Rally ‘Round the Flag Boys: Continued White Flight from the Democratic Party
By Laughlin McDonald
Vol. 25, No. 1-4, 2003 pp. 8-9
When Sonny Perdue took the oath of office in Atlanta in January 2003, he became the first Republican governor of Georgia since Rufus Bullock of Albion, New York, was elected to the post in 1868 during federal Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. Perdue’s election completed a process that began with the defection of whites from the Democratic Party beginning in the late 1940s.
Southern Democrats, under the leadership of Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and styling themselves “Dixiecrats,” staged an open revolt against Harry Truman and the national Democratic Party during the 1948 presidential election because of the party’s pro-civil rights stance. Governor Fielding Wright of Mississippi, Thurmond’s vice-presidential running mate, warned that the protection of minority rights called for by Truman and his Committee on Civil Rights “aimed to wreck the South and our institutions.” Thurmond for his part railed against the proposed federal rights initiative and declared that ,.all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation.” In the ensuing election, the Thurmond/Wright Dixiecrat ticket carried four southern states-Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina-and marked the beginning of the end of the white Solid South which could always be counted on to vote Democratic.
The formal development of the Republican Party in the South took place later around the 1964 presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, who adopted a Southern Strategy of opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Southern Strategy, like the Dixiecrat movement, was a calculated effort to attract white Democratic voters who were furious about the racial changes taking place in the South. Sonny Perdue’s election was no exception.
While some pundits have offered other explanations for Perdue’s defeat of Roy Barnes, the seemingly popular Democratic incumbent, the best explanation for Perdue’s upset victory stems from Barnes’s successful campaign prior to the 2002 election to remove the Confederate battle flag from its conspicuous place on the state flag. The Confederate battle emblem had been placed on the state flag in 1956 as part of the state’s response to the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down racial segregation in the public schools. Georgia’s white leadership fervently embraced a philosophy of State’s Rights, a cornerstone of which was massive resistance to Brown and its threat to the state’s vaunted “way of life” built upon white supremacy and subordination of the Negro. The legislature, with only one dissenting vote, adopted an Interposition Resolution in 1956 declaring the Brown decision “null, void and of no force or effect.” It pledged to take all measures to defeat “this illegal encroachment upon the rights of [the] people.”
The legislature then went on to adopt a new state flag that incorporated the most potent symbol of white defiance of federal authority and the emerging Civil Rights Movement: the battle flag of the Confederacy. “[The new flag will] leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Georgia will not forget the teachings of Lee and Stonewall Jackson,” said Denmark Groover, a chief sponsor of the change. “[It] will show that we in Georgia intend to uphold what we stood for, will stand for and will fight for.”
Georgia’s white leadership lost the battle to nullify the Brown decision. But it continued to nurture a State’s Rights ideology, which frequently bubbled to the surface in the form of opposition to federal civil rights legislation, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Another manifestation has been the ongoing defection of conservative whites from the Democratic Party in protest over its civil rights policies. “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party,” goes the popular mantra, “the party left me.”
One of those who left the Democratic Party was Sonny Perdue. He was first elected to the state senate in 1990 as a Democrat, but bolted the party eight years later and was reelected as a Republican. After the November 2002 election, four white senate Democrats followed Perdue and defected to the Republican Party, giving the GOP a majority (30-26) in the state senate for the first time since Reconstruction. The four defectors were rewarded by being named chairs of important senate committees.
Prior to the 2002 election, the business and civil rights communities in Georgia began agitating for a change in the state flag. Keeping the old flag, they said, was not only an insult to African Americans, but would inevitably embroil the state in economic boycotts and divisive litigation of the kind that had plagued neighboring Alabama and South Carolina over their flying of the Confederate
flag atop their state capitols.
Governor Barnes, bowing to the mounting pressure, pushed through a bill in the General Assembly, with virtually no public input or legislative debate, that created a new state flag. The Confederate flag was removed from its central position and was placed inconspicuously at the bottom in a row of other state flags from colonial days to the present. Barnes showed considerable courage and leadership in purging the flag of an admitted and intended symbol of white supremacy, but he also deeply offended many of the state’s white voters.
A traveler around the state in the weeks leading up to the November election could not fail to be struck by the proliferation of pro-flag, anti-Barnes signs and sentiment. In rural Paulding and Polk Counties in the northwest, the Confederate flag was flown in angry protest in many a front yard. In Dougherty and Worth Counties to the south, signs containing the Confederate flag and the message to “Boot Barnes” were nailed to trees and fence posts along the roads. On the dock of the Kilkenny Marina in coastal Bryan County, the 1956 flag fluttered defiantly in a warming sea breeze blowing in from St. Catherines Sound.
Many things could have cost Barnes votes, including his support of a controversial road project (the Northern Arc) and his policy on education, which teachers complained unfairly held them responsible for poor student performance. But the controversy over the flag was the most loaded with emotion and symbolism, and probably the most costly for Barnes. On election night, when Perdue claimed victory, his supporters, almost all of whom were white, crowded around him and triumphantly waived the Confederate flag. And on the day when he took the oath of office in Atlanta, airplanes trailing the Confederate flag circled in the sky overhead.
The Confederate flag was the emblem of the mythic and heroic old South, which many whites felt Barnes had dishonored. The flag was also intertwined with a host of other race related issues, such as white opposition to affirmative action, public spending on social programs that benefited minorities, and redistricting that enhanced African-American voting strength. According to one Perdue supporter, who undoubtedly spoke for many, Barnes was “too close” to blacks. Whites believed that Sonny Perdue, who said during his campaign that he favored a public referendum on the issue, could be counted on to rally around the Confederate flag and all that it represented-if not a return to the pre-Brown era, then a refusal to capitulate to the demands of the state’s black community.
The controversy over the flag continued to boil during the 2003 session of the state legislature. Perdue backed off of his pledge to hold a referendum on restoring the 1956 flag and accepted a compromise that involved the adoption of yet another state flag-this one containing red and white stripes and the state coat of arms in gold on a blue field-with a referendum to be held in March 2004 on whether to retain that flag or the one adopted during Barnes’s term as governor.
Georgia has come a long way from the days of white redemption, which drove Rufus Bullock from office, as well as from the massive resistance of the 1950s and 60s. But the recent gubernatorial election shows that race remains dynamic and divisive in the state’s political processes, and that many Georgians still refuse to forget what the Confederate flag stood for: the defense of slavery and preservation of the white privilege.
Laughlin McDonald is director of the Southern Regional Office of the ACLU, and author of A Voting Rights Odyssey: Black Enfranchisement in Georgia (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 2003).