Opinion: On suburban Atlanta, COVID-19, and – at long last – an end to the Civil War

Nineteen years ago, a Georgia governor succeeded in bringing down a state flag that dripped with Confederate symbolism. The act helped send Democrats into an exile that is only now coming to an end. If not Tuesday, then soon.

Nineteen years ago, a Georgia governor succeeded in bringing down a state flag that dripped with Confederate symbolism. The act helped send Democrats into an exile that is only now coming to an end. If not Tuesday, then soon.

We do not know who will carry this state – Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Yet the not knowing is significant. In Georgia, presidential uncertainty hasn’t made it to November since 1992.

And regardless of the outcome, we do know who will lose on this Election Day – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and those who think a future can still be built on what remains of their legacy.

Count them among the casualties of a rising, suburban-driven political dynamic in which mythologies like the Lost Cause and its internet-birthed cousin, QAnon, become a badge of minority status.

“We are moving past the Confederacy. There still are some hangers-on. But the Civil War is finally drawing to a close,” said Roy Barnes, now 72. It was Barnes who engineered the replacement of the 1956 state flag and its dominant Confederate battle emblem. At bottom, the banner was a symbolic middle finger raised during the fight over segregation.

Removing it cracked the urban-rural, Black-white alliance that until 2002 had kept Georgia Democrats in power long after other Southern states had shifted to the Republican side.

White rural voters fled into the arms of the Georgia GOP. When added to voters in Atlanta’s largely white suburbs, Republicans had their winning formula. Barnes lost his bid for re-election to Sonny Perdue, who promised — but couldn’t deliver — a referendum on the ’56 flag. Every statewide partisan office in Georgia is now in Republican hands.

But the worm is turning again. How much, we’ll find out in the next several days. This time, it’s suburbia that is shifting. And Democrats are the reborn beneficiaries.

Stacey Abrams deserves a lion’s share of the credit. In 2018, The Democrat set the table with her near-miss run for governor. She took 54% of the vote in Cobb County and 57% in Gwinnett County.

“If Joe Biden takes 60% of Gwinnett or Cobb, he takes the state. That’s how much things have changed. Gwinnett and Cobb have become the touchstone base for Democrats in Georgia,” Barnes said. “Democrats have found their new coalition, and it’s based in the suburbs and it’s growing.”

A diversifying suburbia has much to do with the changes now afoot. In metro Atlanta, nearly 90% of African Americans now live in the 'burbs. In Gwinnett County, state Sen. Sheikh Rahman, D-Lawrenceville, is airing a TV ad touting the Democratic ticket – in Bengali, the language of his native Bangladesh.

But the current occupant of the White House has also been an essential ingredient. “Things were changing at a snail’s pace, then along came Donald Trump and it was an accelerant,” Barnes said.

The white, college-educated women of metro Atlanta displayed their displeasure with Trump in 2018.

Then came COVID-19. We’ve seen polls that show elderly voters, too, drifting away from Republicans. “Surprise, surprise, when it got down to a choice between Donald Trump or living, they chose to live,” Barnes said.

International upheavals can produce vast cultural shifts at home. World War II and its aftermath gave us both suburbia and the civil rights movement. As an event, this pandemic may be in the same class.

“People are much more concerned with whether their businesses are going to survive, or their jobs are going to survive,” Barnes said. In such circumstances, the need to preserve the stories white people once told each other to feel better about a slaveholding past simply vanishes as a priority.

Allow me to cite two examples.

The move attracted little attention, but back in July, the private company that operates Stone Mountain Park served notice to the state that it would be abandoning the granite rock and its sculpted ode to two Confederate generals and the rebellion’s only president.

Silver Dollar City Stone Mountain Park LLC has operated the park — with its hotels, golf course, and amusement attractions since 1998.

COVID-19 was a secondary reason. The primary one is the fact that the Confederacy is no longer commercially viable.

“Our guests and team members have recently shared that Stone Mountain Park feels increasingly less family-friendly, welcoming, and enjoyable, as the park is frequently the site of protests and division,” corporate officials said in a statement.

The company will end its tenure at Stone Mountain in July 2022, by which time the state will need to have another operator ready to take over. Procrastination could force Gov. Brian Kemp to confront the park’s long-submerged racial issues in the midst of a re-election bid.

Republicans understand which way the wind is blowing. In the fall of 2018, while campaigning for governor, Kemp was at a fish house in the small community of Rhine, Ga. A Confederate battle flag was a prominent part of the background — and elicited no commentary.

Flash forward two years. Last week, Biden paid a visit to Warm Springs, Ga., which once served as a retreat for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Republicans set up a nearby counter-event boosting Trump, headlined by Governor Kemp and U.S. Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-West Point. (The gathering may have been a COVID-19 contact point. Ferguson was later diagnosed with the virus, and Kemp is in self-quarantine.)

During that counter-rally, a Georgia Public Broadcasting reporter came upon Mark Stephens, who watched from afar on the flatbed of his truck, a Confederate battle flag flying next to him. Stephens had been asked to leave because of the flag. And attendees wearing QAnon gear were asked to keep it out of sight.

What is acceptable during a Republican primary in May doesn’t work in a November general election. Regardless of who wins or loses on Tuesday, that is an important change in Georgia’s political scene, one that will require some adjustment within the Georgia GOP if it hopes to maintain its dominance.

But things could be worse.

“I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve gotten from Republican legislators,” Governor Barnes offered. “They’d say, ‘God, I’m glad you did away with that flag. Can you imagine what would be happening now?’”

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