Many Georgians thought we had put the flag battle behind us. We are quickly learning, though, that replacing one Confederate flag with a flag that, while less incendiary than the previous flag, is still basically a Confederate flag, and by offering license plates that look like this, we might want to revisit the flag conversation.
We began this week by lauding ourselves when Governor Zell Miller’s 1993 State of the State speech, in which he eloquently called on a stone-silent Legislature to change the flag, went more viral than any 22-year-old C-SPAN video has before. The message was that Georgia has been working on this issue for decades, way before South Carolina and Mississippi decided that there was merit to conversation about eliminating from state grounds a symbol that many feel is grounded in racism and the legacy of Jim Crow.
Among Georgia’s political elite, the public flag discussion began about eight months prior to Miller’s 1993 address. On May 15, 1992, Attorney General Mike Bowers – yes, that Mike Bowers – wrote a succinct letter to the editors of the Atlanta Journal that called for a change to the state flag:
Our state flag glorifies the Confederacy but this is not right. The state flag is highly offensive to many black Georgians, for whom the Confederacy symbolizes slavery. We should change the flag. We should not impose on our neighbors anything so distasteful to them.
The current version of our flag is relatively new. It came into being only in 1956, some say in anticipation of the Civil War centennial. Most likely, defiance toward the Brown desegregation decision of the U.S. Supreme Court played a key role in the flag’s creation…
… Unfortunately, reality has fallen short of the great promise of equal justice. There is no magic or even simple answer to this. At least a part of the answer, however, is in millions of individual efforts by decent Americans of all races, colors and creeds, reaching out in love to let their neighbors know that they are loved and that someone truly cares.
We have an extraordinary opportunity to reach out and show our love for our black neighbors. Change the state flag.
Historical context is key: this letter was written two weeks after the Rodney King verdict and the subsequent riots in Atlanta, and amidst the preparations for the 1996 Olympics. In 1992, Bowers was still a Democrat, but context is key there, as well, since the Democratic party in Georgia was ruled by House Speaker Tom Murphy, who was outspoken in his reticence to make any changes to the flag.
Our back-slapping over how early we came to the flag debate isn’t entirely unwarranted. In Georgia, we’ve had potent politicians like Zell Miller, Roy Barnes, and Mike Bowers talking about why the flag needed to change for decades, and ultimately making that change, and I’ll venture a guess that they were speaking out about the issue long before the conversation was happening among politicians of their caliber in other Southern states. But it appears clear that we still have a ways to go in this discussion.
In 1992, Bowers wrote, “The state flag is an issue worthy of concern because race relations are as strained as they have been for a long time.” In the South, in 2015, those words still ring true, and it will be interesting to see how history shapes the continued conversation.