EDITOR’S NOTE: This summer, the South Carolina legislature will debate whether to take down a Confederate flag that flies at the Statehouse in Columnbia and move it into a museum. Gov. Nikki Haley and a number of other political leaders have called for its removal in the wake of a shooting on June 17 that left nine people dead at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.
In Georgia, an intense political battle broke out in 2002 over the design of the state flag and the question of whether it should include elements acknowledging Georgia’s Confederate past.
In this April 20, 2003, article from the Savannah Morning News, the late Larry Peterson, who was the newspaper’s political writer, sets the stage for the struggle that led to the current design.
Heritage without hate.
Balm for the wounds of racial discord.
A political ploy that could deepen those wounds.
Gov. Sonny Perdue’s clumsy attempt to keep an ill-considered campaign promise.
The Republicans’ strategy to split the Democrats.
The latest twist in the long tussle over Georgia’s flag has been called all those things. And, in effect — if not design — it might well be all of them.
If a House-adopted bill passes in the state Senate this week, Georgians might get to choose next year among three flag designs: mildly Confederate, moderately Confederate and — at least to some — maddeningly Confederate.
But many people, black and white, Republican and Democrat, hope it never comes to that.
And, with a little luck, it might not. Come next March, Georgia could have a flag most of us can live with. And the angry, distracting dispute over which seals, stripes and stars we fly might just go away.
But all that takes some explaining.
For most of the first half of the 20th century, Georgia flew flags that looked like ones dating back to the Civil War. They were about as controversial as catfish. All that changed in the mid-1950s.
The U.S. Supreme Court attacked segregation from the top down while civil rights activists fought it from the bottom up. From the school house to the courthouse, officials in Georgia and elsewhere resisted.
Meanwhile, history and heritage buffs here and around the country were gearing up for the centennial celebration of the Civil War. It was time, many said, to honor the Confederate troops who had fought so long against even longer odds.
So resistance and remembrance led to the adoption in 1956 of a new state flag with the Confederate battle emblem as its dominant feature.
Ron Stephens, later to become a pharmacist and a state representative, associated the flag with grits, turnip greens, growing up in the South — and his ancestors.
“They fought in the Civil War,” he said. “They were poor. They didn’t own slaves. I feel very strongly that their courage deserves to be honored and that the flag is a good way do that.”
But John Mitchell, a Savannah civic activist, recalls television images of people waving the rebel banner as they screamed at African-Americans seeking admission to the University of Mississippi.
Mitchell, executive director of the New Legacy Community Development Corp., also remembers more recent pictures of members of the Ku Klux Klan with the flag.
“It’s pretty hard for African Americans to separate the flag from the folks who wanted to keep us away from whites-only drinking fountains and out of Woolworth’s,” he said.
In the 1990s, civil rights groups made Confederate-style flags a major target in Georgia and other states. They threatened economic boycotts, a major concern in the Peach State, a popular destination for African-American vacationers. After a victory in South Carolina, the campaign focused on Georgia.
In 2001, then-Gov. Roy Barnes was determined to get the issue behind him. Barnes ramrodded a flag-change bill through the legislature controlled by his fellow Democrats.
The results: a hastily designed flag even many of its supporters thought ugly and a backlash from rural and small-town whites who liked the old flag and felt entitled to a vote before it was changed.
Republican candidate Perdue vowed they would get that chance if they elected him. At first, many refused to take that promise seriously, if for no other reason than Barnes was considered a shoo-in for the office.
Some speculate that Perdue — whose staff did not respond to requests for interviews for this story — wasn’t confident of victory.
“If you don’t think you’re going to win, you can promise to put a Georgian on the moon and you don’t have to worry about keeping your promise,” said Merle Black, professor of politics and government at Emory University in Atlanta.
State Rep. Burke Day, R-Tybee Island, credits Perdue for sincerely voicing a common revulsion at the way Barnes pushed through the change.
“But, if I had to guess, if he could go back knowing that he was going to win, he probably wouldn’t have made the flag an issue.”
But Barnes and lots of others — including the pollsters and perhaps even Perdue himself — were in for a surprise.
Especially in south and middle Georgia, “Boot Barnes” signs, bearing the image of the old banner, sprouted in October, seemingly along every rural roadside. That same image already was the design of choice on front license plate holders of pickups and many other vehicles.
A month later, Barnes lost.
Many things did him in. But perhaps most of all — even he acknowledged — the flag switch did him in.
Perdue, a state senator at the time, had a new job.
And a promise to keep.
Looking for finesse
From the day after the election onward, Confederate heritage group members dogged Perdue at every public appearance, waving the old banner to remind him of his promise.
But the new governor, who had other things to worry about — including a looming state budget crisis — put the flag issue on the back burner.
“My goal is to have this state heal, to be reconciled from a standpoint of bitter partisanship and the issues that would divide us,” Perdue said at the time. He added that the flag “is something we will look at once the leadership gets in place in the House and Senate, and make a decision on how we will resolve the issue.”
And although some Confederate heritage group leaders warned Perdue he’d meet the same political fate as Barnes if he broke his promise, most of the so-called “flaggers” said they’d give him time.
Although no one blamed him for making the budget and other issues higher priorities, Perdue had another reason for going slow on the flag matter: The issue had him in a bind.
Renewed wrangling over it could escalate into a politically bruising battle. If the rebel banner were voted back in, many agreed, the state would face economic boycotts like those that devastated South Carolina.
Moreover, even Perdue’s political base is split over the old Confederate-style flag. It’s a popular symbol among many rural and small-town white Democrats in south and middle Georgia, who many regard as likely converts to the GOP. The party’s current strongholds — and most of its state legislators — are concentrated in suburban counties near Atlanta.
Many voters there are relatively new to Georgia and have little emotional stake in the flag.
Savannah political consultant David Simons, who grew up in Illinois and worked in Washington, D.C., before moving here in 1994, has the same outlook.
“Like many out-of-staters,” he said, “I find it hard to figure out what all the fuss is about. I’ve been really amazed at the passion people show, especially the pro-flaggers.”
Emory professor Black predicted big trouble for the GOP unless it could find some way to “finesse” the issue.
Several GOP lawmakers, among them Stephens, new Senate President Pro Tempore Eric Johnson, and Rep. Bobbie Franklin, R-Marietta, were thinking along those lines.
Their idea: a compromise, either on the pre-1956 flag or something like it. Their strategy: design a flag that has ties to Confederate history, but — unlike the one abandoned in 2001 — none to resistance to civil rights.
Against that backdrop, Perdue spent the next couple months putting together his administration.
In January, he returned to the flag question.
His plan: In March 2004, voters would decide to change the current flag and choose between the Confederate banner abandoned in 2001 and the pre-1956 flag as prospective replacements.
But the state House had ideas of its own. Black members especially recoiled at the prospect of a referendum that included the old rebel emblem. They failed to stop it but forged a compromise that held out the hope such a showdown could be avoided.
After six hours of bitter debate, the House earlier this month opted to replace the current flag with a red-and-white striped version, which was designed by Franklin and resembles the pre-1956 flag. There are two additions: 13 stars circling the state seal and the words “In God We Trust” in the middle, adapted from the first national flag of the Confederacy.
In March 2004, voters would get to keep it or scrap it. If they scrapped it, they would get to vote on two more designs during the July 2004 general primary — the Confederate-style flag or the pre-1956 banner.
If, as some argue is likely, the binding nature of such referenda were successfully challenged in the court, the Franklin design would remain the permanent state flag, regardless of any vote.
The measure cleared the powerful Senate Rules Committee last week, and a full Senate vote is expected as soon as Tuesday. Perdue has said he’ll sign it if it passes.
“We in the leadership have got the votes to whatever we want to do,” Johnson said last week. “We just have to decide what we want to do.”
Now they apparently have.—
EDITOR’S NOTE: Both houses of the legislature went on to approve the flag’s redesign, and Perdue signed the legislation into law on May 8, 2003. The design went to a public referendum on March 2, 2004, and the current design won 73.1 percent of the vote.
Peach Pundit-GA Politics