May 4, 2000: The Irresistible Force is About to Meet the Immovable Object

The Georgia state flag issue is upon us and it isn’t going to go away.  The flag fight in South Carolina pretty much guarantees that.

On one side of the debate will be a majority of state legislators, representing constituents tired of having somebody else’s will imposed on them.

On the other side, a group of mostly black legislators who have been waiting for this opportunity since 1993.   That is when Governor Miller suffered a rare lapse of political savvy and saw his efforts to change the flag emasculated.

In the middle will be the business community.  It is a position that business doesn’t like.  To their credit, the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce has gotten ahead of the issue and already chosen sides: Get rid of the current flag.  The Chamber passed a resolution on the matter in 1992 and that remains their position because it represents the view of a majority of its members.

It isn’t going to be as easy for the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. That organization has members throughout the state – including Atlanta – and is less likely to be as united on a flag position.   The state chamber will spend the summer getting input from members in a series of “listening sessions.” They say if they get a strong expression on the flag issue, it could show up in their legislative package for the 2001 session of the General Assembly.

Speaking of the session, everyone will be watching to see what Governor Barnes proposes to do about the flag.  For the first time in his term, he runs the risk of a non-compliant Legislature if he takes the position Governor Miller did in 1993.  Legislators will face an unenviable choice of the bucking the governor or making their constituents angry.  But it is a clear choice for many.  There are few urges stronger than the urge to be reelected.

If Barnes decides to back a change in the flag, he will expect support from the business community.  That won’t be as easy as the Apple-Pie-and-Motherhood pap they concocted for his education reform efforts.  The public basically sat on the sidelines and watched a fight between the governor and the teachers’ unions.  Proposing to change the state flag is going to arouse strong emotions that threaten to split the state and the Legislature.  First to feel the heat will be the poor company lobbyists who will have to face the wrath of a powerful South Georgia lawmaker who is strongly pro-flag or an Atlanta legislator on the other side.  Members of the General Assembly have ways of making life very uncomfortable for lobbyists who didn’t support them once the boss has made nice with the governor and moved on to other things.

However, business has no choice but to get involved.  The issue will get national attention.  I speak from experience.  In my tenure with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, the Georgia flag was a favorite subject of the national media who like to drop in occasionally and cluck about what rednecks we are.  Defending a Confederate battle flag as being representative of your state doesn’t help matters.  Who cares what the national media reports?  How about a few hundred CEO’s who might be contemplating moving their company and employees to Georgia.   It is up to Georgia’s business leaders to determine if that is the image they want to project to the nation.

I was in South Carolina to make a speech recently and saw what the media’s scrutiny has done to that state.  Conventions are being cancelled. Entertainers have refused to appear and black athletes boycotted a major tennis competition.  Speaking of athletes, I was treated to the spectacle of the head football and basketball coaches at Clemson and the University of South Carolina marching together in an anti-flag rally.  Can you imagine University of Georgia coaches Jim Donnan and Jim Harrick strolling down Peachtree Street in an anti-state flag rally arm-in-arm with archrivals George O’Leary and Paul Hewitt of Georgia Tech?   Let me suggest to the Bulldog and Yellow Jacket faithful that before you dismiss that idea as far-fetched, you count the number of black athletes that make up your football and basketball teams.

Maybe the coaches will stay out of the line of fire but our business leaders won’t be able to.  If there is one thing that business understands, it is the bottom line.  The bottom line on the state flag is that if Governor Barnes wants to change it, business will back him to the hilt.