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Battle over a symbol

Marvin Griffin could play the fool, but he could also play politics.

"There will be no mixing of the races in Georgia anywhere, anytime as long as I'm governor," he proclaimed to legislators in 1956. "All attempts to mix the races, whether they're in the classrooms, on the playgrounds, in public conveyances or in any other area of close public contact... peril the mores of the South."

Into this world was born a new Georgia flag.

And what a world it was.

Two months before the all-white Legislature convened, Griffin threatened to keep Georgia Tech home from the Sugar Bowl. He couldn't have them playing the University of Pittsburgh and its black fullback.

"The South stands at Armageddon," Griffin said. "The battle is joined. One break in the dike and the relentless seas will rush in and destroy us."

The Yellow Jackets played. So did Pitt's Bob Grier. And Armageddon didn't come.

But it was close.

In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court called for an end to segregated schools. In 1955, a Baptist preacher nobody knew led a boycott of city buses in Montgomery. All over the South, blacks pushed officials to let them play on public golf courses or swim in public pools.

Politicians felt the clock was ticking in the fourth quarter, and they didn't know what play to call.

So they made themselves a flag.

People today cling to that 1956 flag as if Robert E. Lee himself stitched it. It stirs souls like a chorus of "Dixie."

It scared a governor who wanted to take it down, defeated a governor who did and elected a governor who didn't restore it.

Its story is worth remembering.

A new flag

Few headlines were written.

Senators voted 41-3. The House voted 107-32. Sixty-six members sat it out.

Georgia had a new state flag, replacing an 1878 banner created by a senator who fought in the Civil War.

Denmark Groover of Macon was a member of the House in 1956. He said the flag was introduced in advance of the Civil War centennial in 1960 and that its design came from John Sammons Bell, chairman of the state Democratic Party.

"Of course I can't say that there were absolutely no feelings against what was going on at the time, that Brown v. the Board of Education didn't influence John Bell's decision to do what he did. I never discussed it with him," Groover related in a biography of former Gov. Zell Miller.

He also remembered people feeling they were being trampled on, and being reverent to the generation that came out of the War Between the States.

"What was going on in the 1950s seemed to be an attempt at a destruction of those in the 1860s," Groover said, "and an assumption that the War Between the States was fought wholly and entirely in order to preserve slavery -- which was not true."

The memory of Rep. James Mackay of DeKalb County was harsher.

"It was like the gun rack in the back of a pickup truck," Mackay said. "It telegraphed a message."

Zell's stand

In 1993, at his peak of power, Zell Miller set out to eliminate a flag that had come to stand for slavery and defiance.

Georgia's business establishment cheered. The Super Bowl was coming in 1994 and the Olympics in 1996. They did not want that flag flying.

It was too much like the Confederate flag, long ago usurped by the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and other white supremacy groups. The old banner sent contemporary messages.

Miller couldn't predict the reaction. Good ole boys didn't want anybody tampering with their Rebel heritage or their history.

Forget?

They couldn't.

Or wouldn't.

Miller wanted a flag for a new generation of Georgians.

"Of all the arguments that have been made for keeping this flag, the most infuriating to me is the contention that if we don't we will somehow forget the sacrifices made by those who fought for the Confederacy," he told the legislature. "We will not forget. We cannot forget. Our graveyards, our literature and many of our own family histories will forever keep alive the memory of those who died for the Confederacy -- and the memory of those whose freedom from slavery depended on the Confederacy's defeat."

He recalled 1956.

"They were prepared to eliminate our public schools and even prohibit our college football teams from competing in bowl games -- in order to maintain segregated schools, segregated public transportation, segregated drinking fountains and segregated recreational facilities. We have long since repudiated every element of those shameful 1956 days of defiance -- except the flag they created."

Miller asked legislators to help him "give bigotry no sanction, and persecution no assistance."

The No. 1 issue

Zell Miller was eloquent. Pete Robinson was scared.

The senator from Columbus sponsored Miller's bill to change the flag in 1994. He and Wayne Garner of Carrolton caught the brunt of the outcry. Receiving threats on their families, they asked the State Patrol to escort their children to school.

People said Robinson didn't understand how much that banner meant to Georgia. Only he did. His great-uncle served in the Senate of 1956 that changed it. His great-great-grandfather served in the House of 1878 that created the original flag.

"So don't tell me I don't understand," Robinson said.

His pleas attracted 12 votes.

Groover addressed the House. As the only member who was there in 1956, he had something to say.

"I went to the Legislature when segregation was the No. 1 political issue in this state," he said. "I was born and raised in a country town in South Georgia and anybody, any white, in my generation who told you he didn't have prejudice was a liar. However, one of the benefits of my being here and living through those changing times is not political advance but the opportunity to move away from some of that prejudice. I didn't like Martin Luther King Jr. He made people like myself look at ourselves and to some extent we didn't like what we saw."

And the flag still flew.

Cheap placemat

Roy Barnes' flag was ugly.

But its demise didn't come because it looked like a cheap placemat.

Barnes, a former member of the House and Senate, succeeded Miller. He kept his ideas about the flag under wraps. Only key legislators were privy to the plan. Others found out what was up in 2001, when Rep. Calvin Smyre of Columbus, chairman of the Rules Committee, added the flag bill to that day's calendar.

Businessman Cecil Alexander designed Barnes' flag. Its blue background included small replicas of flags that had flown over the state. In the Legislature, the words "In God We Trust" were added.

No one noticed at the time, but Sen. Sonny Perdue of tiny Bonaire voted against Barnes' design, just as he had Miller's.

"Boot Barnes" became the battle cry of flag lovers, commonly referred to as flaggers. They set out to make Barnes a one-term governor. They wanted him run out and the old flag run up.

The 2002 election was between Barnes and Perdue, a onetime walk-on quarterback at the University of Georgia. In that campaign, flaggers hounded Barnes at every stop. Perdue, promising a vote on the '56 flag, was their boy.

Barnes went down with his flag.

Choice of two flags

Flaggers had a new slogan: "Sonny Lied."

At Perdue's victory celebration, the '56 flag was waving. Asked about the flaggers' presence, the governor-elect denied he had invited them.

Gov. Perdue gave Georgians a chance to vote. But nowhere on the ballot was there a chance to vote for that beloved 1956 flag.

The choice: "Roy's flag" or "Sonny's flag."

For the third time in29 months, Georgia flew a new flag: "Sonny's flag."

Flaggers called his maneuvering "devious, dishonest manipulation of a political issue." He became their target.

Barnes was honored with the 2003 Profile in Courage Award, given by Ted and Caroline Kennedy. In his acceptance, he invoked the names of Robert E. Lee, Martin Luther King Jr., Stonewall Jackson, John Lewis, John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

He also shared a story about his wife, Marie, and her red convertible, the one with a fading "Barnes for Governor" sticker.

She was at a traffic light when a pickup truck stopped beside her. The driver glanced at her bumper sticker and said: "I'm sorry you were for Barnes. You know he's a traitor to his race."

Barnes acknowledged that "race is just below the surface of our society and on what it means to be from the South."

"The discussion is whether the Confederate Battle Flag, the St. Andrews Cross, is the only acceptable symbol to honor an era when our ancestors fought with valor... even though they fought for a cause that was wrong."

Is our heritage sweet tea, Southern Lit or an angry flag?

COLUMN BY RICHARD HYATT

My mother cooked with fatback and my granddaddy was a sharecropper. I'm as Southern as Jefferson Davis, but I just don't get this flag thing.

I'm in the minority. I realize that. But the South I want to preserve covers hundreds of years, not just four.

It's about heritage, people say. Whose heritage? My heritage is many things. Books by Southern authors. Music by Southern musicians. Food cooked in Southern kitchens.

I like the slow way we talk. I like the way we tell a story. I like a child that calls you Daddy and says "yes, ma'am." I like a choir singing old spirituals. I like good friends and good times, in a lazy backyard with a lilting breeze, a pinch of humidity and a big glass of tea -- sweet, of course.

I don't need a flag that whatever it started out to be sends my neighbors a message of hatred.

The opposite point of view is presented by Dixie Outfitters, a retail store that sells the latest in Confederate fashion. Its Web site, www.dixieoutfitters.com, states its mission:

"We believe various groups have distorted the real meaning of the Confederate Flag for their own purposes. We strive to feature the Confederate Flag in the context of history, heritage, and pride in the Southern way of life.

"The Confederate Battle Flag represents all Southern, and even Northern, Confederates regardless of race or religion and is the symbol of less government, less taxes, and the right of the people to govern themselves. It is flown in memory and honor of our Confederate ancestors and veterans who willingly shed their blood for Southern independence."

Easy for founder Dewey Barber to say when he's making a good living off T-shirts, bumper stickers and decals that feature that beloved banner.

"This flag has never meant slavery and it's never meant hate," Barber told a Florida newspaper. "The only time it's been used in a hateful way is by the Ku Klux Klan and those Nazi groups that have hijacked the flag for their own purposes."

In 1956, the flag was partially usurped by the Georgia Legislature. The St. Andrews Cross was the focal point of a new state flag that some folks still revere. It came down in 2001, a dark day in the hearts of some Georgians.

The 2007 Georgia Legislature spent time discussing the merits of whether the state should apologize for slavery. A senator from Chickamauga, site of a famous Civil War battle, threw out the idea of adding a Southern heritage month to our calendar.

Add Steve Spurrier to the debate. The South Carolina football coach says he's embarrassed by the waving of a Confederate flag during ESPN's game day visit to Columbia.

"That damn flag needs to come down," he said.

If he's talking about state flag poles, I'm with him. The old Confederate flag should be in our museums, along with old rifles and old uniforms.

As for the 1956 Georgia flag, it was turned out by politicians who were angry and juvenile. They couldn't spit in the eyes of federal judges, but they could put a flag up the pole.

Let's not make that mistake again.

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