Feb. 23, 2003: Flag Flap Requires Courage, Not Referendum

Governor Sonny Perdue is in a bit of muck with his proposed state flag referendum.

As of this writing, the referendum will ask Georgians for a yes-or-no vote on the current and seriously ugly state flag, and/or a vote on two another choices: the Confederate battle flag, which was Georgia’s official flag from 1956 to 2001, or the pre-1956 state flag. This is to get around some serious constitutional questions. Having said all of that, the referendum doesn’t amount to a hill of beans no matter how it is presented because the results are non-binding on the Legislature.

When Perdue announced his plans for a flag referendum, did he know that blacks would threaten to boycott if the Confederate flag was on the ballot? Did he know that, because Georgia is still under the dictates of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the federal government will have to approval both the timing of the referendum – currently scheduled for March 2, 2004 – and the details? Did he know that it would cost roughly $2.5 million of our tax dollars to conduct this beauty contest at a time when the state has a revenue shortfall of some $600 million?

Or could it be that the governor has outsmarted us all? Maybe Perdue’s plan is to let the opposition build to a point where he can claim the flag referendum is out of his hands. Let the Legislature and the Atlanta business community take the heat. Then he can go out into the state, give his best shrug and smile and say, “Folks, I tried to keep my campaign promise to hold a referendum on the state flag, but those doggone Democrats in the Legislature and the moneyed business interests in Atlanta – who, by the way, didn’t support me for governor – sabotaged the whole thing.” Perdue walks away looking like a good guy while his supporters vow revenge on the Democrats in the next election.

On the other hand, maybe the flag flap caught the governor by surprise. Maybe he has grabbed hold of an angry bobcat and doesn’t know how to let go. You never want to get in a win-lose situation in politics, and that is squarely where Perdue’s flag referendum sits right now. Angry blacks on one side. Angry flaggers on the other. Somebody is going to win and somebody is going to lose. Whoever loses won’t soon get over it. The only guaranteed result from the referendum will be a deeply divided state.

As for the rest of us, we will have to suffer the flaggers’ blather about the glories of coming in second in a two-nation war and endure the usual crowd of mean-spirited black demagogues telling us what a bunch of racists white folks are. We will have to listen to the Atlanta boosters whine about how the flag furor is hurting the city’s convention business, as if folks in Jakin or Jasper give a damn about Atlanta’s self-absorbed concerns. It is going to be a long year.

There is a way out of the muck. It is called political courage. Former Governor Ernest Vandiver, one of Georgia’s unsung heroes, campaigned in 1958 on a platform of school segregation. Once elected, Vandiver realized that closing Georgia’s public schools to avoid integration was too high a price to pay. So in spite of his campaign rhetoric and pressure from segregationists, he chose to support keeping schools open. It was a courageous decision and, as a result, Georgia was spared the humiliation of federal troops at the schoolhouse door, as occurred in Alabama and Mississippi. Governor Perdue needs to follow Governor Vandiver’s example. He needs to announce that he has changed his mind, that there will be no flag referendum because it is tearing the state apart and we have more important issues to deal with in Georgia. Chances are that most people in this state would support his decision enthusiastically.

Nobody said leadership is easy. Sometimes you have to do what is right, not what is politically expedient. Ernest Vandiver had that kind of courage and gave us that kind of leadership. Let’s hope Sonny Perdue will do the same before the flag muck splatters us all.