Originally created 02/29/04

Advocates of '56 flag urge vote boycott



Woody Highsmith's life has become entwined with the Georgia state flag. For him, it's an issue of heritage and one of business, with the recent opening of his Martinez store, Flag City.

"The reason I went into this business is you can't buy a Confederate flag at Wal-Mart, Kmart or Target," he said.

Mr. Highsmith won't sell a 2001 version of the Georgia state flag, but he will offer a 1956 version - a banner he continues to fight for even as a Tuesday referendum on the Georgia flag, which won't include the '56 version as a choice, approaches.

"We're pushing for a fair vote," said Mr. Highsmith, who also is a member of the Brig. Gen. E. Porter Alexander Camp, Sons of Confederate Veterans, in Augusta.

Mr. Highsmith, his organization and the Georgia Heritage Coalition are calling for people not to vote Tuesday to protest the absence of the 1956 version, with its Confederate battle flag, from the ballot.

The referendum will include two choices: a blue 2001 version proposed by then-Gov. Roy Barnes and the 2003 version, which has Confederate ties.

Mr. Highsmith said the new referendum will mean nothing to him and that he's supporting another push to give voters a say on the '56 version. That push is in the form of a bill that would offer another referendum this summer to include the '56 flag and the two other choices.

"A new bill would null and void this referendum," Mr. Highsmith said.

State Sen. Joey Brush, R-Appling, said he would vote in favor of that bill, but he said its chances of being introduced in the Senate are extremely slim.

"I told them I'd vote for it," he said. "But there's no way - a snowball's chance in July - they'll let another vote on the floor of the House of Representatives for a flag referendum. I doubt it will make it out of the Senate because I don't think our leadership is interested when there's no chance of it being voted on in the House."

Mr. Brush said many of his conservative constituents simply want to move past the flag issue and seem to support the current version.

"They didn't like their flag being changed," he said. "They thought they ought to have a vote in it, but they think this flag is probably the best compromise they're going to get. I think a lot of people even in my district are just ready for it to be over."

State Rep. Quincy Murphy said he hopes Tuesday's referendum will finally end disputes.

"People are glad that the discussion about the flag is behind them," said Mr. Murphy, D-Augusta. "They're ready to move on."

He said he would support either flag in Tuesday's referendum.

"I could have lived with the one before, so it doesn't really bother me," he said. "Just as long as we don't return to the 1956 deal."

But some Georgians say Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue reneged on a promise to give people a chance to vote on the 1956 version. Mr. Highsmith said he believes Mr. Perdue was elected over Mr. Barnes, a Democrat, because of that promise.

"He and the Republican floor leaders should have been more forceful," Mr. Highsmith said. "Basically, the same thing Barnes did with his blue flag, it was almost identical."

Mr. Murphy; Rep. Henry Howard, D-Augusta; and Sen. Randy Hall, R-Augusta, voted for a referendum without the '56 version as an option.

Mr. Brush; Sen. Don Cheeks, R-Augusta; Rep. Ben Harbin, R-Evans; Rep. Sue Burmeister, R-Augusta; and Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, voted against the upcoming referendum.

Mr. Brush said he believes that if the '56 flag was on the ballot as a choice it would lose to the 2003 flag, which he said he would vote for in Tuesday's referendum. Although that flag is based on the first national flag of the Confederacy, it is a less recognizable symbol of that era than the battle flag.

"I think the current flag will win," he said.

The 2001 flag change came after organizations including the NAACP threatened boycotts. But Mr. Highsmith said he doesn't think boycotts would hurt the state if the '56 flag were to return.

Mr. Highsmith said he thinks people wrongly interpret the '56 flag, saying it was instituted to honor the state's Confederate dead and not to protest a decision to integrate schools.

"I look at it as a living memorial taken away," he said.

Mr. Brush said he thinks the issue will persist as long as there's no choice that includes the '56 version.

"I don't think they'll ever let it die unless there's a vote that it loses," he said.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 828-3904 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.