With a growing list of Southern governors calling for removal of the Confederate battle emblem from their states’ license plates, Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday stopped short of doing the same in Georgia.
Instead, Deal suggested a “redesign” of the Sons of Confederate Veterans tag. Deal’s idea would eliminate the larger image of the flag that forms the background of the plate, but it would retain the smaller, brighter image of the emblem in the foreground. The change, he added, wouldn’t require legislative action.
“It’s an effort to not let this become an issue in Georgia,” he said, adding: “It’s time we take a further look at it.”
Confederate symbols of all kinds – flags, monuments, statues, license plates, even retail items – have come under unprecedented attack across the South in the days since the Charleston church massacre.
The Republican speaker of the House in Mississippi on Tuesday said the battle emblem should be removed from the state’s flag – the last state flag on which it appears — and U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., called for the removal of a statue of Jefferson Davis from Kentucky’s Capitol in Frankfort. In Tennessee, both Democrats and Republicans said a bust in the Capitol of Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan founder, should go, the New York Times reported.
In addition, the Associated Press reported that several Southern monuments have been vandalized in recent days. A statue of John C. Calhoun, a strong proponent of slavery and secession, was tagged with “Black Lives Matter” in Charleston, and vandals struck other targets in Maryland and Texas, the AP said.
Those calls came as major retailers including Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Sears said they would discontinue selling merchandise emblazoned with the flag, saying it had become an symbol of division.
‘They will be labeled as racists’
On Georgia’s license plate, Deal first said on Tuesday that he had not supported a change in the flag and that his position hadn’t changed. Within a half-hour of those comments being published, however, his aides asked The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to return to his office to outline his plans for a redesign.
Deal said the state couldn’t remove the smaller flag image without first discussing the move with the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which petitioned the state to issue the plates in the first place.
The specialty license plate, released more than a year ago and ordered by about 3,500 Georgia car owners, has become one focus of debate in the aftermath of the massacre of nine African-American worshippers at a historically black church in Charleston Wednesday. The alleged shooter, Dylann Roof, is a young white man who apparently became obsessed by white supremacist ideology. Images of Roof show him waving or holding a Confederate battle flag.
But representatives of Sons of the Confederate Veterans said Tuesday the debate over the flag was helping to create a racial divide rather than bringing people together.
“It’s sad that we can’t honor our ancestors without being seen as racists,” said Joel Coleman of Mableton. He is an 18-year member of SCV.
For the Sons, the Confederate flag represents their ancestors’ struggle to protect their homes and families. Educating the public on the group’s views is no easy task, Coleman said.
He criticized “weak-kneed politicians” but said he understands why they officials cannot support the Confederacy.
“They will be labeled as racists if they do stand up for the Confederacy,” he said.
‘A true son of the South’
In the minds of many Georgians, that’s appropriate.
“I don’t think that’s an appropriate emblem for the state to sanction,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta. “It’s linked to slavery, racism and segregation.”
Other lawmakers said the flag debate was still a complicated one.
“I am a true son of the South. I shall never turn my back on the Confederacy. But what was done in the mid-50s was done to hurt people, not to honor the South,” said Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, referring to the legislative act in 1956 that added the battle emblem to the state flag. “A true son of the South would want to do what’s best for all Georgians. And that’s what Gov. Deal is doing.”
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe said Tuesday that he wants to phase out a his state’s license plate, calling it “unnecessarily divisive and hurtful.” Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory took similar positions.
The day after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could continue to ban the Confederate flag from specialty plates it issues.
A spokesman for Sons of the Confederate Veterans said the moves were misguided and the flag had been misappropriated by the alleged Charleston gunman.
“It’s an abuse of the Confederate battle flag to use it,” said Dan Coleman, an SCV spokesman in Winston. “The Sons of Confederate Veterans has condemned any use of that by any hate group.”
Coleman said it’s an injustice to blame Confederate heritage for what happened in Charleston.
“His inspiration came from the Internet, not from the flag,” he said of Roof.
Now, Coleman is concerned of the amount of attention people are bringing to the flag and relating it to racism and white supremacy.
“There are many people today that are trying to take advantage of the act of one troubled man,” he said. “Our sympathies and our prayers go out to the families and friends of the victims and this troubled young man. We are unhappy with people who are trying to take advantage of this tragic situation.”
‘Big difference’ between flag and tag
Deal’s call for a redesign came a day after one of his top deputies tried to use South Carolina’s embrace of the Confederate battle emblem for a leg up in the competitive jobs hunt with its neighbor. The rebel flag still flies on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, though Gov. Nikki Haley and other state leaders have called on lawmakers to vote to remove it.
Deal said there’s a “big difference” between a Confederate emblem on a state flag and one on the license plate.
“When you display a flag, it’s seen by everybody and it’s considered a symbol of a larger context of who is supporting the display of a flag,” he said. “An individual license plate is just an individual’s choice as to what they want to put on their vehicle.”
Georgia resolved its fight over a state flag that incorporated the Confederate battle emblem in 2001 — though it cost Gov. Roy Barnes his job. Deal said Tuesday he was grateful that debate was settled then.
“It helps that we’re not having to confront that issue in the climate that South Carolina has to confront it,” he said. “I’m just glad that we don’t have to contend with that issue now.”
Nonetheless, the debate over the flag’s placement on government property in Georgia hasn’t ceased.
Earlier this year, Chattooga County, in the north Georgia mountains, found itself in the middle of the argument.
After a request by the local camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the county’s sole commissioner gave his permission for the group to fly a series of eight Confederate flags at the Confederate Veteran’s memorial in Summerville, the county seat. The granite memorial, however, is on government land a in front of the county courthouse.
The flags began their rotation last October, but it wasn’t until April, when the distinctive, square Confederate battle flag was hoisted, that complaints started pouring in to Commissioner Jason Winter’s office. At the time, Winters said he didn’t realize that the flag’s presence would cause such an uproar, and that he hadn’t meant to offend any of the county’s residents, including Summerville’s African-American mayor.
Residents said, however, that the battle flag not only wasn’t relocated or removed but flew the remainder of April, which is recognized as Confederate Veterans Month.
The flag has been flying year-round in Dodge County, about 55 miles south of Macon, for more than a decade. It was supposed to fly only once a year, on Confederate Memorial Day, by a 2002 county commission vote. But once it went up it stayed up.
For a county that is 33 percent African-American, the banner in front of the courthouse is a sore spot.
“All history passes,” said Dodge County NAACP President John Battle. “We have to live in the present. We don’t want a flag flying that reminds us of what happened under that symbol.”
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Staff writers Christian Boone and Katie Leslie contributed to this report.