'In Dixieland I'll Take My Stand . . .'


January 18, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- On February 10, 1956, 21 months after the Supreme Court's school-desegregation decision and less than three months after Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white male passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, the Georgia Legislature took a stand. It redesigned the state flag that had been adopted by the 1879 legislature (which included many Confederate veterans). The 1956 legislature made a new flag, two-thirds of which is the Confederate Battle Flag.

Last week Gov. Zell Miller asked the legislature to, as it were, furl the Battle Flag. He wants a state flag without that ''symbol of defiance and intolerance.''

In his state-of-the-state address he noted that for the first time since President Jackson from Tennessee and Vice President Calhoun from South Carolina took office in 1829, the nation is to be led by ''two sons of the South.'' The time has come, Governor Miller said, to repudiate the flag that is the last remnant of a political stance long since repudiated throughout the South.

The 1956 flag was ''imposed'' (Governor Miller's acerbic word) during what he rightly calls a ''segregationist frenzy.'' The governor in 1956, Marvin Griffin, was saying ''Georgia will have separate public schools or no public schools'' and the legislature was stampeding to vote just that -- either to defy the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution by maintaining segregation, or to abolish public education.

Polls today prove that Mr. Miller's position on the flag is intensely unpopular. And his argument is especially admirable because it is optional. He could couch his argument in mushy rhetoric about ''sensitivity'' for ''feelings.'' Instead, he cuts to the quick of Southern history. A former professor of history (at Young Harris College, Emory University and the University of Georgia), he knows that the shape of the future is influenced by interpretations of the past, and in his interpretation he does not mince words.

The Confederacy, he notes with nice astringency, represents just 1.5 percent of Georgia's 260-year history. ''Yet it is the Confederacy's most inflammatory symbol that dominates our flag today.'' The 1956 flag identifies Georgia ''with the dark side of the Confederacy,'' the determination to destroy the United States, if necessary, in order to deny some Americans the equal rights that are every American's birthright.

He finds ''infuriating'' the notion that the 1956 flag is necessary lest Georgians forget the sacrifices of Confederate soldiers. He has standing to be furious. He is the great-grandson of a soldier wounded while serving with Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, and wounded again at Gettysburg, where his brother died. Georgia's memory is kept alive by graveyards, monuments, literature and family histories, not to mention the name of Sherman, who arguably made Georgia the first arena of modern warfare.

Governor Miller will not traffic in the cloying sentimentality about ''the Lost Cause'' -- a sentimentality often inversely proportional to the historical knowledge of the person waxing sentimental. When he says the 1956 flag ''exhibits pride in the enslavement of many of our ancestors,'' he is saying: The Confederacy was not the pretty swirl of crinolines painted by Atlanta's Margaret Mitchell in ''Gone With The Wind.''

Now, perhaps today's ''progressives,'' in their current enthusiasm for ''multiculturalism,'' will want the 1956 flag retained. Perhaps they will think the Battle Flag is emblematic of ''diversity'' and therefore constructively subversive of the oppressive myth of a shared national civic culture.

Perhaps. But all Georgians and others who still believe e pluribus unum should rally 'round Governor Miller. He is affirming the flag's importance in the civic liturgy by which the community expresses remembrance and devotion.

In a new book, ''Loyalty,'' George Fletcher, professor of law at Columbia University, notes that the idea of respect for a community's sense of decency is rarely inserted into public discourse nowadays. But we ''should express certain wrongs not as offensive conduct to individuals but as a violation of our collective sense of what is permissible in our public space.''

Liberal individualism, he says, clouds our recognition that not all relevant harm occurs to individuals. The issue of what values should be affirmed by public symbols in public space is a fit subject for political debate and ''requires a commitment to the life of the community as well as to the welfare of individuals.''

A flag should be a symbolic summation of community values. Georgia's 1956 flag no longer is, which speaks well of Georgia in 1993.

Today that flag flies over a state capitol near the headquarters of Coca-Cola and CNN, enterprises emblematic of the common preferences and communication that help make and define a national community. It is for the best values of that community, which modern Georgians share, that Governor Miller, like his great-grandfather, but in a better cause, has taken a stand, like a stone wall.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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