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Georgia Governor Wants to Lower Confederate Flag : South: Under pressure from civil rights groups, he will push for removal of battle cross from state banner.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

More than a century after the end of the Civil War, the governor of Georgia thinks it is time to lower the Confederate battle flag for good.

Bowing to pressure from civil rights groups and others who called the emblem offensive and an embarrassment to the state, Gov. Zell Miller said Thursday he will introduce a measure when the Legislature convenes in January to change the Georgia flag, which currently incorporates the striking red and blue design of the Confederacy.

“It’s just time to make a change,” Miller said. “I think it is the final step that Georgia must take to really become a member of the New South.”

Besides Georgia, three other states fly Confederate flags over their capitols in some form--Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations have fought unsuccessfully since 1987 to have them removed. Their efforts have been staunchly opposed by many whites who see the flag as a symbol of ethnic and regional pride.

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But Miller said Thursday that the current Georgia state flag, which was adopted in 1956 to protest integration, stood only for a shameful, divisive past.

“The Georgia flag is a last remaining vestige of days that are not only gone but also days that we have no right to be proud of,” he said. “We need to lay the days of segregation to rest, to let bygones be bygones and rest our souls. We need to do what is right.”

The battle over the flag is part of an agonizing larger process of change that has been going on throughout the South as the region struggles in the post-civil rights era to redefine itself, to recast its symbols and mythology to encompass the history of both whites and blacks.

While whites might see the Confederate flag as representative of Southern honor and a proud heritage, blacks see something else altogether. Miller alluded to that Thursday when he said, “What we fly today is not an enduring symbol of our heritage, but the fighting flag of those who wanted to preserve a segregated South in the face of the civil rights movement.”

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The first-term Democrat previously had steadfastly refused to take a stand on the issue. He made it clear that a primary reason for his change of heart is the state’s reputation. Atlanta will be the site of both the 1994 Super Bowl and the 1996 Olympics.

“I want the world to see Georgia as a vibrant growing state, a state that is moving ahead,” he said, “and not as a state that is entrenched and holding fast to the symbols of a time when we resisted efforts to right the wrongs of our past.”

Organizations that had been fighting to change the flag hailed Miller’s change of heart, even though the new design he endorsed--the state’s pre-1956 flag--also incorporates Confederate elements.

“The flag is a compromise,” said Douglas Alexander, chairman of Georgians for the Flag--an organization pushing for return to the pre-1956 flag. “It has some Confederacy in it. . . . It has the Confederacy without such a divisive Confederate emblem.”

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The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People had been in favor of readopting the state’s original flag--the Georgia seal on a blue field. Miller endorsed a later design in which the seal and blue field cover the left third of the flag and the remainder is occupied by two horizontal red bands enclosing a band of white.

That flag was a variation of the little-known official Confederate flag adopted in 1861. The more familiar Confederate emblem bearing the large blue star-studded “X” on a red field was used in battle to better distinguish the Confederate flag from the Union banner.

“You cannot take the Confederacy away from Georgia,” said Frank L. Redding Jr., a Democratic representative who has introduced legislation during the past six sessions to change the flag. “History is important. We should learn from our history.

“I think the Confederate battle cross has a place, but that place is in the museum so children can learn about the history of the state.”

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He praised the governor’s proposal and predicted it will pass.

Miller indicated that he is flexible on which old design is chosen. “I don’t have any great deal of problem about what we go back to,” he said. “I just think we should not have this flag.”

The governor’s position is sure to be unpopular with many for whom the symbols of the Confederacy remain sacred icons. Throughout the Deep South, these symbols are as common as the kudzu vines that cover the hillsides. The flags adorn caps and clothing and are waved in great number at Ol’ Miss football games. The song “Dixie” is still a favorite of high school marching bands and “Rebels” remains a popular athletic team name.

The Sons of the Confederate Veterans, a 15,000-member organization made up of descendants of Rebel soldiers, is among those opposed to changing the flag.

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“Georgia is not a part of the United States today from its own free will,” said Charles Lunsford, a spokesman for the group. “We were defeated and destroyed and made to pay penance for 100 years. It’s certainly appropriate for us, as a subjugated region, to fly the flag of our once independent nation.”

Claiming that most black people don’t care what the flag looks like, he accused the NAACP of initiating the campaign against the flag to increase its membership. “For 100 years nobody attacked our symbols or our songs,” Lunsford said.

But blacks who have fought against government endorsement of Confederate symbols since the 1960s said that to them, the flag symbolized slavery, racism and oppression.

“We are offended by the flag and we abhor having to be forced to pay any kind of salutation to it,” said Earl Shinhoster, southeast regional director of the NAACP.

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In Atlanta, the self-proclaimed capital of the progressive New South and a largely black city, the Confederate battle emblem today flies over the state capitol. It hangs--on almost every block, it seems--in front of downtown hotels and from government and school buildings. For blacks from out of state unaccustomed to the flag, it is a startling sight.

“Black people never not see it and people never become comfortable with it,” Shinhoster said. “It’s an ongoing symbol of the Confederacy, which is a symbol of oppression. It is a divisive symbol and it is a symbol that is not representative of all the people of the state.”

For Melissa Metcalfe, state director of Common Cause, one of 90 organizations that form the Civil Rights Network, the symbol has new meaning in light of the rioting that erupted in Atlanta and other cities after the verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case.

Violence related to the verdicts “stresses the fact that people feel disenfranchised,” she said. “Here we have these students in Atlanta saying the justice system doesn’t work for them. And when they go to court (to face charges from the disturbance), in front of that courtroom is going to be the Georgia flag with the Confederate battle flag on it. That is a strong statement that justice has nothing to do with them in Georgia courts.”

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But while black people may strongly oppose the flag, whites feel at least as strongly in favor of it. An informal telephone survey published by the Atlanta Journal and Constitution in April received more than 43,000 calls. About 75% of the respondents wanted the flag left alone. A scientific poll conducted by the same paper in December found that 75% of white Southerners saw the flag as a symbol of Southern pride while more than 50% of black Southerners viewed it as a racist symbol.

Many whites oppose eliminating Confederate symbols, said University of North Carolina sociologist John Shelton Reed, because “they feel they’re being asked to spit on the graves of their ancestors, and that’s something you shouldn’t ask anybody to do.”

He said the issue is not whether the symbols should be outlawed, but whether they should be displayed by government bodies.

Charles Reagan Wilson of the University of Mississippi’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture agreed: "(The flag) has historical significance, but turning it into a public symbol suggests something more. Symbols have to be things that unite the community. . . .

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“In the last 30 years, we’ve been involved in the process of redefining what the Southern community is,” said Wilson. “In the old days blacks were not consulted on symbols as well as on anything else. Whites made the decisions.”

In the post-civil rights era, “the region is having to deal with the fact that the Southern culture now includes blacks and whites. We’re trying to redefine symbols and come up with new ones. The flag issue is very central, I think.”

The flag debate is such an emotional issue in Georgia that politicians have been reluctant to take a stand. Even Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s black mayor, has skirted the issue.

“Most elected officials, even black ones, will tell you that they have other fish to fry,” said Shinhoster, who attributed the reluctance to get involved to fear of the political consequences.

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In what was seen as a courageous move, state Atty. Gen. Michael J. Bowers, in a letter published in the Constitution on May 15, came out in favor of changing the flag. First confirming his Confederate ancestry, Bowers took note of the Rodney King case and consequent rioting and called on his fellow whites to “reach out and show our love for our black neighbors. . . . “

“The need is obvious and has nothing to do with image concerns associated with the upcoming Olympics,” he said. “It’s just a question of right and wrong.”

As recently as two weeks ago, Miller had dismissed their efforts, saying: “There are more important issues than how our flag looks.” But in his press conference Thursday, he said that while issues such as teen-age pregnancy, infant mortality rates and school dropouts are more important, he wanted to put an end to the divisive flag issue “and get it behind us.”

While many who argue in favor of keeping the flag as it is do so on historical grounds, the fact is that the flag was not adopted until 1956, in the wake of the historic Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education school desegregation case.

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Reed, the University of North Carolina sociologist, called it an “in-your-face” gesture of defiance by a state government opposed to integration.

Flying the Confederate Flag

Four Southern states display the Confederate battle flag on or along with their state flags. A brief rundown:

Alabama: Flown above Capitol along with state flag since 1961. Proposal to display original Confederate flag instead is stuck in legislative committee. Black state Rep. Thomas Reed was arrested in 1988 for trying to climb flagpole and pull Confederate banner down.

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Georgia: Gov. Zell Miller says he will introduce a bill to change the flag to its pre-1956 form in the January session of the Legislature. The Confederate battle emblem was incorporated onto the state flag in 1956, as a statement against school desegregation. Legislation to bring back pre-1956 design has died every year since 1987.

Mississippi: Incorporated onto state flag when it was created in 1894. Bill to design a new flag died in committee this year.

South Carolina: Flown above Statehouse along with state flag since 1961. Also displayed in House, Senate chambers. Resolution ordering removal is languishing in a House committee.

Source: Associated Press

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