Three Southern politicians who alienated voters in their states over the Confederate flag received the Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum Monday.
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, former South Carolina Gov. David Beasley and former Georgia state Rep. Dan Ponder Jr. were the 2003 recipients of the award, which began in 1989 to honor public servants who act courageously and defend principles over partisanship.
Barnes, a Democrat, spearheaded changes during his first term to reduce the size of the Confederate emblem on the Georgia state flag to a small insignia. Barnes went on to lose his 2002 race for re-election to Sonny Perdue, a Republican.
Protestors called “flaggers” dogged Barnes on the campaign trail, waving the Confederate flag and calling him a traitor.
“I could not run from the issue,” Barnes told the Associated Press. “I knew there was a high likelihood I would be defeated because of it, but I’d do it again. It was the right thing to do.”
Beasley drew criticism for proposing to move the Confederate flag from atop the South Carolina statehouse to a nearby monument. Beasley’s proposal failed, and he later attributed his 1998 election loss to Democrat Jim Hodges to the flag controversy.
After the awards were announced Monday, Beasley appeared on NBC’s “Today” show with Barnes, Ponder and Caroline Kennedy, president of the JFK Library Foundation. Beasley said he was especially impressed with Barnes’ courage, because Barnes had witnessed Beasley’s trajectory and chosen to pursue changes to the flag anyway.
Ponder pleaded for hate-crimes legislation in March 2000, shortly before retiring from the state legislature. In a speech before fellow legislators, the Republican recounted his own heritage, which included slave-owning ancestors and “a childhood rejection of his black housekeeper,” according to AP. The legislation passed.
The Profiles in Courage Award is named for President John F. Kennedy’s 1957 book, Profiles in Courage. The Pulitzer prize-winning book highlighted eight U.S. senators who risked their careers to do what they believed was right.
Federal, state and local elected officials are eligible for the award, whether they are currently in or out of office.
Past award winners include: Russell Feingold and John McCain, for their campaign finance reform legislation; Gerald Ford, for pardoning Richard Nixon; and John Lewis, for lifetime commitment to human rights.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.