Flag Waving Down South: Searching History for Solutions

Flag Waving Down South: Searching History for Solutions

By Michael L. Thurmond

Vol. 11, No. 1, 1989, pp. 14-15

In the controversy surrounding proposals to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia state flag, one impression stands above all else: Most of the arguments on both sides are based on historical myths.

On one side are those who adamantly assert that the flag’s change in 1956 was simply an attempt to honor the Confederacy, although legislative history clearly shows that other, less honorable motives were at least as persuasive. On the other side are those who embrace the readoption of the pre-1956 state flag, not realizing that its design also is based on a Confederate flag.

To make a rational decision about what flag should fly over Georgia, we must first acknowledge the history in which the present situation is grounded.

On the morning of Jan. 11, 1956, a crowded gallery looked down upon a joint session of the Georgia House and Senate as Gov. Marvin Griffin presented the annual State of the State Address. He responded defiantly to recent Supreme Court decisions outlawing racial segregation: “We must not desert future generations of Georgians. We must never surrender.”

Griffin outlined his legislative package of eight “no surrender” bills whose purpose was to maintain segregation in Georgia. In addition, a bill was introduced to place a St. Andrew’s cross on the Georgia flag. Despite opposition from various organizations, including the Georgia United Daughters of the Confederacy, floor leaders pushed the bill through the General Assembly. This bill established the present state flag: a St. Andrew’s cross (the old Confederate battle flag) covered two-thirds of the flag, and the remaining one-third displaying the state’s coat of arms.

The wording of the 1956 act is revealing. The act stated that the new flag would consist of “the flag of Confederate States…approved May 1,1863.” Legislative records show that the flag adopted by the Confederate Congress on that date was not the Stars and Bars or the battle flag, but another Confederate flag known as the “Whiteman’s Flag.”

The first official flag of the Confederacy, the Stars and Bars, was carried into battle only once, on July 1,1861, at the first battle of Manassas, where Confederate soldiers routed the Union forces. Because of similarities between the Stars and Bars and the United States’ Stars and Stripes, some Confederate soldiers mistakenly fired on their own troops on the battlefield. Two months later, the battle flag replaced the Stars and Bars in the field for the remainder of the war. However, the battle flag was never officially adopted as the flag of the Confederacy.

On May 1, 1863, the Confederate Congress adopted a second official flag that consisted of a battle flag in the upper left-hand corner on a field of white. Designed by William T. Thompson, editor of the Savannah Morning News, the flag was designated “Whiteman’s Flag.”

Thompson wrote, “As a people, we are fighting to maintain the Heaven-ordained supremacy of the Whiteman over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematic of our cause…Such a flag would take rank among the proudest ensigns of the nations and be hailed by the civilized world as the ‘Whiteman’s Flag.'” The flag was later sold and catalogued under that name. It was eventually redesigned with a band of red on the end–a necessary change because it otherwise gave the appearance of a flag of truce when drooped around its staff.

Thus our present state flag is a partial adaptation of a flag that celebrated the notion of white supremacy, less a monument to the Confederacy than a memorial to the segregationist politicians and policies of the mid-1950s.

Several black legislators have supported a proposal to restore the Georgia flag to its pre-1956 design. But this effort overlooks the fact that the pre-1956 design also incorporates a Confederate motif. Like the Stars and Bars,

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the pre-1956 flag is divided into three horizontal bands, one white band separating two scarlet ones.

The current effort to change the present flag to its pre1956 design is not the first. During the 1969 legislative session, Rep. Janet Merritt of Americus, one of two white females serving in the General Assembly, introduced a bill to strike the battle flag from the state flag. The former schoolteacher stated that the Georgia flag with the battle cross was adopted “in the emotional period of the decisions on civil rights. The time has come to settle down and realize that a Confederate battle flag has no place occurring in the flag of forward-moving Georgia.”

On Feb. 26,1970, the House Judiciary Committee recommended passage of Ms. Merritt’s bill. Three days later it received a third reading, but, for unexplained reasons, further action on the bill was indefinitely postponed.

Recent history suggests that the Georgia flag controversy has either simmered or boiled for three decades. It is an issue that refuses to fade away.

The founders of our state did not fail to provide advice that might be helpful in resolving this and other problems. This advice has appeared on the Georgia flag from the earliest days of statehood. Emblazoned on the seal of Georgia, it consists of three words: wisdom, justice and moderation.

As we ponder the pros and cons of Georgia’s present flag, we should remember that if we are wise in our reasoning; just in our deliberations and moderate in our actions, then Georgia will continue to fulfill its promise of greatness.

Georgia State Rep. Michael Thurmond is a lawyer and the author of A Story Untold: Black Men and Women in Athens History.