As a native of the South, I have watched the region’s seemingly unending love affair with the battle flag of the Confederacy with great interest. The latest contestation revolves around a specialty license plate featuring the flag in my home state of Georgia.
Plate designer and Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans commander Jack Bridwell has opined that he doesn’t understand why this is such a “big deal,” because some version of the plate has been available in Georgia for more than a decade. Georgia has, in fact, offered the plate since 2003. This year only marks a redesign. Eight other former Confederate states also offer such a plate: Alabama, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
Supporters of the flag in its various incarnations and placements offer some version of Bridwell’s argument that they are simply “trying to show who they are and trying to be proud of their heritage.” Bridwell is well within his rights to defend his love of Confederate heritage. Others are equally righteous in their indignation that a symbol of regional treason, human oppression and terror is still alive in 21st century America.
To be sure, many argue that conversations concerning the flag are often dishonest. Though almost always denied, the debate is usually about race and the yearning for days gone by among a few time-locked extremists. From this perspective, this latest license plate brouhaha only reminds us that flag advocates represent a segment of Georgians that must be pulled kicking and screaming into the modern world as they cling to a “cause” long lost and a hellish, racially defined world long obliterated.
In the midst of this ongoing fray, we miss a very important historical point. The fight against the Confederate battle flag is humane, understandable and defensible, but it’s incomplete. As attention continues to center on the battle flag, Georgians ignore the other Confederate flag flying right before their eyes.
Many are surprised that the “X” adorned with the 13 stars of the Confederate states’ battle flag, commonly called the “Stars and Bars” today, was actually not the original “Stars and Bars.” That distinction belongs to the Confederacy’s first national flag created in 1861. The original national flag ultimately used a circle of 13 stars on a field of blue in its upper left corner and three alternating red and white bars. The symbol we fight over today was not incorporated into the Confederacy’s national flag until 1863.
In Georgia, the state flag featuring the rebel battle symbol that causes so much angst was not adopted until 1956. Some believe it was a response to the Brown v. Board ruling in 1954. Whether that is true or not (and there is nothing in Georgia’s legislative record that confirms it), that particular flag has a relatively short history. Contrarily, some version of the original “Stars and Bars” has flown over our state since 1879 — two years after the end of Reconstruction — and still does.
The bottom line is this — Georgia really has two Confederate flags to deal with. While Georgians rail against the old battle flag, they should also note that their current state flag is an exact reproduction of the first Confederate national flag — only with the state’s coat of arms centered within the 13-starred circle. No matter where you live, this probably makes you want to take a second look at your state flag, huh?
As it struggled to transform itself decades ago, Georgia’s crown jewel city, Atlanta, adopted the “city too busy to hate” brand. Over the years, Atlanta elected the first black mayor of a major Southern city in 1974 and became a model of cosmopolitanism and progress. In fact, the 1956 Georgia flag met its demise largely because Atlanta secured the 1996 Summer Olympic Games and neither the state nor the country wanted to endure the shame of a Confederate battle flag flying high before the world’s eyes.
Like many Americans, Atlanta moved forward. Maybe Georgia (and other Confederates states) should follow suit, let both flags go and look to the future instead of its wretched racist past. We would all be better served by such progress.
Visit Ricky L. Jones at rickyljones.com. Follow him on Twitter (@DrRickyLJones) and Facebook.