House Republicans pulled a measure that included an amendment to allow Confederate flag imagery to remain displayed on graves and cemeteries on federal land in some circumstances — a move that followed passionate pleas from a diverse cadre of lawmakers Thursday to remove the divisive symbol.
The ensuing back-and-forth further fanned a national debate over the flag and its symbolism.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., who is African American, spoke on the U.S. House floor Thursday morning standing with a large Confederate flag next to him and urged his colleagues to vote against the amendment. He called sentimental attachment to the flag “historic amnesia.”
"Mr. Speaker, if this Confederate battle flag prevailed in war 150 years ago I would not be standing here as a member of the United States Congress, I would be here as a slave," Jeffries said in an impassioned floor speech.
He was followed by a line of speakers, many of them members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who denounced the amendment.
The brouhaha began when Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif. offered the amendment late Wednesday night to the 2016 Interior-Environment spending bill. The bill had already been worked through, with members offering amendments, for several hours.
Calvert’s was the final amendment added to the bill.
“This amendment will codify existing National Park Service policy and directives with regard to the decoration of cemeteries and concession sales. I urge adoption of my amendment,” Calvert said when offering the amendment.
Calvert said in a statement released later, the same night state lawmakers in South Carolina debated removing the Confederate flag from their state's capitol grounds in the wake of fatal shootings of nine black church members, some southern members of the U.S. House Republicans came to GOP leadership and asked him to offer the measure.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said during a press conference Thursday the action was an attempt to codify the Obama administration's directive to national cemeteries. He added that while he did not feel Confederate flags should be at federal cemeteries, he did not want the issue to "become some political football."
"Listen, we all witnessed the people of Charleston, and the people of South Carolina come together in a respective way to deal with frankly what was a very horrific crime and a difficult issue with the Confederate flag," he said. "I actually think it's time for some adults here in the Congress to actually sit down and have a conversation about how to address this issue."
Officials say the killings of nine parishioners at Emanuel AME Church when a gunman opened fire during a bible study session last month were racially motivated. After the massacre, photos emerged showing Dylann Roof, the self-confessed gunman, holding the Confederate flag.
"I stand here with chills next to it."
"I stand here with chills next to it," Jeffries said during his remarks on the House floor.
Lawmakers from Georgia, which incorporates aspects of the first national flag of the Confederacy, known as the "Stars and Bars" into its state flag, were deeply divided on the issue.
Georgia Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, who acknowledged he had not previously given the issue "much thought", said he doesn't feel the Confederate flag "is a racist symbol".
"When you’re putting a flag on somebody's grave it’s a little different than being a racist, it’s more of a memorial," he said. "You can’t make an excuse for things that have happened, but the majority of the people who actually died in the Civil War on the Confederate side did not own slaves. These were people that were fighting for their states. I don’t think they had any even any thoughts about slavery, it was basically just a belief that they had being with their state."
Civil Rights icon and Georgia Democrat John Lewis said he had given the matter quite a deal of thought and recalled the Confederate flag icon on the helmets of police who beat protestors during the Civil Rights Movement.
"There’s not any room, not any room on federal property for the display of the Confederate battle flag," Lewis said. "It represents a dark past, it’s a symbol of separation, it’s a symbol of division, a symbol of hate."
Rep. Better McCollum, D-Minn., said she was in “strong opposition” to the amendment when it was offered on the House floor Wednesday night and noted she was “quite surprised that we find ourselves here tonight.”
The Minnesota Democrat also noted that this amendment would essentially undo two amendments adopted the previous day.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, speaking on the House floor Thursday called the amendment “shameful” and urged both his Republican and Democratic colleagues to vote against the amendment when it comes up for a vote in the afternoon.
“I urge my colleagues, let us do the right thing and reject this amendment and send a powerful message about what America truly represents: equality, justice, respect for one another, freedom for all,” Hoyer said.
Later, House Republicans scuttled Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi’s resolution to remove any state flag containing Confederate battle flags from the U.S. Capitol — a move a Boehner spokesman called "a cheap political stunt.”
On a largely party-line vote, the resolution was moved to committee where it will likely die.
Calvert acknowledged that his amendment stoked an emotional backlash.
"Looking back, I regret not conferring with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, especially my Ranking Member Betty McCollum, prior to offering the Leadership's amendment and fully explaining its intent given the strong feelings members of the House feel regarding this important and sensitive issue," he said.