OPINION: A new flag in Georgia that needed no debate

Nobody in Georgia needs to be told that a flag is a powerful symbol. Wars have been waged, movements launched, and leaders defeated, all over the scraps of fabric we fly above the land.

So it was an extraordinary moment last week at Macon City Hall when the flag of the sovereign Muscogee (Creek) Nation was raised on its own flag pole, and at the same height as the American flag, an acknowledgement that Macon was founded on land that was once the home of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe and where their elders are still buried.

The flag will remain raised in Macon permanently, flying in front of the seat of government 24 hours a day just like the American and state flags, as specified by an ordinance approved unanimously by the city-county commission.

Eventually, the tribe will also co-manage what locals hope will soon be Georgia’s first national park and preserve at the Ocmulgee Mounds. The Muscogee (Creek) had lived in the area along the Ocmulgee River for 17,000 years before they were removed by Georgia settlers in the early 1800′s to make way for new farms and towns.

The atrocities committed against the Creek people during their removal and march toward resettlement in Oklahoma are brutal, as grotesque as any war crimes happening today.

But on a sunny Friday in Middle Georgia, leaders of the tribe, the city, and two Georgia congressmen from separate parties, stood to watch the flag go up.

It’s a part of the steady effort in Macon to make something that was so terribly wrong, just a little bit right.

“Macon’s identity is deeply intertwined in removal and our identity moving forward has to be deeply intertwined in the reconciliation from that,” said Seth Clark, the mayor pro tem of Macon who is also leading the nonprofit effort to create the national park.

Clark wrote the flag resolution with the input of tribal leaders, lawyers for the city, and Macon-Bibb County’s mayor, Lester Miller.

The vote passed in December, along with a proclamation acknowledging the tribe’s forced removal from the area in 1821 and “humbly seeking knowledge of their histories and committing to respectful stewardship of this land.”

David Hill, the principal chief of the nation, traveled to Macon for the ceremony last week and wept as he watched the flag going up, as he had earlier when he spoke.

“We did not ask to leave this land,” he explained. Although they had settled in Oklahoma and built schools and hospitals and even a tribal college, the place where they are now will never be their ancestral home like Georgia.

“You may ask why we care about keeping connection here,” Hill told the audience. “It’s because this is where we came from. This is where our people were and our people are buried. Our stories are still here.”

Miller, the mayor, said he felt like God had made this the time that the leaders of the city and the nation could find common cause “so that we may truly move forward together.”

Credit: Credit: Jessica Whitley

Credit: Credit: Jessica Whitley

If all goes to plan, Congress will pass a bill to declare Ocmulgee a National Park and Preserve. Thousands of acres along the Ocmulgee River would be permanently protected from development and be available for hunting and fishing. The park would be co-managed by the U.S. Park Service and the tribe itself.

In May, Tracie Revis, David Hill’s former chief of staff, moved from Oklahoma to head up the education effort to tell the rarely heard story of the Creek people in Middle Georgia through the voices of their descendants. She also proposed the idea that Macon and the Nation pursue a sister city-like relationship, which they have.

The federal effort has the longtime support of both U.S. Rep. Austin Scott, a Republican, and Sanford Bishop, a Democrat. Both watched the flag go up last week and promised they’ll try to make the effort a reality this year.

Bishop talked about meeting a chief of the nation in Macon 25 years ago, who wept then when he talked about his ancestors still being in Georgia, even as the living members of the tribe were forced to live elsewhere.

“It made me want to do whatever I could to try to right that wrong,” Bishop said. “I don’t know that we can do this but today we are on the way to reconciliation.”

That this is all happening in 2023 is no coincidence. It is the year of the celebration of the bicentennial of Macon, a city that was made possible in 1823 by the forced removal of the people already there.

Making the Muscogee (Creek) a part of the Macon community again by raising their flag here, is a way for the city to move forward with its full history intact.

“The reason everybody was crying is because it’s so deeply foundational,” Clark said. “We kind of see us being able to heal a little bit together over something that we’ve never really, truly reconciled with as a community.”

The flag that represents that healing now flies over Macon-Bibb County, a decision among the city and county leaders that might have sparked controversy during these polarized times, but in reality needed no debate.

An earlier version of this column described Lester Miller as a Republican. He is an independent.

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