Originally created 01/19/01

Flag-change proposals spur debates



As the big war over the state flag goes on in Atlanta, plenty of people are working on the home front in the rural counties of southeast Georgia.

Two bills are in the hopper in the General Assembly - one in the House, another in the Senate - to replace the current flag. Those bills would replace the Confederate battle emblem with the pre-1956 flag that had two red and one white horizontal stripes to the right of the state seal.

There is also talk of public hearings on the matter, including a forum that would be sponsored jointly by advocates for changing the flag and the state leadership of Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Carlos Nelson, the only black member of the Ware County Commission, said publicly eight years ago that the flag should be changed.

"I thought it was time to change the flag to show some unity," he said.

But Mr. Nelson said recently that this may be the wrong time for blacks to engage in a long, ugly fight that would detract from more important issues.

Mr. Nelson said he would like to see the matter resolved peacefully, but he added, "It's not going to happen that way. I think there are going to be a lot of hurt feelings."

Blacks have some very troubling problems that must be resolved, he said.

"We have some housecleaning to do ourselves. We've got to work on our teen pregnancy rate, our graduation rate, crime and drugs," he said.

The foremost argument for keeping the current flag is that it is a symbol of heritage for many Georgians.

Mr. Nelson said that he understands that argument but that Georgia needs a flag that people from many heritages can be proud of.

"This state isn't just Georgians anymore. People from all over live and work here," he said.

"Some people aren't using the flag for heritage," he said of the Confederate battle emblem. "That flag was used to scare people, as a symbol of white supremacy."

The most organized opponents to changing the flag remain the members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which has chapters, called camps, throughout Georgia.

Members of the Camden County camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans said they had no plans for protests against the push to change the flag.

But they have asked members to call elected officials in Atlanta and ask them to oppose the move.

"There's no point in changing the flag," said Jim Burnham, a St. Marys chiropractor and club member.

Hugh Jenkins, chaplain for the Camden County camp, said the flag is not the symbol of racism some believe it to be.

"The flag was changed in 1956 in honor of the last living Confederate veteran," Mr. Jenkins said. "We don't hate anyone. We're just proud of our heritage."

He accused those supporting the flag change of spreading "hate with boycotts, threats and blackmail."

"I resent the power they are trying to build by putting people out of work with threats and boycotts," Mr. Jenkins said.

Ronnie Moore, also of the Camden County camp, was critical of corporate opposition to the existing flag.

"The companies jerking the flag around would not give a bum a bologna sandwich unless there was a tax write-off," Mr. Moore said.

Instead of arguing about the flag, Mr. Moore said, people should be working to solve problems between blacks and whites.

"It's being changed for all the wrong reasons," Mr. Moore said. "There are a lot of people who are not ashamed of their Southern heritage, including blacks. It disturbs me about the intensity and outright hatred of Southern heritage."

On the state level, the Sons of Confederate Veterans is raising money and collecting signatures to persuade the Georgia Legislature to keep the flag as it is, said Ben Smith Jr., commander of the Clement A. Evans camp in Waycross.

"I don't think they ought to change it for the wrong reason. If you change it because it offends someone, that's a never-ending process," Mr. Smith said.

He said the Sons of Confederate Veterans is distributing a videotape of former Gov. Ernest Vandiver and others explaining why the Confederate battle emblem was put on the flag in 1956. Assertions that it was placed on the flag in defiance of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to integrate the schools are wrong, Mr. Smith said.

"There was no suggestion of it, in any case," Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith also said he does not believe there is enough public sentiment to change the flag should it be put to a referendum.

"I believe we'd win by 75 percent in this area," Mr. Smith said.

The move to change the flag is happening at the same time many camps of the Sons of Confederate Veterans hold their annual Lee-Jackson banquets, Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith spoke at the Brunswick camp's Lee-Jackson meeting Jan. 11.

In spite of the organized opposition, L.J. Williams, a member of the Camden County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, predicted the state flag will be changed, if not this year, eventually.

"Everyone has an opinion about the Confederate flag and what it stands for," Mr. Williams said. "We cannot look at this flag and say it's representative of all the people.

"The only thing it can remind us of is the struggle we went through."

The state flag, Mr. Williams said, should represent everyone.

At a ceremony honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, Kingsland City Councilman Kenneth Smith urged residents to tell lawmakers to change the state flag.

"We have got to speak up, people," Mr. Smith said. "We've got to pass this legislation (changing the flag)."