- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

It's started earlier than most expected. Southern Democrats cannot run an election without playing the race card one way or another.

The Gore campaign launched its cynical effort to play the race card in the 2000 election when Al Gore kicked off the attack on Saturday, Feb. 15, in New York City by making repeated public statements claiming the leading Republican presidential candidates lacked what he called the guts to take on bigotry. Two days later, he followed up with an attack on "right wing, extremist Confederate flag-waving Republicans."

Mr. Gore's new issue was a Confederate flag that the Democrats decided in 1962 to fly over the State Capitol in South Carolina. To listen to the vice president, you would have had the impression he spent his career as a Tennessee politician giving speeches to white constituents telling them to scrape those Rebel flags off their car bumpers and pickup truck windows.

It takes no particular guts to go to a black church in Harlem and give a speech attacking the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina State Capitol. What would have taken guts on Mr. Gore's part, however, would have been to speak out and take a stand back home in Tennessee last year when there was a big debate over renaming Confederate Park in downtown Memphis and relocating the statue of Jefferson Davis. Silent Al didn't have much to say on that.

Nor has Al Gore ever spoken out against other forms of racial bigotry back home. Tennessee's favorite form of reminding its black citizens about the Civil War is to pay official homage to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Civil War general who was a slave trader before the war. Afterwards, Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan and became its first Grand Wizard in 1866.

From the number of streets, parks, schools, and other monuments that Tennessee Democrat state legislators and local officials have named after him, one can only conclude that Forrest is the official hero of the Tennessee Democratic Party. Some claim there are more monuments to and public facilities in Tennessee named in honor of KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest than there are to the state's other hero, President Andrew Jackson.

If Al Gore really had the guts to stand up to bigotry, he could have said something back in 1978 when the Democrats in Tennessee's legislature placed a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the State Capitol. He could have fought to deny giving that honor to a slave trader and the founder of the Ku Klux Klan. Mr. Gore was already a member of Congress, and as a member of Tennessee's congressional delegation; he was in a position to use his office and influence to fight this continuing insult to the black people of his own state.

The Tennessee legislature is still controlled by Democrats, and Al Gore still has an opportunity this year to show us his leadership skills on this subject.

But in 1978 Al Gore had higher ambitions. His eye was on a Senate seat, and Confederate flag-waving Democrats are an important voting block in the Tennessee Democratic Party primaries. So he said nothing.

More recently, Mr. Gore could have protested in 1993 when President Clinton gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, to Sen. J. William Fulbright. Mr. Fulbright's voting record during 30 years in the Senate was that of an unrelenting segregationist. He even voted against the Voting Rights Act and wanted to deny black Americans their fundamental constitutional rights.

Mr. Fulbright was a committed supporter of that entire system of Jim Crow laws in Arkansas and throughout the South that forced blacks into inferior schools, forced them to the back of the bus, and made their everyday lives a constant struggle. Yet, the Clinton/ Gore administration gave Mr. Fulbright the nation's highest honor.

Whether you honor those who fought to oppress black Americans by raising a flag over the State Capitol in South Carolina, or by putting marble busts in the State Capitol and naming public schools and parks after them in Tennessee, or by inviting them to the White House and awarding them the nation's highest civilian honors, as Bill Clinton and Al Gore have done, it is all the same. Mr. Gore may accuse others of being morally blind, but it is he himself who cannot see.

Philip Christenson is a former congressional aide.

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