Roy Barnes: Despite a political storm, Georgia got rid of the backward-looking symbol in 2001
Former governor says we need to go beyond symbols and correct racial inequities
Editor’s Note: Roy Barnes was governor of Georgia from 1999 to 2003. In 2003, the Democrat received the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for his successful effort to take down a Georgia state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Last week, I and many of my fellow Georgians watched our neighboring state of South Carolina wrestle with the issue of flying the Confederate flag on its State House grounds as we remembered our own state’s fight over whether to reverse a 1956 decision to adopt a state flag that prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem.
As governor of Georgia, I successfully pushed for the replacement of that flag during our 2001 legislative session.
Everywhere I appeared in public after the flag change, I was greeted with protesters – almost exclusively older white men – waving Georgia’s 1956 flag and the Confederate battle emblem itself. It did not come as a surprise. My predecessor as governor, Zell Miller, had a political near-death experience running for re-election in 1994 after attempting to persuade our Legislature to replace the 1956 flag in 1993.
Many believe my effort to change the flag led to my defeat for re-election in 2002. That year, the Georgia Republican Party’s candidates, including its gubernatorial nominee, promised that if elected, they would hold a referendum that would allow Georgians to vote to bring back the state flag with the Confederate battle emblem. The tactic worked. Republicans won the governor’s office for the first time since Reconstruction.
The irony was obvious when watching a Republican Party whose first president was Abraham Lincoln rallying around the Confederate battle flag. It was, however, the ultimate example of the party’s successful “Southern Strategy” begun by President Richard Nixon to exploit Southern whites’ discontent with the Democratic Party’s increasing support for civil rights and the growing racial diversity of its membership.
Georgia shows the strategy’s effectiveness. In 1998, when I was elected governor, five other Democrats were elected to statewide office with me (including two African-Americans and a woman) as well as big Democratic majorities in both houses of the Legislature. Now, less than two decades later, Republicans hold every single statewide office here (all white men), and supermajorities in both legislative chambers.
Now it is heartening to see some Southern Republicans shifting to address the issue of Confederate emblems being used by state governments in our region.
As I stated in my speech to legislators in 2001 calling on them to pass the bill taking down the 1956 flag, my great-grandfather was captured at Vicksburg while fighting for the Confederacy, and I am proud that he bravely did his duty to his community as he understood it. As I said, however, in a speech at the John F. Kennedy Library in 2003, while I honor his bravery, I recognize that the cause he fought for – slavery – was wrong. The symbols of that cause have no place on government emblems or grounds, and should be removed.
As important as it is to remove divisive symbols of racism from our public life, I hope our efforts to eliminate signs of our eras of slavery and segregation extends to matters beyond the symbolic.
Our past still haunts us in public schools that are inadequately and inequitably funded. Too many of our children never get the chance to reach their full potential because they are condemned to schools that don’t have the resources to educate them to succeed in modern life. Likewise, many of our best state universities still do not have student bodies that are as diverse as the taxpayers who help pay for them.
In Georgia and across the South, we have higher prison incarceration rates than other parts of the nation, and African-Americans are imprisoned at much higher rates than whites. This historic lack of commitment to ensuring that every child gets the chance to get a quality education, accompanied by sky-high incarceration rates among African-Americans, is as much a sign of our tragic racial history as is the Confederate battle flag, and one that is long overdue in being addressed.
With all of these challenges facing us at the dawn of the new century, Georgia, along with many Southern states (and some others around the nation), has put new restrictions on voting rights in the name of fraud prevention that everyone knows have the actual effect of discouraging political participation by eligible citizens, especially potential black and Latino voters. That is a continuation of a shameful history of denying the franchise to minorities.
The Republican Party in the South created its modern dominance on racial division, building a supermajority of white voters to win elections. Ironically, this strategy now gives it the chance to bring change to our region in a way that would be much more difficult for Democrats such as me.
The Republican Party can speak to its supporters about the need for change in the South, and push forward into areas and topics that my fellow Democrats and I cannot gain the standing to enter.
One example here in Georgia is Republican Gov. Nathan Deal’s push to reform draconian sentencing laws that we have enacted over the last several decades. A Democratic governor would no doubt be attacked as “soft on crime” and be hard-pressed to garner significant GOP support for such an effort. A Republican governor, however, can make the case as an ally to his party’s legislators and supporters about the need for such reform.
Let us hope that the public discussion about the need to address the aftermath of our tragic racial history continues, and that Southern Republican officeholders continue to help lead that discussion. Let’s also hope that the discussion – and action – moves beyond flags and monuments to schools, economic opportunity, justice and the encouragement of the civic participation of all of our citizens, regardless of their ethnicity. Then – and only then – will we really begin to make the past the past, even here in the South.