Originally created 01/12/04

For 1956 Georgia flag supporters, the fight isn't over



ATLANTA -- As lawmakers return to the Capitol for a new term Monday, they'll be greeted by an old sight - protesters waving the Dixie cross of stars and demanding a vote on the Georgia flag.

Thought the flag debate in Georgia was over? Not to supporters of the state's 1956 flag, dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. They're angry that last year's bumpy debate over the state flag led to a public referendum, but it won't include the rebel "X" as an option.

"There is a groundswell out there of, well, I can't call it anything but anger," said Rusty Henderson, political adviser for the Heritage Preservation Association. "People still want a vote on the St. Andrew's cross."

Monday's protest is the latest chapter in a Georgia flag saga that has more twists and turns than the Battle of Peachtree Creek.

To sum up, Georgia's 1956 banner was changed under Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes in 2001. Anger over the hasty flag change helped lead to Barnes' defeat a year later.

Southern heritage activists were hoping the new governor, Republican Sonny Perdue, would propose a statewide vote on the flag. He did, but a long debate in the Legislature ended with a new flag altogether and a referendum set for March 2 where voters will choose between the new flag and the Barnes flag - not the 1956 banner.

The confusing drama has left Southern heritage supporters with plenty of blame to go around. They're mad at Perdue and have printed up thousands of "Sonny Lied" yard signs because the governor agreed to the referendum. (Perdue argues that he promised a vote on the state flag but not a vote on the Dixie cross.)

The heritage activists are passing out a "Deck of Shame" take-off, sets of playing cards featuring state lawmakers considered turncoats for the part they played in the flag debate last year.

It's probably too late for lawmakers to change the March 2 referendum - absentee ballots have to go out Thursday - so the protesters are promising retribution at the polls.

"We will continue our fight for people to have a full, fair vote, and we will eventually get it, even if it means removing some members of the Legislature," said Jeff Davis, chairman of the Georgia Heritage Coalition and descendant of the Confederacy's president.

Tempers are high among lawmakers, too. Many of them remember the rubber snakes they got in the mail after the last flag change, an act denounced by the organized groups that support the 1956 flag. Lawmakers from both parties say they're starting to see the rebel cross gang as bullies.

"They're a legend in their own minds in terms of the political capital they have," said Rep. Glenn Richardson, a Republican who sponsored the flag bill last year and steered it through many changes.

Richardson said a pile of "Sonny Lied" signs were recently left on his doorstep late at night by anonymous tricksters.

"When I catch 'em, I'm going to prosecute 'em," he said with anger in his voice.

The designer of Georgia's newest flag, Democratic Sen. George Hooks of Americus, said he once got bloody rocks in the mail.

"Not even the Almighty can please everybody all the time," he said.

State politicians are hoping that most Georgians aren't that mad over the flag referendum, and that most voters want to move on from an issue that's brought so much negative national attention.

"I like the flag that we changed to last year," Perdue said last week after protesters jeered him in Macon. "I think it represents the best balance between the history and heritage of Georgia versus the future of Georgia. And I think for most Georgians, it will put it behind us."

Black lawmakers pointed out that the cross-less referendum saved Georgia from a possible NAACP boycott and a year of divisive debate.

"I'm not sure the issue's dead, but it has been settled," said Sen. Kasim Reed, D-Atlanta.

The let's-move-on attitude is a popular one in the Capitol.

"Lawmakers are going to leave this one alone and hope it goes away," said Charles Bullock, political scientist at the University of Georgia. "This issue will continue to smoke and smolder, but I think the flame has gone away."

Not a chance, vowed Dan Coleman, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Georgia.

"The choice people clearly want is to vote on the 1956 flag, the one Roy Barnes took away from us," Coleman said. "People still want that vote, and these politicians standing in the way will be held accountable by voters."

On the Net:

Georgia's flag history: http://www.sos.state.ga.us/museum/html/georgia-flag-history.html