Jim Davenport, Associated Press
Democratic Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston speaks from the Senate podium holding a confederate flag Thursday, April 7, 2011. Ford said that African-Americans should take part in events surrounding the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. Ford wants people to embrace their heritage and honor ancestors who died.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — With a Confederate flag in hand, a black South Carolina state senator said Thursday that African-Americans have cause to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and he hopes discussions over the next four years can unite black and white South Carolinians.

Democratic Sen. Robert Ford of Charleston said black and white students across South Carolina will start seeing lots of Confederate flags on Tuesday, the anniversary of the war's beginning in Charleston Harbor, and the sight shouldn't be divisive.

"For the next four years, you're going to see this and you're going to see a whole lot of it," he said at the podium on the Senate floor. "Instead of dividing yourself talking about why the war was fought, and I don't like this and I don't like that, understand this as an African-American: Before the war you was a slave, after the war you was free, and in 2012 you can do anything that you want to do."

He said America was united after the war.

"The Confederate soldiers go home, the Union soldiers go home, but the slaves are free," he said.

Ford said senators should get involved in anniversary commemorations to encourage understanding, to prevent misinformation and the spread of hatred.

"If people died, and we're going to have this celebration, I want everybody in South Carolina to be united on it, to understand each other, to talk to each other," said the 62-year-old New Orleans native. "Don't be just mean-spirited. Be willing to talk to your white colleagues. Be willing to talk to your black colleagues. Be willing to go to the schools and talk to students, say, listen, we've got to move forward from what you think happened between 1861 and 1865."

In South Carolina, which begat the Jim Crow-era South, the Confederate flag has been the cause of protests and an 11-year tourism boycott of the state by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A 2000 legislative compromise, which Ford helped broker, removed the flag from atop the Statehouse dome, and from Senate and House chambers, and put it on a 20-foot pole beside the Confederate Soldiers Monument on the front law of the Statehouse.

But the NAACP never approved of the location, more visible than before, and earlier this year renewed its call on legislators to remove it, saying the Confederate flag is a symbol of injustice, not heritage as many white Southerners argue. In December, Civil War buffs held a "Secession Ball" in Charleston to commemorate South Carolina's vote to secede from the United States. The NAACP held a protest outside, saying it made no sense to celebrate a heinous event that led to death and destruction, or to honor those who committed treason against their country.

The Rev. Joseph Darby, a Charleston NAACP leader, disagreed with Ford that the Civil War is anything to celebrate.

"That's basically like saying we should celebrate the Pearl Harbor attack like it hastened the integration of the military," he said.

Unless Ford is willing to put the Confederate flag on campaign literature, "he should not start that kind of rhetoric," he said. "I'm disappointed and disgusted. I think that Sen. Ford is woefully deluded. I think he has better things to do than be a Confederate apologist."

Ford, a former gubernatorial hopeful last year who lost in the Democratic primary, said people should embrace their heritage and honor ancestors who died in a war that ended slavery.

"I got a lot of liberal friends who I know love their heritage but are afraid to embrace it. Why? Because they'll be called a racist," Ford said. "For the next four years, I don't care who embrace their heritage. I don't care. Because people died in your family four or five generations ago, just because you was living in the South."

He touted his own history as cause for celebration, from being arrested 73 times during the civil rights movement, to being a state senator since 1993.

"We came a mighty long way as black and white citizens," he said.