Originally created 09/18/00

Flag debate spreads in Deep South



ATLANTA - As with the Civil War itself, the opening salvo in the ongoing fight over the Confederate flag came in South Carolina.

And in the same manner as the war, it probably won't end there.

With the Rebel battle flag flying at a Confederate memorial on the grounds of the South Carolina Capitol instead of atop the Capitol dome - the result of legislation that took effect in July - the debate is spreading to other states in the Deep South.

Efforts are under way to change the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi, which incorporate the Confederate battle emblem. The flag designs of two other states in the region, Florida and Alabama, are derived from the battle flag but have yet to draw similar attention.

The forces for change are primarily civil rights leaders who see the Confederate flag as a symbol of slavery and racial hatred. Defending the status quo are heritage-preservation groups, to whom the Confederate emblem is a living memorial to those who fought and died for the South.

South Carolinians raised the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol dome in 1962 to commemorate the Civil War Centennial. The Georgia General Assembly had adopted the state's current flag, including the battle emblem, six years earlier.

The Georgia flag's opponents argue the timing of the change was no coincidence. It came on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in 1954 outlawing racial segregation in the schools and the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., launched by civil rights activists in late 1955 to protest a policy that forced blacks to sit in the backs of the buses.

"It was an act of defiance by the all-white, all-male General Assembly," said Georgia Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, chairman of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials.

Less certain are the motivations behind the adoption of new state flags in the 1890s in Florida, Alabama and Mississippi.

Regardless of the motivations behind incorporating the Confederate battle emblem into the Georgia and Mississippi flags, lawmakers in both states are pushing to get rid of the banners.

Mr. Brooks is sponsoring a bill to restore the Georgia flag in use prior to 1956. Georgia Rep. Fran Millar, R-Dunwoody, is promising to introduce legislation in January that would go further back into state history, replacing the current flag with a version that flew prior to 1879.But Mississippi Rep. Erik Fleming, D-Jackson, sees nothing wrong with legislators such as Mr. Brooks working to substitute another Civil War era symbol for a state flag containing the Confederate battle emblem.

Mr. Fleming, in fact, plans to introduce a bill in the Mississippi House to replace his state's flag with a predecessor that flew over the state during the Civil War.

But Jerry Baxley, chairman of the Southern Party, which openly advocates the creation of a new Southern nation, said it's wrong to abolish the battle flag.

He said, however, he would be willing to support changing the state flags if voters in those states agree.

Mr. Millar said such a referendum could not be held in Georgia. He cited an attorney general's ruling in 1993 that, absent specific constitutional authority, the General Assembly could not delegate its legislative power to the voters.

Mr. Millar said the pressure will be on his colleagues to act quickly when the 2001 legislative session begins in January.

"We've got water, education, tax relief and (traffic) congestion to deal with," he said. "We need to get on to those issues."

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.