Posted December 2002. Since overtaken by events, but retained here since the argument still holds.
During the recent election campaign, any Georgian outside metro Atlanta saw hundreds of “Boot Barnes” signs adorned with the post-1956 Georgia flag. In the counties in and around I-285, it’s hard for residents—many of whom are relative newcomers to the state—to understand the depth of emotion that many Georgians attach to the flag issue. Governor-elect Perdue has to address two issues promptly: the design of the flag, and the manner in which Governor Barnes changed it.
From 1902 until 1956, Georgia’s flag consisted of horizontal red and white bars, flanked by the state seal on a blue background.
The addition of the Confederate battle emblem to the state flag in 1956 was pushed through the General Assembly as a gesture of defiance against the civil rights movement.
It’s pointless to argue the nuances of what may or may not have been the intent of those legislators, most of whom have now passed away. Nearly fifty years on, however, the consequences are clear: in Georgia and elsewhere, the Confederate battle emblem was hijacked by racists, and has been used or misused as a symbol of bigotry and hatred. Two years ago, Governor Barnes determined that retaining the “Southern Cross” in its position of prominence posed a threat to Georgia’s economic and political well-being.
In a dazzling display of power politics, Barnes pushed a new flag through the 2001 General Assembly in barely a week. This flag, which flies over state property today, is an aesthetic nightmare. Cluttered, unbalanced, and with no sense of style, the current flag pleases almost no one… but it was sufficient to deflect Jesse Jackson and his threatened boycott.
There was minimal public discussion, and if multiple designs were considered, the public wasn’t consulted. A single new design was proposed and adopted with dizzying speed. To many voters outside the city, the process was classic “King Roy”—a backroom deal between powerful business and political interests, deciding what was good for the citizens of Georgia without giving those citizens a voice.
Two years later, Governor Perdue and the newly-elected General Assembly have a problem. The new flag is a mess. And Perdue received substantial support from “flaggers” across the state who are infuriated both with the new design, and with Barnes’ blitzkrieg approach to pushing it through.
During the campaign, Perdue argued in favor of a referendum on the new design. But, now that he is weeks away from power, that rhetoric is haunting the Governor-elect. There is a good chance that, if a referendum is held between the “Southern Cross” and the current hodgepodge, the classic design would win… reviving a dangerous and divisive issue that Atlanta’s business leaders thought safely dead and buried.
Perdue needs to do something. And the answer is one that has been supported for years by prominent businessmen and politicians across the state: bring back the pre-1956 flag.
The design is classic in its simplicity. It has no racist connotations. And for those sincere flaggers who declaim “Heritage, not Hate”—the horizontal red and white bars are lifted directly from the Confederate “Stars and Bars” adopted by the Confederate Congress in 1861.
The War Between the States was the defining moment in the history of the South, and there is no shame in memorializing it in Georgia’s flag. But we can do it in a way that doesn’t stir up images of lynchings and beatings and ignorant racist thugs. With his election upset, Sonny Perdue has been handed a bully pulpit. He can use his inaugural address and his first months as Governor to educate Georgians on this issue.
If a referendum were to be held between the “Southern Cross” and the “Stars and Bars,” how could anyone logically claim disrespect to Georgia’s Confederate heritage? On the other hand, how could Jesse Jackson whip up national hysteria over a historic design that has no connection to the civil rights battles of the 1960s? The pre-1956 flag would win in a landslide… neatly defusing an explosive issue for Perdue. And, incidentally, removing an artistic embarrassment from thousands of flagpoles across the state.
Emotions have run high over the 2001 flag, and the process of its adoption. If we can see past the emotion and address the core issues, Georgia can—for the first time in half a century—have a flag that is respected by all its citizens.
Urban and rural. Young and old. Black and white. Native and newcomer. There are eight million of us. Isn’t it time to have a flag for all Georgians?
They did what I suggested… mostly. Here’s the 2003 Georgia flag, which I think is a good compromise. I hope this issue is settled for another couple of generations!