Roy Barnes: It's time for Southern states to stop celebrating the Confederacy

Prior to a GPB radio show, former Gov. Roy Barnes signs the state flag that replaced the 1956 version with its Confederate battle emblem. It flew from 2001 to 2003, when it replaced by the current one. Tami Chappell / Special to the AJC

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Prior to a GPB radio show, former Gov. Roy Barnes signs the state flag that replaced the 1956 version with its Confederate battle emblem. It flew from 2001 to 2003, when it replaced by the current one. Tami Chappell / Special to the AJC

On the seventh day after nine black church-goers in Charleston were gunned down by a young Confederate enthusiast, Georgia's sacrificial governor sat down in front of a microphone to talk about flags and the battle over Southern symbols that never seems to end.

“We now know that he was just obsessed with all of these racial things, and the Confederate battle flag was the emblem that he immediately went to,” Roy Barnes said. “It’s made everybody just sick about it.”

If Gov. Nikki Haley succeeds in her effort to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the grounds of the South Carolina capitol, it will be – at least, in part – because Barnes went there first.

Fourteen years have passed since Barnes pushed through the bill that removed the Rebel cross from its dominant spot on Georgia’s state flag. The price was high. He became the first – and so far, the only — incumbent governor to lose a re-election bid. His Democratic party was ousted from power. Recovery could still be decades away.

And yet he would do it again.

On Wednesday , Barnes, Bill Nigut, yours truly and a few hangers-on were in a small radio studio at the Georgia Public Broadcasting headquarters on 14th Street. The occasion was an hour-long episode of Nigut's "Two Way Street." You can listen to it at 4 p.m. Saturday or 11 a.m. Sunday – locally at 88.5FM.

All three of us were on the scene in 2001, when Barnes rolled the dice and removed the raised middle finger that a 1956 Legislature had added to the state banner. A protest against court-ordered integration of public schools.

Some details I’d forgotten. Others were new. After 14 years, most secrets are safe to spill.

For instance, when he sprang the flag change on Georgia’s lawmakers, Barnes gave a rousing speech that emphasized his Southern bona fides. Specifically, a great-grandfather Corbin Barnes, a Confederate from Gilmer County who was captured by Yankees at Vicksburg.

But the Georgia governor forgot to tell those lawmakers that he had another great-grandfather who fought for the Union. At the time, he was a highly inconvenient ancestor.

It’s a shame that radio doesn’t have pictures. Nigut signaled, and the audio of that same speech came through the headphones. A confident Barnes could be heard reassuring nervous lawmakers.

“When the dust settles, and the controversy fades – and I promise you, it will…” the governor could be heard saying. The older, in-studio Roy Barnes let a sad smile flit across his lips.

Then the former governor told of the late-night meeting with Georgia business leaders in the Governor’s Mansion, when he let them know what he would do the next day. Afterwards, Barnes went upstairs to his bedroom, where his wife Marie was already tucked in, reading a book.

"I sat on the side of the bed. I said, 'In two years I'm going to be defeated.' She said, 'I'm ready to leave tonight ,'" Barnes recounted.

We noted the other factors in Barnes’ failed 2002 campaign. His fight with teachers. A new road that angered northern exurbanites. He brushed those aside. “There’s always other factors. I think I would have withstood anything else,” he said.

The former governor predicted that Haley, the South Carolina governor, will succeed in her battle with the Rebel cross. The heinous murders at Emanuel AME Church are one reason. The changing attitudes of young people are another.

I would add two more. Fourteen years later, Haley doesn’t face any of the political risks that Barnes did. Haley’s actions won’t cause white men, the mainstay of Confederate sentiment in the South, to flee the Republican party – as they did the Democratic party in Georgia. They have nowhere to go.

Moreover, Republicans across the board understand that national demographics are working against them. White male voters brought the GOP to power in the South, but they can’t keep it in power. Not alone. That’s why Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, was at Haley’s side when she picked her fight with the flag.

Toward the end of our radio talk, Barnes was asked about the specialty car tags that feature the Confederate battle emblem. Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday , after some fumbling, said he would seek to redesign the plate. Perhaps leaving a small square featuring the Rebel cross.

Barnes said he would go further. “I don’t think it ought to be on the tag at all. I think Governor Deal is feeling his way through this. He’s a very cautious fellow, which is good in politics,” he said. “I think as he feels his way through this, he’ll come to the same conclusion.”

Afterwards, in a session with reporters who waited outside, Barnes said he would also do away with the state government holiday that is Confederate Memorial Day. Nor should it celebrate Confederate Heritage Month.

But in retrospect, that is small stuff. Fifteen years ago, it was difficult to find the white politician in Georgia who would publicly declare that:

a) The Civil War was fought over slavery;

b) That slavery was a vast moral blot that ought not to have been defended in the first place;

c) That the state flag that flew over the Capitol had little to do with legacy and much to do with racial suppression.

Opinions on these ABCs of Georgia history aren’t unanimous, even today. But they are no longer forbidden thoughts in the political arena, and Roy Barnes’ sacrifice helped make that so. In South Carolina, they’re just beginning the conversation.