ATLANTA - A crisp breeze flutters through hundreds of flags, spring sunlight illuminating the banners held aloft by demonstrators marching up Capitol Avenue as a uniformed Confederate color guard leads the way.
The banners, instantly recognizable with their large Confederate battle emblems, are the old state flag — Georgia’s “real flag,” according to the marchers, who came to Atlanta from all over the state to denounce Gov. Sonny Perdue as a turncoat and a scalawag.
“Sonny lied!” protest leaders chant during this march to the state Capitol on April 1, and more than 400 voices shout in reply: “Let us vote!”
What “Sonny lied” about, says protest organizer Dan Coleman of suburban Cobb County, is the Republican governor’s campaign promise in 2002 to support a referendum on restoring the state flag to the Confederate design used from 1956 to 2001.
Nearly 140 years after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces captured Atlanta, the memory of the Confederate States of America remains dear to the hearts of millions of Southerners whose ancestors fought beneath the battle flag, with its starry blue St. Andrew’s cross on a blood-red field.
The question of how the Civil War should be remembered has proven to be a contemporary political and culturalbombshell — not only in Georgia but in South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia and other Southern states. In Arkansas, where the state flag features a 1912 diamond design that loosely resembles the St. Andrews cross, critics have grumbled about the prominent star commemorating the Confederacy.
Opponents of Confederate symbols say they represent slavery and racism. Some — including Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks — compare the Confederate battle flag to the Nazi swastika.
“The main tenet of what the Confederacy stood for was the maintaining of slavery,” says Mr. Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat who led the effort to remove the Confederate symbol from the Georgia flag. “The Confederate battle flag was the symbol of defiance of this nation becoming one nation under God.”
A ‘media canard’
The battle over Confederate heritage can boost or blight the careers of politicians. Just ask Roy Barnes, Georgia’s former governor, a Democrat once spoken of as a potential vice presidential candidate who could help his party compete in the South, a region that increasingly has tilted toward Republicans.
In 2001, Mr. Barnes pushed through Georgia’s General Assembly a new state flag design that dramatically shrank the Confederate symbol. Mr. Barnes agreed the flag issue was a key to his failure to win re-election in 2002, which made Mr. Perdue the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
“The flag did have something to do with it,” Mr. Barnes told reporters after his defeat. “I think it brought out a white, rural vote.”
Groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) helped upend Mr. Barnes’ re-election effort. And they will continue to use the voting booth to fight a bias against Confederate symbols that amounts to “modern-day McCarthyism,” says Allen Sullivant, chief of SCV’s heritage defense.
“I think the whole assault on Confederate heritage is basically a media canard,” Mr. Sullivant says. “Particularly for the last 10 or 15 years, you can’t see the phrase ‘Confederate battle flag’ in print without the qualifier, ‘a symbol that some find offensive.’ … People have had it drilled in their head that this is something that should offend them.”
In addition to flags, memorials to the Confederacy have become flash points for debate, as has the wearing of Confederate-themed clothing, which is banned in many schools throughout the South.