Acceptance Speech

Caroline Kennedy, Senator Kennedy, Governor Barnes, Representative Ponder, members of the Selection Committee, Trustees of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation, family and friends.

Up until Governor Barnes came along, I was the last living casualty of the Civil War.

My link with that war goes back to June 8, 1863. My great, great, great grandmother, Sarah Beasley wrote the Secretary of War for the Confederate States of America regarding the plight of her family. She said her husband and two of her children were in the same company in the War, but husband was now weak and sick; she said to please send home her husband and she would send her youngest, a 16-year-old boy, in his father's stead. Sarah Beasley's request is just a glimpse of the pride and strong emotions that have endured for generations in the North and South.

The Confederate flag is indeed a part of American history. And as a part of history, it should have its proper place. But, should it be worshipped? No. But, neither should it be destroyed and erased from history. The flag over time became abused and misused as a symbol for hatred and discord - on both sides of the issue.

By November of 1996, my second year as Governor, there had been 31 confirmed church arsons in South Carolina alone in the previous five years. There were many more across the South. Extremists opened a KKK museum in South Carolina. Isolated racial incidents and crimes of hate were beginning to increase in number, bringing embarrassment to South Carolina and the rest of the country. I knew this did not reflect the South Carolina and America that I knew and loved, and I knew I must do something about it.

I will never forget that day: I called in my staff and told them that I had made the decision to fight for the removal of the Confederate flag from the capitol dome. I asked them to assume that this would cause my defeat, they would lose their jobs, and all the good that we had done would be forgotten and washed away in the headlines of defeat. Knowing this, I then asked them if they were still ready and willing to endure hardship for this cause. I looked around the room from person to person and asked each of them to answer from their own heart. They made me proud. Not a one said "no" or "let's wait until after the election."

On November 26, 1996, I addressed the people of South Carolina on live television to outline the basis for my decision. Here in part is what I said:

"A flag should be a symbol that unites all those standing below it...one that every South Carolinian can look up to with respect, admiration and the unshakable knowledge that the flag flies for them.

But I long for all South Carolina children something of even greater value. Like so many things the Bible puts it best: "Now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity."

The word charity combines the meaning of love and brotherly love and implies intense concerns for others. My friends, our children will not learn charity unless black parents and white parents start practicing charity towards one another.

The Bible also tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is time for the races to compromise on the Confederate flag to show Judeo-Christian love that will bring the races closer together and teach our children that we can live together in mutual respect."

Those of you who know politics well can surmise what transpired. I immediately was a hero to the press, the "intelligentsia", but to the politicians and public, it was an entirely different matter. Immediately, my poll numbers took a hit. The 'one-term Governor' line went from being unthinkable to being whispered in lonely places, to being thundered by political opportunists. Protesters began to gather and follow me around the state. Death threats? Sure. Honestly, that didn't really bother me. It was the threats against my family, my wife and children that hit home. Strange as it may seem though, these threats did not raise doubt in my mind nor cause me to have second thoughts about my decision. Rather, to the contrary, these insidious acts underscored the absolute necessity for action and confirmed in my heart that I was right.

To stand for what is right is good. But it is not sufficient. We must stand for what is right when it is right to do so. And there is more. We must stand for what is right not only when it is right to do so but also in the right way. We all know people who have stood for right when it cost them nothing. They beat their chests in the public square and roar from the top of their lungs their righteous indignation against the evil of the day, but they do so only when there is nothing to lose. This is of little value. You must be willing to stand for what is right when it will be the most effective even if it costs you everything. Martin Luther said: "Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point." Last, in this point, your effort and path of decision must be done in love. I have seen many political and religious leaders take noble stands for what is right, but do so in bitterness and hatred. This is wrong in itself. We must take our stands in the deepest essence of love.

It is disturbing today to witness the bitterness and harshness with which we treat one another in the world of politics or the halls of democracy. In some of my most enjoyable years in the political arena, my most outspoken opponents were usually my most respected and admired friends. We acted out of love and respect for one another and love and respect for the common good. Today, it is different. People have little respect for one another and little heart for compassion and mercy. I pray that this will change. For America's future depends on it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said: "Whatever you do, you need courage. Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising that tempt you to believe your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires some of the same courage that a soldier needs. Peace has its victories, but it takes brave men and women to win them."

In my case, there were many more "someones" than I really wanted to know about. Yet today, if you ask most of those people whether moving the Confederate flag from South Carolina's Statehouse dome was right or not, they would answer yes. It was not always so. It is remarkable how fast the transition of perception from my being a fool, then with a little passage of time, to being brave, and then eventually to what people now assess as "how obvious". My, how time does change things. But, isn't that what leadership is all about?

Remarks delivered by former South Carolina Governor David Beasley on accepting the 2003 Profile in Courage Award, May 12, 2003.