The aftermath of the tragic shootings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., last month pales in comparison to the legacy of the Civil War. But the powerful act of forgiveness of the killer by the families of the deceased has a parallel to a bold appeal made by a true statesman in 1874.
Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar, II was Mississippi’s most distinguished public servant of the 19th century and perhaps of all the years that have followed. His unusual name, like that of his father, is derived from a Roman general and aristocrat. An intellectual and brilliant orator, Lamar taught mathematics and social science at the University of Mississippi. The building where I attended that university’s law school was named Lamar Hall in his honor.
Lamar was a member of the U. S. House of Representatives, a U. S. senator, a federal cabinet officer and a justice of the Supreme Court. Coincidentally, the only other person to have served in all of those capacities was a South Carolinian, James Byrnes.
But Lamar was first a native-born southerner; he was a supporter of states rights and slavery. Having been elected to Congress in 1856, he resigned and returned to Mississippi in December 1860 and wrote the state’s Ordinance of Secession. He was a decorated officer in the Confederate army and also served as a Confederate diplomat. Notwithstanding such beliefs and actions, he had written to a friend he longed for a leader “rising above the passions and prejudices of the times” who speaks in a spirit “at once tolerant, just, generous, humane and national.”
Lamar was elected to Congress again, in 1874, and in that year on the packed floor of the House eulogized Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, one of the most avid abolitionist and leader of Reconstruction policies, which were seen by southerners as extremely harsh and unjust. In the eulogy he said, “Shall we not, while honoring the memory of this great champion of liberty… frankly confess that on both sides we most earnestly desire to be one — one not merely in political organization; one not merely in community of language, and literature, and traditions, and country; but more and better than all that, one also in feeling and in heart?”
John F. Kennedy included Lamar in his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, as of one of eight senators who had demonstrated great political courage in their careers. Kennedy felt few speeches had ever had the immediate impact of Lamar’s plea for national unity.
Interestingly, Lamar began the eulogy by noting Sumner’s proposal to erase from the banners of the Union army the “…mementoes of the bloody internal struggle which might be regarded as assailing the pride or wounding the sensibilities of the Southern people.” In the hearts and minds of African-Americans today, are such sentiments not the essence of the efforts to remove the flag and other symbols of the Confederacy from public display and use?
If Charles Sumner and L.Q.C. Lamar could speak to us today, they likely would join in urging the nation to come together in unity and eliminate from our society all remnants of the evils of slavery and all vestiges of racial discrimination. That would not require courage today, only leadership with empathy and commitment.
Bo Statham is a retired lawyer, congressional aid and businessman. He lives in Gardnerville and can be reached at email@example.com.