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‘It’s behind us.’ Why Georgia’s flag is not a flashpoint anymore

Former Gov. Roy Barnes, right, speaks to radio host Bill Nigut as they prepare for a discussion in 2015 about politics and the Confederate flag. In front of Barnes is the Georgia state flag from 2001 to 2003. Tami Chappell / Special to the AJC
Former Gov. Roy Barnes, right, speaks to radio host Bill Nigut as they prepare for a discussion in 2015 about politics and the Confederate flag. In front of Barnes is the Georgia state flag from 2001 to 2003. Tami Chappell / Special to the AJC

At a ceremony filled with emotion, Mississippi’s governor signed legislation to bring down the only state flag left in the U.S. dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. But there’s another state banner that still has insignia dating to the South’s secession.

Georgia’s flag features a Stars and Bars pattern that mirrors the first national flag of the Confederacy, imagery far less controversial than the Rebel war emblem linked to the South’s 20th century fight to preserve segregation.

And the decades-long struggle to change the banner, which resulted in three different versions of the flag over three years, is a reason why Georgia policymakers consider the issue settled even as nationwide demonstrations take aim at symbols and imagery celebrating white rule.

The hard-fought compromise that emerged was struck with bipartisan support from Black and white lawmakers that spanned the terms of three separate governors, and there’s little appetite among current political leaders and activists to revisit the debate now.

"We see this fight as behind us because of all the work we put in 20 years ago," said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Black Columbus Democrat who was one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Statehouse when the deal was struck. "We're just not in the same posture as Mississippi."

The deep scars from that fight also offer a reminder of why, with protests for racial justice focusing on the painful legacies of the Civil War and slavery, activists train their attention on overhauling laws and removing statues of segregationist leaders but not Georgia’s flag.

“My greatest investment in this moment is getting rid of laws that date to the Confederate South,” said the Rev. James Woodall, the chairman of the Georgia NAACP. “We can remove flags, but until we change the laws, Black people and brown people will continue to be murdered.”

A rundown of the flag debate requires a brief refresher in Georgia history.

The Confederate battle emblem stamped on Georgia’s flag doesn’t date to the Civil War era, but to February 1956. That’s when lawmakers voted to change the banner to protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that mandated the desegregation of schools.

In the 1980s, anger and frustration with the flag were mounting and newly elected African American legislators, along with a handful of liberal white politicians, began to build support to remove the banner.

Tyrone Brooks, who was then among a handful of Black lawmakers in the Statehouse, recalls being asked by more veteran civil rights activists after his 1980 election to an Atlanta-based district to help lead the charge.

He fast recognized it would take a decades-long effort inside and outside the Capitol and support from business leaders.

“It was going to take a movement,” said Brooks, who served from 1981 to 2015. “We can’t just work the political angle. We had to go all over the state and build momentum. That’s how it got started.”

Then-Gov. Zell Miller made the first attempt to remove the battle emblem in 1993, and the failed effort contributed to his near-defeat in his re-election bid a year later. Throughout the decade, lawsuits and legislative attempts to return to the pre-1956 flag gained little traction.

The breakthrough came during Roy Barnes’ term in the Governor’s Mansion. Smyre remembers Barnes outlining the plan to him at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles in 2000, mindful that it would soak up much of his political capital over the rest of his first term.

After a divisive legislative battle, punctuated by relentless appeals by Barnes, the Georgia Legislature approved a new design in 2001 consisting of the state seal on a field of blue above images of Georgia’s three previous flags and the first and current version of the U.S. banner.

That agreement came with a compromise that no Confederate statues or monuments could be removed without state permission, which Barnes has said was worth the price to remove a vestige of the Lost Cause, the revisionist history that cast the Confederacy as heroic and slavery as an afterthought.

"I have often wondered how those who voted against the flag change explain their action to their children and grandchildren," Barnes said in a 2017 commentary. "There was no excuse for failing to make our flag the flag of all Georgians and not those of only one skin complexion.

Though the flag change was hailed as a defining moment in Georgia history, it was a costly fight that fractured the state Democratic Party and contributed to Barnes’ failure to win re-election in 2002. At campaign stops, he was trailed by “flaggers” who called him a traitor and taunted him with the Rebel emblem.

A year later, this banner would also come down. Sonny Perdue, the first Republican governor in Georgia since Reconstruction, campaigned on a pledge for a public referendum on redesigning the state flag.

Perdue had promised to include the 1956 version with the Confederate battle insignia in the statewide vote. But on the last night of the 2003 General Assembly, lawmakers removed that flag as an option and approved a modified version of the Stars and Bars that flew before 1956.

Though some were infuriated the controversial battle emblem wasn’t among the options, Georgia voters approved the new design in a March 2004 referendum. It still flies today, and the state has since sidestepped the fraught debates over Rebel emblems that neighbors in the South faced.

“Zell Miller has to be credited for going against the wind,” Smyre said. “And had not Roy Barnes acted, it would have been catastrophic. It would have been disastrous had we not made the decision to change the flag, to get this behind us.”

Georgia politics is now roiled by a different sort of debate stemming in part from the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man from Glynn County was fatally shot during a confrontation with a father-and-son duo now charged with murder in what prosecutors say was a racist attack.

After 16 years of failed attempts, state lawmakers adopted a hate-crimes law penalizing violent acts motivated by racism and other biases. Arbery's death has also spurred a new debate over civil arrest statutes dating to 1863 initially cited by a prosecutor to justify his death.

Gov. Brian Kemp highlighted those initiatives when asked about efforts to remove statues and symbols that celebrate the Confederacy, paraphrasing a remark by former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice that warned against "sanitizing" the past.

“We can’t hide from our history,” Kemp said, adding that “we have to learn from it and be better today and be better tomorrow than we were today. I think a lot of the actions we’ve taken during the General Assembly this year will send a positive message to our citizens.”

The veterans of Georgia’s flag fight, meanwhile, hope that it serves as a reminder of the decades-old debate over the insignia.

“I’m glad Mississippi finally saw the light of day. I can’t say what lawmakers tomorrow will do, but I’m proud of what we accomplished over the 20-year battle,” Brooks said. “We spent so much time on the issue, and I don’t have any regrets about what we did.”