Symbols Matter, But They're No Substitute for Substance

An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds Friday, Ju
An honor guard from the South Carolina Highway patrol removes the Confederate battle flag from the Capitol grounds Friday, July 10, 2015, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

It was a great day in South Carolina -- and the nation -- when the Confederate battle flag was removed from the grounds of the State House. The battle flag has historical significance and should be dealt with accordingly. Unfortunately, it was unfurled in the 1930s and '40s, and gained prominence and prevalence in South Carolina and throughout the South in the 1950s and '60s as a symbol of massive resistance. I hope its removal from any aura of sovereignty and officialdom ushers in a new chapter in our state's pursuit of "liberty and justice for all."

While we have made significant progress over the past half century, much remains to be done. I hope we will begin our next chapter by providing affordable health care and restoring unfettered access to voting for thousands of South Carolinians and millions of Americans.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane." When I spoke in favor of passing the Affordable Care Act, I quoted Dr. King and referred to it as the Civil Rights Act of the 21st century. Despite more than 50 failed attempts in Congress to eliminate or undermine the law and two U.S. Supreme Court determinations that it is constitutional, massive resistance to its implementation continues.

Because the Supreme Court left it up to the states to decide whether to expand Medicaid, governors and legislators in South Carolina and across the country have launched a campaign of massive resistance to this landmark and much-needed law. Expressing her resistance to the law, Gov. Nikki Haley declared, "not now, and not ever." But our state's motto, Dum Spiro Spero (while I breathe I hope), is always in the forefront of my thoughts and wishes. Consequently, I am hopeful that Gov. Haley and our legislators will cease their resistance to Medicaid expansion. If embracing the Affordable Care Act is a bridge to far, doing something akin to what is being done in Arkansas and Kentucky might be administratively feasible and politically plausible.

Medicaid expansion would provide health-care coverage to thousands of South Carolinians and bring billions of dollars into our state's economy. A recent report projects that if Medicaid is not expanded, 200 South Carolinians will die unnecessarily every year while our tax dollars help pay for health care in other states. One of the strongest advocates for Medicaid expansion in South Carolina was the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney. He represented some of the poorest counties in our state and knew how important health care and environmental issues were to his constituents.

Perhaps even more regrettable was the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was enacted to protect voters and potential voters from poll taxes, literacy tests and other insidious schemes. Republican-controlled legislatures immediately began enacting laws to make it harder for minorities, students and elderly voters to cast unfettered votes, as the S.C. Legislature already had done.

Symbols are powerful, and furling the Confederate battle flag was an important gesture. But symbolic gestures are no substitute for substance. I hope the Legislature will codify the stipulations the state made to the court in order for it to uphold the state's voter identification law. In addition, I call upon Congress to accept the Supreme Court's invitation to update the formula and restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength.

As a former teacher and current student of history, I believe there are appropriate times and places to honor heritage and display memorabilia. I do not believe in whitewashing historical events or blackening out cultural displays. Our history is what it is.

But I believe the time has come to cease the massive resistance to affordable health care and unfettered voting rights. It is time to honor our nation's motto, E Pluribus Unum (out of many one). It is time to work together to ensure that South Carolinians breathe more hopefully and all Americans participate more fully in our pursuit of a more perfect union.

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