Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Jesse Helms, Strom Thurmond & the Confederate Flag

BOND: I want to get into some questions about vision and so on, but of all the things you did in the Senate, the things people are going to remember is your clash with Jesse Helms and I'm curious as to how you came across this little item in legislation, and it had to be small and innocuous appearing.

BRAUN: It was.

BOND: How'd you come across that, and when did you make a decision: "I'm going to do something about this?" This is his attempt to protect the patent that the Daughters of the Confederacy have on the symbol of the Confederacy, not the flag, but the symbol. How'd you see that and how'd you decide what to do?

BRAUN: Well, you know, again, it may sound corny, I was just doing my job. It came up first in committee. My staffer, we review the bills. My staffer's name was Jeff Gibbs. He's a lawyer out in California now and we were going over the bills that were coming up and he's read them off, dah dah dah, and he said, "But, Senator, this patent for Olestra" — you know, the fat drug, the fat substitute? — he says, "This patent for Olestra has a Confederate flag attached to it." I'm going, "What? How did this happen?" And we found that the Confederate flag patent that had been held by the United Daughters of the Confederacy had actually been renewed twice before. They'd had it since the 1920s. And I'm saying to myself, you know — and then I went into my lawyer mode: "What do they need a patent for on the flag?" You think in terms of copyright if anything, but not a patent. Well, so I went to the chairman of the committee and I said, "This part is not acceptable. I mean, you know, number one, the Confederate flag doesn't belong on a bill. It doesn't belong with a patent, to begin with. Second, it doesn't belong on this bill; and third, you know, I cannot in conscience support it and I'd like your help in opposing it." And the chairman who actually has been very good on issues of race ever since as far as I'm aware started going, "Homina, homina, homina," shifting in his chair and I couldn't figure out why, you know. It was just such a no-brainer to me and like, Why is this complicated for you? Well, it turned out that it was complicated in part because it was Strom's bill.

BOND: Helm's bill?

BRAUN: No, it was Strom's bill.

BOND: Oh, Strom's bill and Jesse Helms was carrying it for him.

BRAUN: Jesse Helms had nothing to do with it at this point. That was another piece of the whole thing. It was Strom's bill. And the other members of the committee, since he was senior and I'd just got there, didn't want to offend him, so I actually had to lobby it in committee. And I lobbied. I talked to all the members. I got my votes lined up and I won. We stripped it off the bill in committee and I thought that was the end of it. Then, on the day — again, back to race again — we were in committee on the confirmation hearings for Justice Breyer and Orrin Hatch, who actually on a personal level I got along with very well, started arguing against — the issue came up about freedom of choice and Orrin began to make the argument that Roe v. Wade, the decision on choice, was the legal equivalent of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Now, you may have heard that since, but at the time I was absolutely shocked, you know, Plessy being the decision that a black man has no rights that the white man need respect. So I'm sitting there going, "What?" I was just absolutely horrified that he would say such a thing but then I was really nervous because I'm thinking: "Okay, I'm a freshman on the committee, this is one of my first Supreme Court Justice confirmations, this is a big deal, it's on television, oh, my God."

But I just couldn't let it pass and I said "a point of clarification," and I got into a legal discussion — argument — with Orrin Hatch about whether Roe v. Wade and Plessy v. Ferguson were comparable and trying to keep my voice modulated because I was really — I mean, infuriated and insulted. So I'm going through this, and I'm really nervous and in the middle of this, my staffer, Jeff Gibbs, again, came over with a note that said, "Jesse Helms has just taken to the floor to revive the Confederate flag patent." And I sat there thinking at that moment — I'll never forget, I said "What did I do today to deserve this?" It's like, "Lord, what did I do to deserve this day?"

So I had to get up, leave the hearing and go across the street, you know, go over to the Capitol to take on Jesse Helms. And if you review the proceedings and all, the first part of my argument on the floor was really as dispassionate and as legalistic and formalistic as I could make it. It was, you know, "Mr. Speaker, this has already been decided by committee. It came up — dah dah dah." I mean, it was just a legal argument, thinking that the rules would apply, you know, the committee's already decided this, for Jesse Helms to come back and try to revive it was just out of form, and then that it shouldn't be a patent in any event and, I mean, again, dah dah dah, here are the arguments. And when I looked up and the Senate had voted to restore the patent, I was incensed. It was like, "Oh, no, this can't be!" and that's when, if you will, the real debate — and when Paul Simon and Joe Biden and some of the others, particularly Joe, because Joe had been — Joe was on the committee and had known the issue. So when the committee members first came out — Pat Leahy — when they started coming around to say "This is why the committee decided…" and then the debate broadened from just purely a legalistic one into the import, the meaning of the Confederate flag in modern-day America and by the time — how can I blank on his name — the judge from Alabama?

BOND: [Jeff] Sessions?

BRAUN: No, before Sessions. We used to call him "Judge" and that's all that's come to my mind. I'll think of it in a minute, but he got up and said "My grandfather was a general in the Confederate Army…"

BOND: Howell Heflin.

BRAUN: Right, Howell Heflin, and when Judge Heflin got up and said, "My grandfather was a general in the Confederate Army and we're proud of our Confederate heritage, but this symbol has no place in this society today because it inflames passions and reminds African, you know, black Americans of their pain." And when he did that, I think he must've brought a whole — to the extent that we had Southern support at all, he was really the logjam, the emotional logjam breaker, in all of that and that's how it was in the Senate. We wound up winning 78, 70 — I don't know what the votes exactly was, but it was better than 70 votes.