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Georgia's New Flag Is Not Likely to End Flap

Third banner in two years removes divisive Confederate emblem. Some people are angry.

May 10, 2003|Rennie Sloan | Times Staff Writer

CUMMING, Ga. — It took months of political wrangling to produce Georgia's spanking-new state flag -- its third in two years -- but those efforts left George Mounger unimpressed.

"It quite honestly doesn't amount to a hill of beans," said Mounger, who lives in suburban Atlanta and was stopping at a Wendy's restaurant in Cumming.

Mounger was not alone. Many Georgians were greeting their new state flag with a battle-weary sigh, rather than a salute.

The new flag, minus the Confederate battle emblem, was hoisted during a ceremony on Thursday, ending a tug of war that came to be one of the dominant issues in the just-ended legislative session. The three-striped flag is based on the national flag of the Confederacy, but it does not contain the St. Andrew's cross, which was flown as a battle flag by the Confederate army.

The compromise banner -- a result of last-minute maneuvering in the General Assembly -- will fly at least until March, when voters are to render judgment on the design at the ballot box. The new banner pleased many black activists and business leaders who viewed the discarded Confederate symbol as an emblem of racial hatred. But the new flag angered many Southern heritage buffs who saw the rebel emblem as a sign of their traditions.

Interviews with residents around the Atlanta area found that many people were glad the racially divisive debate was finally over. Others still had no idea what the new flag looked like, nor did they care.

"I think the state of Georgia has a lot better things to worry about than a flag," said Terry Hitt of Cumming, which is about 35 miles northeast of Atlanta.

Only two years ago, the state approved a flag that rendered the Confederate emblem so small it was barely visible. The previous flag, which had flown since 1956, was dominated by the rebel emblem. It was adopted by an all-white Legislature as the South was resisting school integration.

"I'm happy that they are not going back to the old-fashioned emblem," said Norm Hypes of Cumming. "It was done out of spite and during a time of controversy."

To many residents, the flag issue symbolizes a divide in thinking between mostly white, rural Georgia, where the defunct state flag bearing the Confederate emblem still flies on many homes, and other more urban areas, where African Americans make up an important bloc.

"The flag is a symbol of backwoods, backwater, beer-drinking Bubbas," said Bisi Coker, who was sitting in a coffee shop in Decatur, next to Atlanta. Coker said that although the state has become more racially diverse over the last 20 years, some "good ol' boys" remain in the political landscape.

In Forsyth County in northern Georgia -- a region that was almost all-white until the late 1980s -- it is not hard to find people passionate about the Confederate emblem.

"I have a giant, wall-sized Confederate flag at home," said Lori Carpenter of Cumming, as she hopped into a pickup truck that bore a rebel flag sticker.

The newest flag design came after months of acrimonious debate, spurred by a proposal by the state's Republican governor, Sonny Perdue, to put the matter to the voters. Perdue's successful bid in November to unseat Democrat Roy Barnes was helped by anger among many whites about the way Barnes shrank the size of the emblem without a public airing of the issue.

Perdue suggested a vote that would have included the 1956 flag as a choice, but business leaders balked and black groups threatened boycotts. Lawmakers decided to design a new flag, instead.

Then lawmakers discovered that the compromise flag they were about to approve was a foot too long. That mistake was fixed by the time the new flag gained approval in a close vote on the last night of the legislative session.

Under the measure Perdue signed on Thursday, the new flag will fly over schools and government offices until March, when voters will choose between it and the one adopted by Barnes in 2001. The 1956 flag with the rebel battle emblem will not be on the ballot.

"The flag the General Assembly adopts honors Georgia's past," said Perdue, eager to have the matter go away. "It is also a flag that will allow us to move forward together."

The new flag may have ended the debate in the halls of state government for now, but the controversy is unlikely to die. The same supporters of the Confederate symbol who helped oust Barnes over his flag makeover are expressing anger over what they view as a fresh betrayal, since their banner won't be on the ballot.

Southern heritage groups are vowing retribution at the polls, where they hope to topple lawmakers who supported the new flag.

David Cain, who lives in rural Hall County in northern Georgia, said he voted against Barnes because of the flag issue and will vote against Perdue in any reelection bid because he did not put all the flag alternatives before voters. "It's the reason Barnes was voted out, and it's the reason Perdue will be voted out," Cain said.

But a lingering flag flap leaves many other Georgians less than riveted.

"Honestly, I have no clue what's going on about the flag," said Some Richardson, a health-care worker in Decatur. "I'm just trying to keep things under control financially and focus on my life and my job."

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