn Center, but knew nothing about its role in our nation’s history. I suspect the adage, “when a man learns better, he does better,” is apropos in this instance. When I asked, he did not hesitate to co-sponsor the legislation that President Obama used in his proclamation creating the monument.

In my comments, I spoke about the importance of getting our history right and placed in the proper perspective. I reflected on my service on Penn Center’s Board of Trustees, and how those experiences informed me and instilled the passion I have for historic preservation and restoration. This passion drove me to create the S.C. National Heritage and Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage corridors. In addition to their cultural and historical significance, their value to our state’s No. 1 industry, tourism, is immeasurable.

On the ride home, I took a break from the news networks and listened to the NCAA basketball games. It suddenly occurred to me that putting history in its proper perspective is just as important to our present and future as it is to our past. The night before, I had attended the University of South Carolina women’s record-setting victory in Columbia and watched the Gamecock men get their first NCAA Tournament win in more than 40 years up in Greenville. Both these teams, now headed to the Sweet 16, do our state proud, as did the College World Series champion Coastal Carolina Chanticleers last year and college football national champion Clemson Tigers this year.

For the first time in more than a decade, NCAA playoffs and conference championships are being held in South Carolina. These games are an economic boon to our state, filling up arenas, hotels and restaurants where they are held and giving our state national exposure. In addition to hosting the SEC Women’s Basketball Championship and NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball tournament, our state has hosted or will host the ACC Women’s Soccer Championship in Charleston, the ACC Women’s Basketball Championship at Coastal Carolina, the ACC Women’s Golf Championship in Pawley’s Island, the ACC Men’s Golf Championship in Clinton and the NCAA Division II Women’s Golf Regional in Elgin.

With many other athletic events, conventions and national conferences now being scheduled in South Carolina, it is important to remember that our state’s past insistence on giving currency to a historic symbol of racial oppression deeply divided our citizens and undermined our state’s economy.

Displaying the Confederate battle flag in positions of sovereignty and authority led to a boycott of our state by many national groups, including the NCAA and major athletic conferences. Despite the ill-advised actions of a few Confederate flag activists, it would be extremely unwise to reopen these old wounds.

Thanks to former Gov. Nikki Haley and the General Assembly, the Confederate battle flag has been removed from the public square and properly placed in a museum. Even though the rest of the ill-conceived Heritage Act remains unaddressed, our state has made a great stride forward. The new national monument and recent athletic events show what is possible when we work together to place things in their proper perspective.

Mr. Clyburn serves as assistant Democratic leader in the U.S. House; follow him on Twitter @Clyburn or contact him at jclyburn@mail.house.gov.