Chatham lawmakers girding for flag fight
Emotional debate over Georgia's Confederate emblem pits images of slavery and
hate against heritage and home
By Doug Gross
Savannah Morning News
When state Rep. Ron Stephens sees the Georgia flag, he thinks of grits and
turnip greens and growing up poor but proud in the Deep South.
His colleague Dorothy Pelote pictures an exclusive group of white men making
a symbolic power grab to keep blacks down in the early days of the civil
The two Chatham County lawmakers offer a glimpse of the wide range of
emotions expected to play out next month, when the Georgia General Assembly
takes up the debate on whether to remove the Confederate battle emblem from
the Georgia flag.
Black Democratic leaders have pushed the issue for most of the past two
decades, with little success.
But last year's Confederate flag fight in South Carolina has bumped the issue
back into the spotlight. Now, some new politicians and business leaders are
becoming vocal, hoping to avoid the boycotts and national headlines that came
with Carolina's battle.
It promises to be an emotional fight.
"It's probably going to be the hottest issue this year," said Stephens, a
Garden City Republican. "It's coming up in just a few weeks and bet your
bottom dollar there's going to be absolutely no way to sidestep it."
Chatham County will send a delegation into the fray that is as divided as the
The county's two state senators and six representatives are divided evenly,
with four leaning toward voting to change the flag and four leaning against.
That divide falls along party lines. All Democrats are leaning toward the
Georgia flag flown before legislators added the Confederate battle flag in
1956. All Republicans are leaning against the change.
Across the state, some rural Democrats may be reluctant to change a flag
popular among their constituents. Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes has said he has
no plans to push the issue.
Still, the debate could get ugly, pitting those who believe the flag is
racist against those who view it as a symbol of heritage, their own and their
"I still stand up every time 'Dixie' is played," said Stephens, a Toombs
County native. "It's just a reflex.
"It's got nothing to do with prejudice - it's got to do with eating grits and
eggs and turnip greens and growing up poor in the South."
He's not alone.
"I have a heritage, too," said Rep. Anne Mueller, a Republican from Savannah.
"I didn't put anybody into slavery."
But flag opponents have equally strong feelings.
"It's no military secret that the flag was changed during the time of
integration," said Pelote. "The flag the way it is now serves no good purpose.
"It was just about integration. It was to show they still had the power."
The pitched debate doesn't surprise Dr. Edward W.L. Smith, a psychology
professor at Georgia Southern University who studies the effect symbols have
A flag is a powerful symbol that represent a lot more than the colors and
designs on it, he said.
"When you look at that flag, it isn't something to look at and say, 'Isn't
that pretty?'," said Smith, former president of the International Society for
the Study of Symbols. "Often, unconscious feelings or emotions come with it."
Those feelings differ from person to person.
"That person who sees it and is reminded of grandma and fried chicken and
Sunday dinner, probably has a very comforting feeling in their belly when
they see that," said Smith. "It's the opposite of the person who sees poverty
or strife, who may have a feeling of anger and grief.
"For each one of those individuals, their feelings are valid and they are
arguing from a valid feeling."
The strength of the symbol, Smith said, could make coming to agreement much
tougher than reaching consensus on a spending bill or some other,
"It's like arguing about kicking grandma in the face versus flying the
swastika," he said. "People are going to have strong, visceral reactions."
But at least some legislators hope the flag issue can be settled in a civil
"No one wants to see a deja vu from South Carolina," said Sen. Regina Thomas,
referring to the NAACP boycott and national media attention to the
Confederate flag flown atop the state house, which was eventually moved.
"We need to find some middle ground instead of people saying 'over my dead
body' or 'I'll die first.' "
Tim Livingston leads the Coalition to Change the Flag, which held a rally in
Forsyth Park on Saturday. He, too, said he hopes to avoid negative emotions
as the debate over the flag progresses.
"I don't want to make it emotional," he said. "I just want to make it a
first-grade lesson. I want to tell people the story of the two flags and say,
'Do you want Flag A or Flag B?' "
Meanwhile, legislators on both sides say they're afraid the debate will take
valuable time away from work on education, crime and other matters.
"We've got important issues to deal with and this, to me, is not that
important," Mueller said. "We need to start putting our thoughts and
resources into changing real, true ills.
"The flag to me is on the bottom of a list."
Democrat Lester Jackson disagrees, saying the flag is important to some of
his constituents. But he thinks dealing with state water issues, education
and redrawing Georgia's political district lines will be bigger deals.
"Those are going to be the three biggies," he said. "Do we want the flag to
be the fourth? If we do it all, something has to give."
But from talking to his fellow legislators, Jackson's sure at least part of
the 45-day session will be spent on the flag debate.
"Whether you like it or not, it's going to be hard to ignore," he said.
Civic reporter Doug Gross can be reached at 652-0314 or at
What Chatham's delegation has said about changing the flag:
Sen. Eric Johnson (R-1st)
"I like the present flag. I like the heritage. I like the regionalism that it
communicates. But I don't have particularly strong feelings. If (my
constituents) want me to change it, I won't let my feelings prevent me from
voting for a change."
Sen. Regina Thomas (D-2nd)
"What's wrong with going back to the pre-1956 flag? I think that would be one
of the solutions that would be most palatable to all the people concerned."
Rep. Lester Jackson (D-148th)
"Right now, I like the idea of going back to the Georgia flag from 1956. It
has some historical significance in its own right and has some heritage in
Rep. Dorothy Pelote (D-149th)
"The flag the way it is now serves no good purpose. It was just about
integration. It was to show (an all-white legislature) still had the power."
Rep. Ron Stephens (R-150th)
"That flag is part of my heritage - the good, the bad and the ugly."
Rep. Tom Bordeaux (D-151st)
"I do think the flag should be changed back to what is was before 1956. It'd
be good for business, good for the state." - speaking at a Chamber of
Commerce forum last month.
Rep. Anne Mueller (R-152nd)
"I have no intention of voting to change the flag. I think we've got more
important issues to worry about."
Rep. Burke Day (R-153rd)
"I have polled my district and there's a mandate there - they don't want it
changed. About 85 percent of them believe it would be an insult to them if it
were to be removed. If it would change tomorrow, it doesn't do a thing for
teen pregnancy, it doesn't do a thing for education, it doesn't do a thing