|Banks County Opinions...||
June 6, 2001
By Phillip Gailey
The Banks County News
June 6, 2001
Some are confusing emblem of slavery with Southern pride
Mississippi voters last week rejected, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, a proposal to remove the Confederate emblem from their state flag. I can't say I was surprised by that outcome, but I was disappointed to read that the Georgia county where I was born and raised felt the need to enlist on the side of those who confuse their Southern heritage with a flag that, for many Americans, symbolizes slavery and Ku Klux Klan terrorism.
When I was growing up in Banks County, then a rural backwater in the foothills of northeast Georgia, I don't recall that the Civil War was that big a deal. It came up mostly in high school history classes. For one thing, there were no cotton plantations built on slave labor in the county, no aristocracy hosting barbecues at Twelve Oaks. To the contrary, it was an area where mostly poor white farmers struggled to feed their families. As far as I know, there are no monuments to the Confederacy in the county or any observances of Civil War battles. I am not sure what the Confederate flag has to do with the county's Southern heritage.
The once-impoverished county has made impressive progress in the almost four decades since I left and has much to be proud of, including the largest outlet mall in Georgia at the intersection of U.S. 441 and I-85. So why would the board of commissioners want to turn back the clock by unfurling a divisive symbol over the county's future? The commissioners recently floated the idea of an official county flag. Not just any flag, but one that would feature the Confederate emblem in its design.
Fortunately, a recent public hearing on the issue caused the board of commissioners to sound retreat, at least for the moment. After the flag proposal provoked public controversy, the commissioners voted to table the flag motion, and unless they bring it up for a vote in the next 60 days, this ill-considered idea will go the way of the Confederacy.
Let's be clear: The idea of a county flag designed around the St. Andrew's Cross was a pathetic act of defiance by elected officials who were willing to risk their county's reputation and economic progress for a lost cause. It came up only after Gov. Roy Barnes persuaded the legislature to replace the Georgia state flag dominated since the mid-1950s by the emblem of the Confederate battle flag. As a gesture to those who can't let go of the past, the governor agreed to hang a restored, six-foot-by-11-foot portrait of Robert E. Lee in a place of prominence inside the State Capitol.
That apparently didn't satisfy Banks County's board of commissioners, which proposed creating a county flag that bore a striking resemblance to the one the state just retired. With the Confederate emblem as its centerpiece, the flag was to include the county seal and six stars-one for each of the six towns in the county. The city councils in two of those towns, Homer (the county seat) and Maysville, wanted no part of it. They passed motions asking that their towns not be included on the flag. They were worried about economic boycotts and street protests. At a recent public hearing, according to a report in The Banks County News, citizens ripped the flag proposal to shreds. "The proposed flag issue has brought about divisions among the citizens," Willie Bell Rucker, a local African American woman, told the commissioners. "Think of the economic impact the Confederate flag will have on the outlet mall if the current selected flag is adopted. Banks County needs and depends on the revenue from the outlet mall. A county flag is a good idea if the flag is a positive representation of all citizens. The Confederate flag does not meet this criteria."
Mitch Whitfield was quoted as saying: "Let's don't offend a few people to glorify a few people ... If we can't come up with a flag that represents everybody, let's don't have one."
Another man told the commissioners: "If you've got to have a flag, why don't you put the Banks County emblem on it and fly it over Banks County."
There were, of course, some who defended the rebel cross as a symbol of Southern heritage. They pretend not to understand why African Americans are offended by the flag. They need to go to their history books. The Confederate flag belongs in museums, not in the face of the descendants of slaves. It may have been carried into battle by brave men who fought and died for a cause that was wrong, but it was later appropriated and desecrated by white racists who wrapped it around their evil resistance to civil rights.
Alabama lowered the Confederate flag from atop its Capitol seven years ago, and South Carolina, after months of political protest and economic boycotts, last year did the same. Georgia recently replaced the Confederate emblem as the centerpiece of its state flag. And in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush earlier this year, without fanfare, removed the Confederate battle flag from a display of state flags on the grounds of the Capitol. Mississippi now stands alone, the last Confederate state.
Having lost the flag battle at the state level, except in Mississippi, those who refuse to let go of the past are falling back to towns and counties to try to keep the rebel flag flying. I am proud of those citizens in Banks County who want no part of this divisive flag. Their elected officials need to accept the fact that the Civil War is over. The Union won; the Confederacy lost. Long live the United States of America.
Phillip Gailey is editor of editorials at the St. Petersburg Times, where this column was originally printed on April 22.
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