Georgia leaders reluctant to tackle Confederate symbols

April 10, 2015: The Confederate battle flag flies outside the Chattooga County Courthouse in Summerville, Ga. The flag, which was flying on the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomatox, was put up with county approval by the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. ROSALIND BENTLEY /



April 10, 2015: The Confederate battle flag flies outside the Chattooga County Courthouse in Summerville, Ga. The flag, which was flying on the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the Confederate forces at Appomatox, was put up with county approval by the local Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter. ROSALIND BENTLEY /

Gov. Nathan Deal urged restraint as the controversy over the Confederacy’s legacy roars back to life, even as critics hope to spark new debates over symbols of the Old South.

The governor said in an interview Tuesday that lawmakers should be cautious about making changes to laws protecting Confederate history embedded in Georgia law, from the state-issued license plate featuring a Rebel emblem to the monthlong commemoration of the South’s role in the Civil War.

Already, the state has barred sales of Confederate license plates in an effort, in Deal’s words, to “not let this become an issue in Georgia.” But Democrats see an opening to make changes in state laws that have long offended them, as well as a chance to appeal to newcomers with no love for the Confederacy.

The defenders of the images, meanwhile, promise an aggressive lobbying campaign, an invigorated membership drive and even the threat of legal action.

It poses new challenges for Deal, who seeks to snuff out fires that, just a few weeks ago, seemed consigned to the history books.

“I’m not closing the door on anything. But we have to be cautious that we don’t get caught up on a sweep of emotion here and fail to recognize the heritage that is associated with these symbols and these holidays,” he said. “We cannot deny our heritage, and the purpose of many of these is to celebrate that heritage. I’m going to be cautious in that regard, and I would hope that everyone else would as well.”

The debate stormed back to the forefront after a shooting rampage killed nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C., church. Charged in the deaths is a white supremacist who sports Confederate flags in social media posts. That was followed by calls from leaders of both parties urging Southern bastions to rethink the meaning of the symbols.

Georgia put its touchy flag flap to rest more than a decade ago with a series of contentious votes that shrunk the Confederate battle insignia on the flag and then removed it. The votes were long believed to be a factor in Gov. Roy Barnes’ defeat to Sonny Perdue in 2002, heralding Georgia’s transition from a Democratic stronghold to a Republican one.

But the Civil War's legacy remains deeply rooted elsewhere in Georgia law. Many state workers get a day off each year for Confederate Memorial Day, by orders of the governor's office, and Georgia law enshrines April as Confederate Heritage and History Month.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans won the right to sell state-issued license plates bearing the battle emblem more than a decade ago, an honor that has remained unchanged despite dozens of other recent changes to that code, and a 1963 law requires the Stone Mountain’s state-owned memorial to sell Confederate memorabilia.

Confederate symbols versus New South image

The Charleston massacre, coupled with the constant economic pressure on Georgia’s leaders to promote the state as a welcoming place, has breathed new life into campaigns that see the Confederate legacy as an enduring stain on Georgia’s New South image.

Democratic state Rep. LaDawn Jones of Atlanta urged her constituents to boycott Stone Mountain Park, the towering paean to Confederate war leaders, until it removes the Rebel flags displayed at the mountain's base. (Bill Stephens, who heads the park's memorial association, said in a statement that state law protects their display.)

And state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he plans legislation to outlaw the commemoration of the Confederate history month. Other proposals could erase the Rebel emblem from license plates and forbid the annual holiday, which is held in Georgia on the last Monday in April.

“It’s unconscionable to recognize and honor a movement that fought to maintain slavery,” said Fort, the Senate’s No. 2 Democrat.

He will likely seek to persuade Republicans such as state Rep. Joe Wilkinson, a self-described “son of the South” who has an impressive collection of Civil War memorabilia at his Sandy Springs home. His youngest son is named after Confederate cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, though he acknowledged he was uncomfortable with the battle emblem long featured on Georgia’s flag.

“I felt very strongly, and campaigned in 2000, on the fact that I would vote to change it to be more representative of the state,” he said.

Even the new version, which is modeled after the first banner for the Confederate States of America, could be up for debate. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the state flag "may well be changed again" in light of the Charleston tragedy, though Deal signaled he would not revisit that question.

But many other Republicans are reluctant to talk openly about the debate. More than a dozen legislators, leaders and rank-and-file members declined to comment on the issue.

One of the few willing to speak was state Rep. Tommy Benton, a Jefferson Republican who sponsored legislation to make it harder to move Confederate monuments. Benton, a retired Georgia history teacher, called the renewed scrutiny of the images “a lot to do about nothing.”

Some push for middle ground

Political veterans hold out hope for a compromise. Democratic state Rep. Calvin Smyre, the longest-serving lawmaker in the state House, was Deal’s point man in the effort to bring a statue of Martin Luther King Jr. to the statehouse grounds. Smyre said a “comprehensive” approach will be needed next year to rethink painful images of the past.

“We need to look at all aspects of how we do it,” said Smyre, a recently retired banking executive from Columbus. “We need a consensus-driven debate over the issue. The flag was a journey, but now we know that it needed to be done. We need to try to continue to do the right thing.”

Supporters of Confederate heritage groups, though, have made clear they won’t give up without a fight.

The leader of the state’s Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, Jack Bridwell, announced a lobbying campaign and floated the threat of legal action if the state doesn’t resume selling the plates. Membership, he said, has been buoyed by a “huge spike” in interest.

“We have not had this much popular support since our flag fight here in Georgia in 2001,” he wrote.

He’s backed by longtime members such as Dan Coleman, a Winston attorney who joined the chapter 22 years ago. Coleman said wiping away Confederate symbols is tantamount to “erasing all of our Southern — and United States — history.”

“I hate to be the one who says it, because people are going to jump on me, but the truth is the truth,” Coleman said. “We’re proud of our ancestors for doing their duty. And it’s troubling that people are trying to use this tragedy for their own personal benefit.”