Atlanta Democrat wants OK Cafe to shelve Rebel emblem

An AJC file photo of the fire that damaged OK Cafe in December.

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An AJC file photo of the fire that damaged OK Cafe in December.

The iconic OK Cafe is becoming an unlikely battleground in the fight over Old South symbols.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the state Senate, plans to urge the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau this week to withhold any reference to the Buckhead landmark if it doesn't shelve its carving of Georgia's 1956 flag, complete with the controversial Confederate battle emblem, when it reopens.

Doing so, he writes in a letter to ACVB leader William Pate, would "avert embarrassment and loss of revenue for the Atlanta convention bureau." He continues:

"Governor Nikki Haley was right when she said about the Confederate flag on South Carolina's Capitol grounds: "It should never have been there". That is also true about the flag display at the OK Café. It should never have been there. All the while, this establishment in Buckhead, just miles from the heart of the Civil Rights movement, persists in defending a symbol that is counter to everything Atlanta aspires to be."

The comments come after Bobby Kahn, the former chief-of-staff to Gov. Roy Barnes and longtime Democratic guru, called on restaurant owner Susan DeRose to "change that flag" during his last visit to the restaurant. The restaurant's reopening has been plagued by delays since the December fire, but it's expected to soon be complete.

DeRose, for her part, has said the flag is party of her history "and my history has absolutely nothing to do with prejudice against anyone.”

She added Monday in a statement that Fort "sounds like a Nazi" with his demand.

"If we don’t remove the art, is this Congressman going to next demand our licenses be taken away?" she wrote. "Where do our First Amendment rights stop?"

Pate, the ACVB head, said he spoke with Fort Monday to inform him that the restaurant dropped its membership back in May and thus already aren't in promotional materials. But Fort said he still intended to speak to the group nonetheless with a plea to reject any member that displays the emblem.

The fight over the restaurant's flag is a somewhat obscure front in the larger debate over the place of Civil War symbols in modern-day Georgia.

Gov. Nathan Deal tried to pacify a more tempestuous debate earlier this month when he quietly struck the names of two controversial holidays - Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee's birthday - from the state calendar and replaced them with the more neutral "state holiday" honorific.

(He's already called for a redesign of a state-sponsored license plate with the Rebel emblem, but he's also warned against more sweeping reactions amid the uproar over Confederate images.)

That brought a flood of responses to the governor's office ranging from disappointment to charges of cowardice. Here's a sample of the gamut of emotions, via an Open Records Act request:

From David Little, a Cherokee County resident:

"I sincerely hope that you are not planning another run at national office because I, nor many others in this area, can no longer support you the way this matter stands. Furthermore, the groups that you have recently been pandering to will not support your future political runs either. You completely missed the mark of political trends with this move.

From Lunelle Siegel, who identifies herself as an out-of-state resident with relatives in south Georgia:

"What were you thinking? Do you know how many Georgians died defending her from invasion? Do you know that many of them served under Robert E. Lee? ... What will you seek to purge next, Mr. Governor?"

Arthur Wright called Deal "spineless and a coward:"

You bowed down to the PC garbage that is being pushed on honorable Southern People ... The Republicans promise us that they are going to protect our Conservative values only to slap us in the face with their intentional decent."

And then there's Trixie Monks, a retired Navy officer who thanked Deal for the decision:

"A symbol of traitors to America and a strong history of representing white supremacy and violent racism has no place in government that is there to represent all citizens with equality."