Flag, controversy hit Georgia’s highways

The Southern battle colors are flying again, this time as part of an effort to unfurl huge Confederate flags along Georgia’s interstates.

Among the three flags that have gone up so far is a car dealership-sized Southern Cross north of Tifton that measures 30-by-50 feet. Two others are in north Georgia.

“We want to remind people of who they are and where they came from,” said Jack Bridwell, the division commander of state chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is paying for the flags. “Being Southern is nothing to be ashamed of.”

None of the flags fly in metro Atlanta, though Bridwell said the group is actively looking to buy a site along the highway or sign a long-term lease.

Even without the Southern Cross flapping at Downtown Connector commuters, what organizers see as a way to honor soldiers during the 150th anniversary of the Civil War has nonetheless revived the debate over the history of the war and slavery’s role in it.

What has changed in that discussion, though, appears to be who has the upper hand.

Georgia added the Stars and Bars to its state flag in 1956 as an overt symbol of white supremacy at a time when civil rights for racial minorities began to become a national issue, said Gordon Jones, the senior military historian at the Atlanta History Center.

The battle flag was aligned with a Confederacy that argued for states’ rights and economic freedom necessary to protect slaves as property, Jones said.

“The main question of the Civil War was whose rights are to be protected and who is entitled to civil rights,” Jones said. “That question was not answered until the civil rights era.”

States across the South answered by raising the Confederate flag on their Capitol domes. Georgia replaced its flag in 2003, a move that has prompted some civil-rights activists to argue the symbol does not carry as much meaning on private property as it did in an official role.

“We don’t like it, but they have every right to put it up if they can find someone who wants that mess on their property,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb NAACP. “As long as it’s just a symbol and not an action, it’s just a distraction from how much the world has changed from when that flag represented a real threat.”

Bridwell, a retired educator, said any opposition is misguided. To him, the Civil War, “or war of Northern aggression, if you will,” he said, was about economics and an unprovoked attack on Fort Sumter.

The battle flag honors the soldiers who fought in that lost cause, he said. An avid genealogist, he hopes the banners will reach more people who have Confederate ancestors.

“It has been corrupted by hate groups,” Bridwell said. “We don’t stand for that.”

That’s why some of the very people the flags are meant to reach now figure the banners are a bad idea.

An Arkansas native, Zach Matthews has ancestors who fought for the South and said he is not offended by the controversial symbol. But that doesn’t mean the attorney wants to see one of the giant flags going up on I-75 near his Marietta home.

“My main concern is that the rebel flag is inflammatory to a pretty significant swath of the Georgia public, while a relatively small population really cares about honoring the Confederate dead,” Matthews said.

“Why bring more disrepute to Georgia?” he asked. “I’d much rather see them celebrate how far we have come than dredge up old issues.”