Last symbol of the Old South

February 25, 1993

President Clinton and Vice President Gore may both be products of the "New South," but some old controversies still simmer. In recent weeks several states have been the scene of heated disputes over one of the most divisive symbols of the Old South, displays of the Confederate battle flag on state flags and property.

In Georgia, a bitter fight erupted over Gov. Zell Miller's proposal to eliminate the Confederate symbol from the state flag, something many Georgians want to see happen before Atlanta hosts the Olympics in 1996.

Similar disputes have also arisen in Mississippi and Alabama, whose state flags include the emblem; in South Carolina, where a Confederate battle flag flies over the Capitol, and in Virginia, where Gov. L. Douglas Wilder last year ordered an Air National Guard unit to remove the battle flag insignia from its uniforms and aircraft.

Supporters of the emblem argue it is a part of regional history and identity that deserves an honored place in contemporary Southern life. But many blacks find the stars and bars a painful reminder of the region's tortured racial history. The South is home to half the nation's 26 million blacks and the majority of its black elected officials.

Moreover, many Southerners of both races are troubled by the implication that Southernness and the Confederate heritage are one and the same. Governor Miller, for example, in proposing to change Georgia's flag, noted that the four years of the Confederacy represented less than 2 percent of the state's 260-year history.

The Confederate insignia didn't even become part of Georgia's flag until 1956, when the state legislature adopted it as a symbol of resistance to the Supreme Court's desegregation rulings.

Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace first hoisted the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol of his state only in 1963 as a similar gesture of defiance.

There are occasions when displays of the Confederate battle flag serve a legitimate purpose. Examples would include Civil War re-enactments or museum exhibits.

These kinds of uses at least put the insignia in its historical context. But given the emblem's more recent association with violent resistance to integration, its use on public buildings and property can easily be interpreted as an expression of state-sanctioned bigotry.

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