Ballot Box

The Best of Carol Moseley Braun

The bravest thing she ever did.

Slate continues its short features on the 2004 presidential candidates. Previous series covered the candidates’ biographies, buzzwords, agendas, and worldviews. This series assesses the story that supposedly shows each candidate at her best. Here’s the one told by supporters of Carol Moseley Braun—and what they leave out.

The story: “[Braun] went to the mat over patenting the Confederate flag as the insignia of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). And in a brilliant parliamentary debut, she jolted the nation’s senior lawmaking body. By the time [she] ended her lone valiant stand, the body retreated on its approval vote, reconsidered the measure, and defeated it. … Braun stood on one side of the chamber threatening to keep the floor ‘until the room freezes over,’ while the band of mostly Dixie senators describing [UDC] as ‘a valuable service organization,’ battled her in another section. … [Her] indignant stand swayed the votes of other senators in the tradition-bound Senate.” (Jet magazine, Aug. 9, 1993)

Reality check: In February 2003, Braun described the incident as a fight “against a patent for the Confederate flag.” Most people think that means the flag with the blue X on a red background. In fact, however, the UDC used a less incendiary Confederate symbol, the Stars and Bars.

Braun did awaken the Senate to the potential offensiveness of the insignia. But the awakening entailed no parliamentary brilliance, no “lone valiant stand,” no going “to the mat,” and no “swaying.” The renewal of the insignia patent was attached as a minor amendment by Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., to a national service bill. The amendment passed largely because senators weren’t paying close attention to what they were voting on. In the words of Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, “I walked on the floor today, without having the slightest idea what the issue was, I was told, as were many Republican senators, this is a Republican amendment. … I quickly realized, after the motion to table had failed, that a large number of Republicans did not realize the greater implications of what had just happened.” Once Braun got them to focus on the content of the amendment, they switched.

What exactly did Braun accomplish? The insignia was never changed and still enjoys ordinary trademark protection. * It no longer has the special honor of a congressional design patent, but it’s hard to see what effect, if any, this has had on black or white Americans.

Correction, Aug. 14, 2003: The article originally and incorrectly said that the UDC insignia enjoys copyright protection. In fact, the insignia has a trademark, not a copyright.