What Stacey Abrams said about burning the Georgia flag in 1992

09/18/2018 — Columbus, Georgia — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during the 2018 Muscogee County Democratic Gala in Columbus, Tuesday, September 18, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

09/18/2018 — Columbus, Georgia — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during the 2018 Muscogee County Democratic Gala in Columbus, Tuesday, September 18, 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

This story was originally published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 27, 1992. 

You say you want a revolution?

Prepare yourselves for this. Getting arrested on national television while your horrified relatives watch. Getting back on national TV during a talk show. Threatening phone calls at night. Police surveillance.

Three Atlanta University Center students - Stacey Abrams, Lawrence Jeffries and Kevin Donalson - say their lives have been turned upside down since they helped lead the AUC protests after the Rodney King verdict.

They helped create SAAE (Students for African-American Empowerment), a group of about 200 students from the six AUC schools formed after a protest by students over the King verdict turned violent.

This June 1992 photo in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows Stacey Abrams and others burning the flag on the steps of the state Capitol. The caption identifies her as “Stacy Abrams.”

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Through SAAE, the students have met with Mayor Maynard H. Jackson, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), and the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

They've burned the Georgia flag and been on Oprah, CNN and the national evening news.

Behind the scenes, though, there's little glamour, the students say. As SAAE embarks on a voter registration drive and meals-on-wheels programs this summer, they've discovered what their parents learned years before: Activism is an exhilarating but exhausting enterprise.

All of their parents are former activists, members of the NAACP and Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee. They say their zeal comes from their parents, who are proud of what their children are doing, but worried all the same.

"Most of our parents realize that this is something that has to be done," said Mr. Jeffries. "They just don't want their children to be the ones who do it."

Lawrence Jeffries, 21, is a junior at Morehouse College. One of the founders of SAAE, Mr. Jeffries is working this summer for the Center for Democratic Renewal, a national clearinghouse for information about hate group activity and violence spurred by bigotry.

Mr. Jeffries was groomed for activism. He became a member of the Board of Education in Prince Georges County, Md., during his senior year in high school. He also attended the 1988 Democratic National Convention while a high school student.

"As soon as I heard something was going on in Atlanta, I knew Lawrence would have something to do with it," said his mother, Alice Harris Jeffries, 50, a middle school teacher and former SNCC member.

"My grandmother saw me arrested on CNN," said Mr. Jeffries (he was charged with marching without a permit). "And my mother saw me on the Oprah Winfrey Show saying the U.S. doesn't stand for us [black people].

"My mother is the traditional black, Christian woman. She's always worrying, 'Is my baby in jail?' She's worried that I'm going to take it too far because she knows how I am.

"We've been going through this a couple of years now. It's ranged from my objection to black men on death row to my involvement in anti- Klan activity.

"I enjoy this [activism]. It's something that's needed. And now, it's not going solo. Now I have a group of people with at least common goals who are committed to going out there and doing something.

"I have to watch my back a little more now. The GBI has visited my rallies before, and they've knocked on my door, and my office.

(GBI spokesman John Bankhead said no GBI agents have followed any AUC students. Though GBI agents photographed SAAE members during a flag- burning rally at the state Capitol, Mr. Bankhead said the GBI photographs all political rallies at the state Capitol.)

"I try to transcend fear so it won't affect what I do," said Mr. Jeffries. "But I understand the danger."

Stacey Abrams, an 18-year-old Spelman College freshman, is one of the youngest members of SAAE. She is working this summer in the campaign of Sen. Gene Walker (D-Decatur), running for the 11th Congressional District seat.

The valedictorian of her Avondale High School class, Miss Abrams turned down scholarship offers from Yale and Harvard to attend Spelman College.

Her parents, Carolyn and Robert Abrams, both 43, are United Methodist ministers. They've ministered to the homeless and the imprisoned. Both have been members of the NAACP and SNCC.

"Stacey is not going to stop what she's doing because of other people," Mr. Abrams said, just days after his daughter received abusive phone calls because she helped lead the rally where Georgia's flag was burned.

"It's been unsettling," Stacey Abrams said. "I got a call from one woman who said her family died in the Civil War, and the flag was a symbol of Southern heritage. She said if black people didn't like the flag, get the hell out.

"It's really strange to have someone call your house, ask for you by name, and call you a nigger.

"I'm used to stuff like that. When I was in the 10th grade, I had a police escort because my dad spoke out against the KKK.

"But I have to tell my parents what we're [SAAE] going to do beforehand. I told them we were going to a demonstration, and we were going to have a rally. I kind of left out the burning flag part.

"I've been doing things on my own, but I like SAAE. Usually you have people who say, 'I want to do this,' and they're gung-ho for about three days, and then they slip off the sides.

"It's like two full-time jobs, though. I wake up in the morning. I go to work. I get a call from Kevin or Lawrence. I have to run and get this done. It's like two full-time jobs, and you have 24 hours - three hours to sleep and the rest of the time you're doing stuff."

Kevin Donalson, 21, comes from a family of achievers. His great- grandfather was the first black lawyer to try a case in Illinois. His second cousin is Alonzo Crim, the first black superintendent of Atlanta public schools. His mother was a college activist. She's now working on a public affairs degree in Houston.

"I think the saddest part about Kevin becoming an activist was that this is 22 years later, and he is fighting for the same things his dad and I were vocal about," said Elmer Donalson-Rogers. "I think that's a disgrace."

"My family saw me on CBS Nightly News," said Mr. Donalson. "My cousin calls my mom and said, 'Kevin is on TV, and he's fighting with the police!' Of course, when I get back to the room, there's 30 messages.

"If you have told me three months ago that I would be sitting down with Lawrence Jeffries and Stacey Abrams, and that I would spend most of my time with them every day, and have fun, I would say you're crazy.

"People ask, 'Are they [SAAE] trying to get press? Are they trying to get their names in the public eye?'

"Do you think that I like having the GBI standing around videotaping me? Do people realize that me and Lawrence will be seniors next year? We will be trying to graduate. We're putting our education on the line.

"Yes, our lives have been changed. But when you step into a situation like this, you have to be willing to give your all."