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Confederate flag stirs reactions with area residents
Bobby Lott remarks on the current Confederate battle flag controversy while out and about Gainesville with cousin Clifford Richardson.

Riding his bicycle down a sidewalk along Jesse Jewell Parkway in Gainesville last week, the Confederate battle flag flying from the handlebars and flapping with the momentum of his speed, John Phillip Chandler, a young white man, neared two African-American men waiting for a bus to arrive.

Chandler, 24, smiled and offered a brief, polite greeting as he rode past. The black men simply nodded in reply.

“I’m going to tell you straight up, I didn’t like that,” said Will Banks, 50, when asked about the encounter. “I didn’t like that at all. It did kind of offend me. But I didn’t say anything to him because I didn’t want to be controversial.”

Wearing a cap and necklace fashioned with the rebel flag, that controversial emblem of the Old South Confederacy, Chandler defended himself against accusations of prejudice.

“Us rednecks and country folks that love the rebel flag and support everything that it’s for —  which is how our soldiers died in battle with the flag ... not for killing black people, not for killing Hispanics and not for doing all this stupid stuff — it’s to show our pride for our flag and the love of our heritage and our country,” Chandler said.

The resurgence of a debate about the Confederate battle flag’s place in modern America comes after the murder of nine members at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., last month.

The alleged Charleston killer, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, draped himself in the battle flag in stark pictures posted on the Internet, a scowl on his face and gun in his hand.

Calls to remove the flag from public spaces, such as the Statehouse grounds in South Carolina or at Stone Mountain Park, shortly followed the tragedy and were supported by a wide coalition of groups, from political conservatives to corporations to civil rights organizations to average Janes and Joes.

And it has prompted calls for change here in Georgia, where the flag flies on some public grounds, adorns license plates and where the Confederate Memorial Day is celebrated as a state holiday.

“... We are proceeding to look at maybe a revisiting of the design on the Confederate tag,” Gov. Nathan Deal said last week after a ceremony at Kipper Tool Co. in Gainesville.

The Georgia Department of Revenue has issued a moratorium on the availability of The Sons of Confederate Veterans specialty license plate.

According to spokesman Nick Genesi, 3,513 such tags are registered in the state, with 87 currently in Hall County.

Heritage or hate?

The Confederate battle flag symbol is viewed by many as unequivocally racist and by others as a point of ancestral pride.

And those in the latter camp have sparked a backlash in recent weeks, flying the flag openly to defy what they believe is nothing more than a politically correct stand against a symbol of Southern heritage. 

Across North Georgia, for example, rallies of trucks with the rebel flag attached paraded down streets in a show of force. And Army surplus stores began selling out of Confederate memorabilia.

Chandler said he dug up the flag from his mother’s storage building in response to the renewed debate. 

Views about what the flag represents sometimes fall along several distinct lines: racial, political, regional (including urban versus rural) and generational.

However, opinions about the flag are not just black and white. Some perceptions occupy a space as gray as the Confederate uniforms.

And what the flag means in society and culture today is often estranged from the intent and purpose it served in a bygone era.

Bobby Lott, a 61-year-old African-American and lifelong resident of Gainesville, who can recall the days of racial segregation, said he draws distinctions between the flag and those who fly it proudly.

On a recent afternoon, Lott exited a store in a shopping center off Thompson Bridge Road to see a tire cover on a Jeep Wrangler emblazoned with the Stars and Bars.

“It ain’t the flag that’s doing it,” he said, referring to racism. “It’s you.”

As for those who appropriate the flag for racist purposes, Lott said, “some people you can’t change. You got to take the bitter with the sweet.”

Sheila Nicholas, chairwoman of the Hall County Democratic Party, spent her formative years growing up in Greenville, S.C., and attended Wade Hampton High School, named for a Confederate cavalry leader.

As a young white girl living in the South of the 1960s, Nicholas became accustomed to celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and revering the South’s war heroes.

Her family later moved to Washington, D.C., where Nicholas first attended school with a black student.

She credits the change in her own feelings about the Confederate battle flag to the March on Washington in 1963, when Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

It was a seminal moment in American history, and “very much a defining moment in my life,” Nicholas said. It was also a moment her parents had warned her to avoid.

“Here I was this little Southern girl, and to be in that peaceful demonstration and hear (MLK), it was life-changing,” Nicholas said. “That’s when I really started to change my mind on a lot of the Southern history. You learn to question things. So I’ve come a long way in my perspective. Certainly, things have changed in all these years.”

Debra Pilgrim, chairwoman of the Hall County Republican Party, said she believes the horrific tragedy in Charleston has been politicized, lumping those who cherish Confederate history in with those who would exploit it for racist and violent purposes.

“I think to insert the issue of the flag surrounding this tragedy is very, very wrong,” she said. “This is a part of our history. There are always good and bad people. We’re going to find that in every aspect of life.”

History meets present

“A brief history of the rise, progress and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the federal government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia.”

Those words are pulled directly from Georgia’s declaration of causes for secession in 1861. Whatever arguments are made regarding states’ rights issues, it makes clear slavery was a prevailing reason for Georgia’s flight from the Union.

Of course, historical animosities also divided people of the North and South at the time, and there is no accounting for the individual motivations driving some soldiers to the battlefield.

So the ties that bind Americans today to the legacy of their forebears are deep, complex and sometimes contradictory. 

Nearly 100 years after the end of the Civil War, in 1956, Georgia added the Confederate battle emblem to the official state flag.

When a movement emerged in 2000 to remove the symbol from the Georgia flag, a state Senate Research Office report tied the 1956 change to the Supreme Court’s decision one year earlier in Brown v. Board of Education, which found segregated schools to be unconstitutional.

According to the report, “The argument that the flag was changed in 1956 in preparation for the approaching Civil War centennial appears to be a retrospective or after-the-fact argument.”

The report concludes that the General Assembly at that time was “devoted to maintaining the status quo of segregation in Georgia.”

The United Daughters of the Confederacy, perhaps surprisingly, opposed the 1956 change because they believed the battle flag belonged not just to Georgia, but to all Confederate states and would serve only to promote political strife, according to the report.

Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, led the charge to change the state flag, and in 2001 a new one was adopted.

“It was very controversial,” recalls state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville. “I didn’t agree with (Barnes).”

But that flag didn’t fly for long.

Just two years later, after Barnes was ousted by Sonny Perdue in what many believe was a direct voter response to the flag change, and which heralded the emerging dominance of Republicans in state politics and the end of the Dixiecrat era, the flag was changed once more. 

The latest change, which still stands, closely mirrors the first national flag of the Confederate States of America (the original Stars and Bars), which flew from 1861 to 1863.

Rogers said his ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War, a conflict he refers to as the “War of Northern Aggression.”

“My ancestors fought in that for what they thought was right at the time,” he added.

For 150 years, that fight has continued to define American history. And it has pitted those who revere the battle flag of their fallen ancestors against those who use the symbol to sow hate and division.

From the modern incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which began at Stone Mountain, to neo-Nazis in Europe, the rebel flag has been associated with the ugly consequences of racism.

“Nowadays, the rebel flag gets used in foreign countries by white supremacists and Nazis because the swastika is banned,” said state Sen. Curt Thompson, a white Democrat from Tucker whose multicultural district includes refugees from Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo and other Eastern European countries where ethnic cleansing has taken place. “So it’s like the backup symbol for racism around the world ... and that’s probably not something we want as our image.”

In the late 1980s, a civil rights march in Cumming was met with fierce resistance from whites brandishing the battle flag and screaming racial epithets, an event captured on television for the nation to see.

After the recent Charleston incident, several black churches across the South were burned in arson fires, including one in Macon, prompting fears that calls to bring down the battle flag were the motivation behind them.

The adoption of the battle flag by hate groups is something Ralph West Mills, a retired Hall County educator, farmer and local member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he is fighting against.

He calls groups that appropriate the flag for their hateful and destructive purposes “enemies,” and rejects calls from those on the other side who want to banish Confederate symbols.

“In the midst of the current firestorm raging around the Confederate battle flag, intolerant, hate-filled voices demand the eradication of all things remotely associated with Confederate heritage,” Mills wrote in a letter to The Times. “Quietly seeking, but denied permission to be heard are the voices of reason which offer the love of Christ as the remedy for the angst afflicting American society at large.”

Freedom of expression vs. government endorsement

Javier Ghess, who encountered Chandler on his Confederate-flag-adorned bicycle with Banks last week, said that while he believes the flag is racist, he understands that the First Amendment protects such speech, even if it opens old wounds for African-Americans like him.

“My thing about it is everybody got a right to express themselves,” said Ghess, 25, before offering an olive branch. “At the same time, there is history behind that. I don’t look at him directly and say this guy is racist.”

Many believe the flag belongs in a museum and that it, along with other vestiges from the Old South, amount to a tacit endorsement if they exist on government grounds.  

“It’s not a flag for today,” Nicholas said. “It’s not an American flag.”

Others wonder why Georgia is revisiting a debate thought to be put to rest more than a decade ago.

“I think it’s totally blown out of proportion,” Rogers said. “I keep hearing that it’s a flag of hate. I certainly don’t hate anybody. Obviously, the opposite side says it’s a flag of hate.”

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, said he fully expects to see legislation come before the General Assembly next year addressing the battle flag in some respect or another, while also protecting free expression. 

Whether it comes in the form of a simple resolution, or something more substantial such as discontinuing Confederate license plates, ending the celebration of Confederate Memorial Day or removing the battle flag from Stone Mountain, remains to be seen.

“There will be some time and energy and resources spent reviewing symbolism on a sanctioned state level,” Miller said. “We don’t want Georgia to have the black eye that other states are currently experiencing. I think good judgment was used in the past regarding our flag, and I think good judgment and caution will be used in the future regarding symbolism that the state of Georgia endorses.”

Thompson said he believes legislation might go even further, such as removing statues and portraits of Confederate leaders from public places.

“I think there needs to be a look at all of these things,” he added. “I do think that some of these things should probably come down, and I think there would be definite support in the Democratic caucus for that.”

Deal said he also expects lawmakers to look at statutes that protect Confederate symbols and monuments next year, but warned against overreach.

“I’m not closing the door on anything,” he added. “I think, though, we have to be cautious that we don’t get caught up in a sweep of emotion here and fail to recognize the heritage that is really associated with these symbols and these holidays. We cannot deny our heritage and, in fact, the purpose for many of these is to celebrate that heritage.”

And Deal said he has no appetite to redesign the state flag again.

“I like the current flag,” he said. “I think it embraces all that everybody intended for it to embrace, and I don’t think we need to read any more into it.”

Looking beyond symbolism

Local civil rights activist Rose Johnson, executive director of the Newtown Florist Club and a longtime leader in Gainesville’s African-American community, said the debate over the Confederate battle flag and what it represents has gone on far too long. But her lament stretches beyond the emblem’s meaning, deeper than current debate allows.  

“It is my thought that we have these watershed moments in history where we have a chance to make profound change for the betterment of humanity,” she said. “And this is one of those moments. Hopefully, we can participate in this moment by just simply bringing the flag down as a first start. But for me, it is not the main focus of where our centralized attention should be.”

Johnson said she wants to see a thoughtful, systematic approach to address violence and racism, particularly among today’s youth.

“We spend so much time focusing on the flag and taking it down or leaving it up, and these kids, they need our help,” she added. “For me, enough is enough of it.”

Fighting radical, hate-fueled ideology, and giving young people equal educational and work opportunities, is much more important to Johnson than whether the battle flag continues to fly.

“It’s hard for me to swing over to a full concentration of taking down the Confederate flag,” she said. “I can’t do it. Don’t want to do it. We can continue to go around in circles on this whole debate, or we can begin to do a new thing. That is my hope. It is my hope and my prayer.”