Apr. 11, 2004: Frustrated Flaggers Tell Their Side of the Story

After enduring a steady barrage of slings and arrows from this correspondent, flaggers did a wise thing. Kenneth Waters, an advocate for the pre-2001 state flag, asked for the opportunity to tell their side of the story. He put together a lunch with Dan Coleman, spokesman for the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and William Lathem, head of the Southern Heritage Political Action Committee, that was testy at times, but ended well enough to have been worth everybody’s time.

Coleman and Lathem are decent men who believe passionately in their cause. They are also terribly frustrated. They feel that Gov. Sonny Perdue lied to them. They believe that candidate Perdue promised them a vote on the pre-2001 state flag, better known as the Confederate battle flag. That didn’t happen, of course. They are angry with members of the General Assembly who they claim caved in to pressure from blacks and image-conscious business leaders and allowed the flag referendum to take place without the pre-2001 state flag. Where flaggers found themselves before the election assiduously courted by politicians, they now find themselves ignored.

Both men say they want people to have the opportunity to vote on the pre-2001 flag. Lathem cites a poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research in December 2003 in which half the Georgians polled stated a preference for having the old state flag on the referendum. As for the results of the April referendum, the two men believe the low turnout shows that most Georgians were dissatisfied with the two choices on the ballot. And what is wrong with the current state flag, which strongly resembles the Confederate Stars and Bars? Lathem says, “If the people of Georgia accept the current flag, they have condoned a lot of lies by politicians.”

They resent the rhetoric of people like former state representative and current NAACP director Julian Bond, who calls the flag “a Confederate swastika,” and NAACP director Kweisi Mfume, who said in a January 2000 letter, “There could be a better use of state and federal resources by the closing of museum and battlefields, which are dedicated to the preservation of slavery.” Fighting words to Coleman and Lathem. Coleman says the War Between the States was not about slavery and that at the beginning of the war, the Union had more slave states (eight) than the Confederacy (seven).

In Coleman’s view, those who are trying to preserve Southern heritage feel betrayed by politicians, scorned by the media and made to look like bigots by groups like the NAACP and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. He says that flaggers have drawn a line in the sand. What they plan to do is another question.

Lathem says they intend to defeat those legislators who they believe lied to them. They will have an uphill battle because they are talking about unseating powerful people like House Speaker Terry Coleman, Sen. George Hooks, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Eric Johnson, president pro tem of the Senate, among others. Dan Coleman says his group is willing to give Gov. Perdue another chance to get the old state flag on a future referendum, but given the flaggers’ heavy-handed tactics with the governor, that is unlikely.

They take more credit for the defeat of Gov. Roy Barnes than I am willing to give them. The state flag was only one of a number of controversial issues that led to Barnes’ loss. Today, it is obvious that many of Georgia’s elected officials don’t think flaggers have the clout they claim, and have chosen to ignore them. Coleman and Lathem say that is a serious miscalculation. After this fall’s elections, we will know who was right.

Coleman says there are flag supporters over whom no one has control. Too bad. Those people are the ones who most hurt the flaggers’ efforts by threatening politicians and the media. That is a strategy that will ultimately backfire. If flaggers are to succeed in their efforts this fall, they are going to need to be making friends, not enemies. A good place for them to start would be reaching out as Waters, Coleman and Lathem did.