On the day after election night, Republican Governor-elect Sonny Perdue must have asked himself over and over, “Why did I promise to hold a referendum on bringing back the Confederate flag?” Even Sonny had to have been surprised by his convincing win over the seemingly invincible Roy Barnes. It turned out he probably didn’t even need whatever boost the referendum promise had given him among white rural voters. Atlanta’s suburban counties, hardly hotbeds of pro-Confederate flag sentiment, gave Perdue huge margins over Barnes. In reality, he owed his victory to the Bush bounce many Republican candidates received from the President and to conservatives eager to remove liberal U.S. Senator Max Cleland from office. Now, he had the opportunity to change the state as the first Republican Governor in any Georgian’s lifetime, but he had to deal with the myopic forces that just wanted him to help them change the flag. Despite his ban on Confederate flags at his inauguration, he couldn’t stop flag changers from chartering planes to fly banners across the sky with signs that read “Let Us Vote!” and “You Promised!”
While the Confederate flag enthusiasts weren’t by a long shot the primary reason for Perdue’s win, they were right about one thing. He promised them a referendum. Now an issue that was dead and buried came roaring back to life to give old Sonny hell. It was clear he wasn’t sure how to handle the situation. Although the press and the “flaggers” brought up the promise at every opportunity in the days after the election, Perdue tried hard not to talk about it.
Now, the waiting is over. In early February Perdue broke his silence to announce that Georgia would hold a referendum sometime in 2004 on whether the current flag should be changed and replaced by the Confederate flag or its pre-1956 controversy-free predecessor. All over the state, seasoned Republican operatives cursed quietly. Although Georgia Democrats adopted a version of the Confederate flag in 1956 to show defiance of the civil rights movement, Perdue’s decision to hold a referendum dropped the burden of unwanted racial controversy right into the Republican Party’s lap. Instead of just admitting that he made a promise he feels he must keep, Perdue has lamely attempted to sell Georgians on the idea that a referendum will bring racial healing. The notion that a prolonged Georgia conversation over restoring the Confederate flag will bring racial reconciliation is politically tone-deaf. Sure, Governor Barnes’ decision to ram a flag change through the legislature in 2001 didn’t promote short term harmony, but at least it was quick. A statewide campaign by pro and anti-flag forces over the next two years will succeed in doing little but ripping the scab off the wound by millimeters.
When asked how he’ll vote in the proposed referendum, Governor Perdue replied, “I’m not going there.” He reasons the state will be more likely to heal if he doesn’t give his opinion. He’s wrong. What will happen is that he will establish himself as a non-leader. If Perdue wants a better legacy than racial strife and economic boycotts from the NAACP that scare major events away from Atlanta, he’ll have to come up with a better answer than that.
There is an option available to Perdue that will enable him to honor his referendum promise and still maintain respect for his authority. The Governor must immediately speak out on the Confederate flag. He should tell Georgians that although the Confederacy is an important part of Southern tradition, the Confederate flag has been corrupted as a state symbol by Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina using it in the 1950s and ’60s to demonstrate opposition to desegregation. As a result, black Georgians are completely justified in their resentment of the Confederate flag. He should make it known that he is the Governor of the entire state and that he believes 30-40% of Georgians should not have to live under a flag that was used to hold them back. That’s the unvarnished truth. No matter how much talk there may be about state’s rights, the simple fact is that the state’s right in question was the right to segregate and discriminate. That’s morally reprehensible and should not be kept alive even in the form of official relics.
Throughout the referendum campaign, Perdue, not the NAACP or the Rainbow Coalition, should be the number one spokesman against returning to the Confederate flag. To do otherwise would be to betray the legacy of the party he embraced when he became a Republican in the late 1990s. Though American politics are famously fluid, a Governor from the party of Lincoln should not find himself in the position of a Confederate standard bearer, lest he betray everything the party represents.
In the short run, Perdue would suffer somewhat from taking the course I’ve recommended. Confederate flag supporters would revile him. Black voters would continue to exert a chilly air in his direction. But the Governor has almost four years in front of him. He has time to demonstrate that he is no ordinary politician, but rather a true leader of the state. If he takes this course and succeeds, he will be the healer he says he wants to be. If he takes this course and fails, he will go down in history as the man who served only one term, but who demonstrated to Georgia’s black citizens that he cared more about their pains than about political success. Because Republicans don’t believe in awards and boondoggles based on race, what we have to offer is a sturdy adherence to principle and honor. Perdue should show his black neighbors that those principles count for something.