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Lawmakers To Visit Charleston To Promote Racial Reconciliation


Now let's look ahead to something coming up this week, a remarkable congressional visit to South Carolina. It's been about nine months since nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were gunned down during their Bible study by a self-described white supremacist in Charleston. In the aftermath, the state passed a law to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds, and that began a national conversation about racial reconciliation. Starting on Friday, some three dozen lawmakers from both political parties will visit a number of historical civil rights sites - including Emanuel AME Church, known as Mother Emanuel - to honor those who lost their lives, but also to initiate broader conversations about race. It's a pilgrimage sponsored by the Faith and Politics Institute.

We went to Capitol Hill to talk with two lawmakers hosting the event. U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn is a member of the Democratic leadership in Congress. He first took office in 1992, at the time becoming the first African-American to serve in the Congress from South Carolina since Reconstruction. Sen. Tim Scott is a Republican who, when he was first appointed to the Senate in 2013, became the first African-American to serve in the U.S. Senate from the South since Reconstruction. When I asked why this event is important, Congressman Clyburn started with a story from his earliest days in public service. When he was just 25 years old in Charleston, he says, a woman who noticed his leadership potential gave him some advice. She told him that Charleston had once been the leading economy on the East Coast.

JIM CLYBURN: And she says we were successful back then because anytime there was a problem, we would sit down and talk about it. Say it won - every time race came up, people would stop talking. So I want you to make me a promise that when race comes up, you won't stop talking because we're not going to solve this problem unless we learn how to talk about it.

MARTIN: How about you, Mr. Scott? Why do you think this upcoming event is important?

TIM SCOTT: I think it's important because the reality of it is the last 50 years has created people like me. I'm 50 years old. Looking at the heroes of the past - folks like Jim who've really made the country and the state a far better place - and thinking about my own journey to where I am, having only attended integrated schools, having only had the opportunity to experience the fullness of God's potential within me because of the sacrifices before me. So if we're going to have a conversation about racial equality, there's not a better place to start the conversation than Mother Emanuel.

MARTIN: Do you think anything's changed since that terrible day?

SCOTT: Certainly. There's been more conversations in the last several months than I can remember in the last several years, specifically in pointed conversations about race and racial progress. Our country has come a long way, but we obviously still have some challenges that we have to A, understand, B, overcome.

MARTIN: What about you, Mr. Clyburn? Do you think anything's changed over the course of the year?

CLYBURN: Oh, sure. We had immediate changes. On the day after the shooting, the governor visited my home church, Morris Brown AME, which is just a few blocks from Emanuel. And it's on that day she said to me - because word had already come to us that the young man was worshiping at the staff with a Confederate battle flag - and she said to me on that day, we've got to bring this flag down. This is too much. That was a big, big change. I mean, you know, we didn't - the flag went up in 1962 to celebrate the centennial of the Civil War, and it never came down. It was not supposed to stay up there. It was supposed to stay up there one year.

MARTIN: I confess I didn't know that. I didn't realize it was only supposed to stay up there...

CLYBURN: ...Well, a lot of people don't realize that. And so when people tell you that this is my heritage - well, where was your heritage between 1862 and 1962? So it's not true.

MARTIN: I do have to ask you that this event is taking place in the context of an election where many people are experiencing kind of a level of vitriol that is unprecedented for some people. This is an environment in which, you know, protesters have been pummeled. I have to wonder if that makes you feel that you're fighting something you didn't perhaps realize was there.

SCOTT: I'm an optimist, but I have an anchor in reality. So the truth of the matter is the thing we jumped at earlier is very important, that if you don't figure out how to get something to the surface, it toxic nature will infect the rest of the body. So the truth of the matter is what we're seeing bubbling to the surface now may or may not have racial components to it, and I think there's some racial element to it because people are frustrated without any question. Black folk are frustrated, white folk are frustrated. I'm sure Hispanics and Asians are, too. Most people, so far, continue to harness that frustration and expect that the political process will produce the type of results that will help our country grow and become healthy.

CLYBURN: If we had had Instagram when slavery was being debated on the floor of the Senate, what you think would've been the impact on the country if the country had seen a senator caning another senator to near-death on the floor of the United States Senate? Today, everything is instantaneous. In 1957, the Civil Rights Act - when Strom Thurmond from out of state filibustered, Strom Thurmond grabbed Ralph Yarborough from Texas and wrestled him to the floor of the house, had to be separated by a sergeant of arms. So we've always had this kind of acrimony in our political process. People just never could see it instantaneously.

MARTIN: So you don't find it that remarkable? Neither one of you does.

CLYBURN: No, I don't.


CLYBURN: I just - what I find remarkable is that a person would be so coarse in his discussion. I mean, there's certain things said in this debate that I think is beneath the dignity of a human being.

MARTIN: Mr. Scott, you and Mr. Clyburn do come at these questions often from different directions.

SCOTT: Sure.

MARTIN: You have very different perspectives on a number of these issues in addition to just belonging to different political parties. By definition, that suggests that you have sort of different points of view on this. Given that, I mean, what is the value of this kind of common tour? If people - you know, there are those who would argue that it's a wonderful symbol, but that it doesn't really yield additional agreement on other things.

SCOTT: Well, America is an idea. I mean, we are the one country where we believe that you can actually make something out of nothing. So the conversation in and of itself may just be words to others, but I believe that words are containers of power. And so when we allow those - that power to be unleashed, we create something out of nothing. Looking at Scripture 1 Corinthians 13 - faith, hope and love - the greatest of these is love. And we always ask ourselves, how do we overcome hate? How do we take the venom that we find in the human heart and illuminate it? The answer is very simple. Nine family members taught us the world. Not just those of us from South Carolina, not those of us who have a provocative pass over a Confederate flag that was there for over 54 years that we were able to solve that situation, that issue in 23 days because of the power of forgiveness on display for the world to see. The entire world stopped because those nine family members created something out of nothing.

CLYBURN: I think if I might take Scripture just a little bit further - my favorite book of the Bible is the book of James. Faith without works is dead.

SCOTT: James 217.

CLYBURN: Yeah. And when you look at, as I've studied, the whole history of that epistle it becomes very clear when James says, if your brother or sister comes to you hungry and naked, it's not enough to tell them to go in faith. You feed them and you clothe them because faith without works is dead. And that's what drives me.

SCOTT: The fact of the matter is that faith in politics is making a profound difference in this nation with this journey.

MARTIN: We've been speaking with Sen. Tim Scott, Republican, and Congressman Jim Clyburn, 11-term Democrat. We were hosted by Sen. Scott in his offices. Thank you so much for speaking with us to the both of you.

CLYBURN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.