Georgia Flag’s Rebel Emblem Assumes Olympian Proportions : Polls show that most whites vehemently favor keeping the star-studded X. Others fear an embarrassment at ’96 games.


Here in the spiritual capital of the New South, a war is raging over the most enduring symbol of the Confederacy--the rebel battle emblem in the state flag.

With pressure intensifying to remove it, you’d have thought from the yowl that went up from angry good ol’ boys and traditionalists that someone was trying to ban Merle Haggard from the jukebox.

But here the Confederate banner is as sacred as Mom, baseball and pickup trucks. The effort to take it off the flag is being met with massive resistance. Most white Georgians, according to polls, are up in arms over what they see as an assault on their Southern heritage.


Opponents of the flag are emboldened by the strong support of Gov. Zell Miller and are not backing down. They are getting a boost from business leaders, who fear that the flag flap might tarnish the state and have an eventual economic toll. They particularly fear embarrassment during the 1996 Olympics, which will be held in Atlanta.

“How do you bring the world in peace and brotherhood and sisterhood to a state whose flag is the fruit of a poison tree, the poison being the racism that gave birth to it,” said Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, referring to the Olympics. “To bring the world to a state and to see those cross bars flying--they’ll never fly over the Olympics in this city as long as I have anything to do with it. I swear.”

Referring to those who say the flag should be retained as a symbol of Southern heritage, Jackson, who is black, said, “Southern heritage means those who fought to keep my people in slavery--that’s what Southern heritage means to me.”

Three years ago, Jackson had the flag removed from all areas of City Hall except the council chambers, where the council holds sway. The City Council did away with the flag last week.

The Atlanta school superintendent ordered schools to no longer fly the flag. Other government bodies in the Atlanta area are considering removing it.

Yet such efforts are meeting with backlash. A bill was introduced in the Georgia House of Representatives this week, signed by 101 legislators--a majority--that would cut off state funds to any local body that refuses to display the flag.


“I don’t care if the flag is orange with purple polka dots,” fumed Rep. Sonny Dixon, the bill’s principal sponsor. “If it’s the official flag of the state, it should be appropriately displayed.”

Bills to change the flag have not yet come up for a vote. A move is afoot in the Legislature to put the issue up for a statewide referendum.

If nothing else, the uproar over an emblem from a secession effort that failed more than a century ago proves William Faulkner wasn’t far from right in 1936 when he said that in the South “the past isn’t dead. It’s not even past.”

At the state Capitol here, a demonstration over the flag is held, it seems, almost every day.

Today, it will be a rally and march by a group calling itself Descendants of Enslaved Africans. As part of its protest, the group plans to hold a mock trial for the 1956 Georgia Legislature, which adopted the Confederate symbol to thumb its nose at federal court desegregation rulings. The demonstrators also plan to burn a Confederate flag on the Capitol steps.

The group leading the fight to save the flag is the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. They have already held two flag-waving demonstrations downtown and have erected giant “KEEP THE FLAG” billboards around town.


To distinguish themselves from neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members, who also are partial to Confederate banners, this group wears rebel uniforms to their demonstrations.

In addition to the Georgia flag, Mississippi’s state flag also incorporates the Confederate battle emblem. It was added in 1894 by a post-Reconstruction Legislature. Since 1961, South Carolina has flown the Confederate emblem over its state Capitol along with the state flag and U.S. flag and displayed it in its House and Senate chambers. That same year, Alabama began flying the Confederate flag over its Capitol.

After years of protests, which included the arrest in 1988 of a black representative who tried to climb the flagpole and take the flag down, a Montgomery circuit court judge ruled last month that it is a violation of an obscure state law to fly any banner atop the Alabama Capitol other than the national and state flags.

Georgia adopted the current flag during the height of Southern resistance to desegregation. The Legislature that adopted the flag also tried to revoke the charter of any city that allowed public facilities to be desegregated and tried to make it a felony to desegregate schools.

One irony about the current battle in Georgia is that the flag, featuring a blue, star-studded X on a red field, was never officially the Confederate flag. The familiar Confederate emblem was used in battle to better distinguish the Confederate symbol from the Union banner.

The state flag used in Georgia until 1956, and which Gov. Miller and others want to readopt as a compromise gesture, was modeled after the official Confederate banner. It featured a vertical blue bar on the flag staff side with the remainder covered by three horizontal bars of equal width. The middle bar was white and the upper and lower bars red.


Black Georgians are, in essence, supporting--and the Sons of the Confederacy resisting--a return to the true flag of the Confederate states.

A bill to change the flag has languished in the Georgia Legislature for years. For a time, Miller said he would not fight to change it. “There are more important issues than how our flag looks,” he said. But he changed his mind last summer.

In discussions of the issue, speakers feel obliged to state their Southern credentials. The message: It’s a Southern thing; Yankees wouldn’t understand.

In an address to the Legislature last month, Miller reminded legislators of his Southern heritage, of the great-grandfather who fought in the Civil War and was injured, of the great-uncle who was killed at Gettysburg. He devoted a third of his speech to the flag issue, which some observers predict could mean his defeat should he seek reelection.

While acknowledging that he has a chance of losing the battle this year, Miller insists that the tide is turning and the flag will be changed in coming years.

Evolution of a Controversy

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller has sided with people who want the state to abandon the Confederate battle emblem. It is shown below, far right, with some of the previous Georgia flags.


1799: Georgia’s first flag featured the state seal depicting wisdom, justice and moderation. It stood on a blue background representing loyalty.

1905: Based on the flag of the Confederate States of America, this flag blended two earlier versions. Gov. Zell Miller wants to return to this flag.

1956: Some say Legislature adopted Confederate battle flag to protest U.S. desegregation ruling. Others say it was to honor Confederate war veterans.