Gov. Nikki Haley was right when she called Monday “a historic day in South Carolina.”

But she left it up to us to fill in that big blank as to why.

The governor on Monday appointed Lowcountry Congressman Tim Scott to replace Jim DeMint in the U.S. Senate.

He becomes the first black senator from South Carolina, the first from the South since Reconstruction — and only the seventh in the history of the U.S. Senate.

It is fitting, and perhaps symbolic, that the first modern African-American senator from the South would come from South Carolina. This, after all, was the country's entry point for most blacks 200-plus years ago.

In some ways, it says something good about this country — like the election of President Barack Obama — that the first Confederate state can send a black man to the Senate.

We've come a long way, but there is still a way to go.

And Scott could help us along.

Changing perceptions?

There is no doubt the national Republican Party wanted this.

Haley said nothing about it, of course, but the speculation is that the GOP lobbied her heavily to make this appointment.

After suffering back-to-back losses in the presidential election, the Republican Party looks more than ever like the party of old white men, a group that can't keep up with the country's changing demographics.

A black senator from South Carolina is a good start to changing that perception, and it's a safe bet that Scott will take on a prominent role. No matter what the reason, that could be good for South Carolina.

Haley said that Scott earned his appointment, and there is some merit to that. He made himself popular by espousing decidedly conservative ideas, giving a measure of credibility to the GOP's argument that the party's positions are not designed only for white, suburban voters.

Scott could do little to change the perception of the Republican Party, but he could now be in a position to change perceptions within the party.

A nudge

Scott, like Haley, has down-played his race. He even went so far as to avoid joining the congressional black caucus.

That's good politics in his party, but it will not help him win votes in the black community — where it's policies, not his race, that matter. Now Republicans argue that the color of a person's skin shouldn't have anything to do with anything, that success should be based on abilities.

That may be right, but the truth is it still matters.

Scott doesn't have to abandon his conservative principles (which he has kept intact while not appearing as inflexible as DeMint) but he has a chance now — a platform — to address race issues in a meaningful way.

When he was a member of Charleston County Council, he helped the NAACP with fund-raisers, even got an award from the North Charleston branch for his work.

He should remember his roots when he takes the oath of office in the U.S. Senate. When the chance arises, Scott should show people that nothing is ever just black and white — even long-held beliefs. It doesn't have to be a crusade, he doesn't have to preach, but Scott could nudge folks forward.

If he can help calm the divisive politics of the day, and help his party join the 21st century, it may turn out that Monday truly was a historic day in South Carolina.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com