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A symbol of terror and racism in the South

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By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003


From time to time, I join the legion of voices reminding the NAACP that it has better things to do than to worry about the Confederate flag and other emblems and structures, such as statues of fallen Rebel soldiers.

Given recent events, however, I do not think I will be criticizing the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People again on this and similar issues. An organization -- with the power to make racists and otherwise wrongheaded whites pay attention -- needs to remain vigilant and actively involved in confronting racism no matter how seemingly innocuous.

Who has forgotten the political storm then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott unleashed last summer when he stupidly, but earnestly, praised the earlier segregationist policies of South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond?

Lott's praise of his old Dixiecrat crony and Lott's new appointment to another powerful committee on the Hill strongly suggest that the Republican Party -- led by George W. Bush -- still has not heard the news that racism is a cancer that keeps the United States from being a truly great nation.

And now, here we go again, this time down in the Peach State, where Gov. Sonny Perdue, a right-wing Republican, has proposed a referendum next year on whether to bring back the old state flag with its huge Confederate emblem.

Perdue, a sly Georgia Boy if there ever were one, said he wants the vote held the day of the state's presidential primary in March 2004. Georgians would be asked whether they want to revert to the most recent flag, with its big Confederate emblem, or the banner that flew until 1956, which did not carry the Confederate symbol.

The Georgia legislature would consider the results of the referendum to decide whether to change the flag.

To its credit, the Georgia branch of the NAACP wasted no time in trying to block the referendum and threatened an economic boycott of the state if voters and the Legislature dust off the flag in question.

Knowing the mood and character of white Georgians, NAACP leaders are convinced that the prominent Confederate emblem version of the flag will rise again over the Statehouse and other public places.

An angry Charles White, director of the NAACP's southeast region, did not mince words: "If it were up to the majority of people in the state of Georgia, slavery would still be legal, and lynching would still be the law of the land."

Outspoken supporters of a return to the most recent flag argue, of course, that the Confederate emblem -- which was not put on the flag until the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1956 -- symbolizes Southern heritage. The NAACP and its supporters argue that the emblem stands for slavery and racism.

Supporters of a return to the Confederate emblem may be fooling themselves and other Southerners, but they are not fooling anyone else. The previous Georgia flag, like those of several other Southern states that introduced Confederate symbols during the 1950s but subsequently removed them under pressure, was a direct response to the emerging civil rights movement.

African-Americans have every reason to view the old Georgia flag as a symbol of racism and a desire to bring back some of the Old South's segregationist practices.

Gov. Perdue is the worst kind of cynic and demagogue. Knowing his fellow Georgians well, he ran for governor on the promise to let voters decide on the flag. His predecessor, a Democrat, had had the moral courage, along with the Legislature's approval, to downsize the Confederate emblem on the flag. Having tapped into Georgia's racism, Perdue won.

Now, he is keeping his word by trying to give voters their say on the flag. The battle will be racially divisive and costly, but the governor and others are willing to pay the price. That is the way of racists: the old way at any cost.

A few days ago, I saw an old black woman carrying a placard that sums up, at least for me, the symbolic and historical meaning of the Confederate flag. With the Confederate emblem and two hooded Klansmen side by side, the placard reads: "The American Terrorist Choice of Flag."

Although the Confederate emblem may have represented Southern heritage generations ago, it has been appropriated by racists and terrorists of the American kind. No state government should give it prominence in public places or on public property.

The NAACP should keep up the fight. If all else fails, it should launch an economic boycott of the Peach State and force politicians and average citizens to learn that the Old Confederacy is dead and gone.

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