Embattled Battle Flag

Neely Young

When our friends from the G-8 nations visit Georgia’s coast this June to participate in the Sea Island Summit they will wonder about all the fuss concerning this small piece of cloth called the Georgia state flag. While some of them do not know that Georgia’s 1956 flag with its Confederate battle emblem is a symbol of hate for African Americans, many other members of the G-8 are familiar with the battle flag’s “hate” message because the IRA in Northern Ireland and skinheads in Germany and other European countries use it as a symbol of hatred.

Prior to 1879 Georgia militia units used an unofficial state flag which featured a coat of arms from the 1799 Georgia state seal on a solid blue background. In 1879 the legislature enacted a law providing for Georgia’s first official state flag. It was based on the first national flag of the Confederacy, called the Stars and Bars. According to research done by former U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, the bill to begin the process for a state flag was introduced in the legislature by Senator and Civil War veteran H.H. Perry.

The Stars and Bars should not be confused with the square version of the Confederate battle flag, which was instituted after the Battle of Bull Run. Troops on both sides were confused during this first battle because the American flag and the southern Stars and Bars flag were so similar. In 1902 the legislature provided that the state coat of arms should be added to the vertical blue band of the 1879 flag.

Around 1906, flag makers created a new version by placing the coat of arms on a white shield outlined in gold on the banner. During the 1920s a new version of the state flag came into being with the entire state seal replacing the coat of arms and shield. These last two changes were made without legislative authorization.

In 1956, however, the legislature replaced the red and white bars with the square version of the Confederate battle flag. The flag was approved with little public fanfare, but almost 50 years later would explode into major controversy. According to the late former legislator Denmark Groover, who was there at the time, the 1956 flag was a gesture to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that all schools — including Georgia’s — must be integrated. Then-Gov. Marvin Griffin was the major proponent of the change that proclaimed Georgia would not cave into the court’s mandate to mix races in schools and other state institutions.

Gov. Zell Miller, now U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, tried to change the flag in the mid-’90s, but had to back off after he ran into a storm of protest. But in 2001, Gov. Roy Barnes pulled off an incredible feat and changed the flag. Then-Speaker of the House Tom Murphy predicted it would ruin his political career.

Barnes decided to make the change after he visited the governor of South Carolina in late 2000. That governor had removed the Confederate battle flag from the top of the South Carolina Capitol. Barnes saw with his own eyes the terrible impact the Confederate battle flag fight was having on that state. It was a raging controversy, with boycotts and people on both sides of the issue strongly debating each other in newspapers and other media. There were demonstrations all over the state, and African-American groups gathered at the state lines urging motorists to turn around and not enter South Carolina.

The controversy was soon to spill over into Georgia because Georgia’s official 1956 state flag carried the battle flag next to the Georgia seal. Barnes took some time off alone to ponder what he should do, and decided that he would avoid South Carolina’s dilemma by changing Georgia’s state flag and removing the Confederate battle emblem.

Democrat Roy Barnes was one of the most powerful governors in history. His nickname “King Roy” was an affectionate term accorded him by supporters because he knew how to pull the levers and make things happen in the legislature. Barnes’ Republican opponents used the term in a not-so-friendly manner, as a sort of slur.

Instead of proposing a long period of open debate on the flag, Barnes decided on surgically quick action to make the change and put the issue behind him.

In 1999 a prominent Georgian, Cecil Alexander, acting on his own volition, designed a Georgia flag to replace the 1956 battle flag. It showed the state seal on a field of royal blue. Under the seal the flag honored Georgia’s past by displaying small versions of flags that had flown over the state. Georgia Trend published this version in the November 2000 issue. Barnes liked this flag, but kept his thoughts to himself. During the 2001 legislative session Barnes placed a copy of Alexander’s flag on the desk of every legislator.

In a surprise move, a bill was introduced that day to change the flag. Denmark Groover was enlisted to give a speech to both houses of the legislature on why the flag was changed in 1956. He said the change was racially motivated. After a few compromises to differing interests, Alexander’s flag was adopted, with the 1956 battle flag included (in a small version with the other flags at the bottom), and the words “In God We Trust” added. The bill passed both houses in just a few days and was signed by the Governor.

Most members of the Republican minority in both the House and Senate, to their shame, voted against the change. Their reasons included the fact they “didn’t like the way the flag was changed,” that Gov. Barnes didn’t allow enough debate and it should have been brought before the people for a vote. Another reason, no doubt, was the fact many felt they would gain political advantage in the next election. Not all Republicans agreed. Sen. Don Balfour, Republican of Gwinnett County, voted against his fellow Republicans. Barnes received praise from the business community and local media for making the change and avoiding South Carolina’s trials and tribulations.

Almost a year later, before the 2002 election for governor, a county commission chairman in Cobb County took a statewide poll to find out what local voters thought about political issues. The commissioner was Bill Byrne and he was trying to decide if he had a chance against Barnes in the governor’s race. The poll results were surprising in that they showed widespread dissatisfaction among white rural voters over Barnes and the flag change. About that time thousands of rural residents all over the state started flying the 1956 flag in their front yards.

Republican Bill Byrne announced his campaign for governor and included in his platform a proposal to change the flag back to the 1956 flag. Several other Republican candidates announced, including current Gov. Sonny Perdue who hails from the small town of Bonaire in middle Georgia, right in the heart of the discontent over the flag change. Perdue also called for changing the flag, and for a vote to let people decide which flag they wanted. Later Perdue beat Byrne in the Republican primary.

During Perdue’s campaign against Democrat Roy Barnes, thousands of signs appeared all over the state picturing the 1956 battle flag with the words “Boot Barnes, Vote Sonny Perdue.”

History shows that Roy Barnes was soundly defeated in the November 2002 election by Perdue, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction after the War Between the States. The Republicans also gained control of the Georgia Senate.

In early 2003, the Legislature approved changing the flag to the present banner that contains the “Stars and Bars” similar to the 1879 flag. The 1956 version containing the battle flag was not approved, much to the dismay of many white rural Georgians, who are now called “Flaggers” by the media. This March, voters will have the chance to approve the change and choose between the new 2003 flag and Barnes’ “Royal Blue” flag that caused all the controversy.

When Perdue signed this bill he created his own hornet’s nest. Many of his supporters are now claiming he lied and turned on them by not including the battle flag as a choice. Today signs are appearing all over the state that show the 1956 battle flag with the words, “Sonny Lied.”

It’s ironic that many of the Flaggers are considering voting for the “Royal Blue” because it is the only choice that contains the Confederate battle flag. In the end, Gov. Roy Barnes’ choice might win after all.

Whichever flag is chosen, Georgians on both sides of the issue should breathe a sigh of relief that our state will reach closure on a turbulent time. I will vote for the “Royal Blue.” Former Gov. Roy Barnes won the John F. Kennedy “Profiles in Courage” award for his efforts to end divisions between the races. My vote will honor him.

Editor’s note: Jim Ledbetter of the Carl Vinson Institute at the University of Georgia provided factual historical information for this column. A poster of the history of the Georgia flag can be found on the Web at www.vinsoninstitute.org/gainfo/flagweb.htm.

Neely Young is the editor and publisher of Georgia Trend.

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