Rural Georgians Won't Give Up Old State Flag

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When Georgia retired its Confederate-dominated state flag two years ago, Ray Johnson refused to surrender the red-and-blue banner flying in his own front yard.

Instead, he snapped up spares at the flea market.

"I've got a stockpile of 'em," says Johnson, 70, pulling out a box containing three flags folded into neat triangles. "Whenever they changed it, I figured they were going to do away with the old ones."

But Johnson was wrong about Georgia's official flag from 1956 to 2001 becoming a Rebel relic.

Along two-lane highways and back roads in rural Georgia, many homeowners, farmers and even a few local governments have kept the former flag flying in defiance of its replacement, which shrank the Confederate emblem from two-thirds of the design to the size of a postcard.

Their hope is that Gov. Sonny Perdue, who rode public fury over the flag change to an upset victory in November, will deliver on his promise to let Georgians vote on whether the state needs another flag facelift.

"There's a lot of folks who haven't given up on the old flag," said Don Newman, southeast Georgia brigade commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. "It is an act of defiance, but we're not ready to start the Civil War over again. But we may have a civil war at the ballot box."

Around Atlanta, you can pass hundreds of suburban houses and not see one rebel banner or old Georgia flag flying.

But from Johnson's home near Bloomingdale, 15 miles west of Savannah, and north on Highway 17 into Effingham County, there's little question as to which Georgia flag residents have pledged their allegiance.

Two mobile homes fly the retired flag side-by-side. Another flaps in the breeze atop a tall pole in a farmer's field as the road winds toward Guyton, home to a 270-bed Confederate hospital during the Civil War.

In the tiny historic downtown area, lined with elegant 19th-century homes, Karen Cantaline looks out from her wraparound porch at the old Georgia flag atop a pole beside her driveway. She and others who want to bring back the retired flag say it's a symbol of stubborn Southern pride rather than racism.

"That flag honors my husband's great-grandfather, who as a Confederate soldier fought for this state. But my husband's family never owned a slave," she said. "Those people in Atlanta, they don't understand it. They're taking Jesse Jackson and all these people's word that it's a racial thing, when it isn't."

But not everybody outside the cities appreciates that the former flag continues to fly in the face of its legal retirement - especially when it's flown by a government agency.

Bryan County Sheriff Clyde Smith recently agreed to display the new flag in his office lobby in Pembroke, to comply with state law. But the old flag still greets visitors outside the entrance.

"It makes me wonder if, in fact, they are not showing their true colors," said David Williams, a retired software developer who moved to Pembroke eight years ago and now drives a school bus.

Williams, 60, says he loves his new home. But, as a black man from upstate New York, he noted the Confederate symbol on the flag the first time he visited Georgia.

"It made me think, hey, racism and the cause of the Confederacy is still alive and well here in Georgia," Williams said. "It just automatically brought fear."

Sheriff Smith did not immediately return repeated phone calls.

His department isn't the only municipal agency still flying it, though government officials tend to call it an oversight rather than an act of defiance.

In Blichton, the old flag flies outside Bryan County Fire Station No. 4. But Chief Jimmy Cook insists he's not making a political statement.

The flag belongs to the Blichton Volunteer Fire Department, which owns the land and leases it to Bryan County, Cook said.

"They were flying the flag to start with and nobody's said anything about taking it down since," said Cook. "The only reason I haven't said anything about it was because it was there when I came here."

State law requires that all city or county government agencies fly the official state flag if they are to receive state funds. But Rod Coggin, deputy director of the state Office of Planning and Budget, said his agency has never withheld money from anyone flouting the flag law.

Newman, of the Confederate heritage group, noted Atlanta City Hall refused to fly the old Georgia flag from 1993 to 2001.

At Bloomingdale City Hall, the former flag stood inside the city council chambers until last week. Mayor Bob Rozier asked city workers to take the old flag down soon after a reporter asked him about it.

The city replaced the flag outside city hall in 2001, but neglected to order a replacement for the one inside, he said.

"It may be one of those Freudian slips, that we haven't done this because we prefer the old flag," he said.

So when the new, unpreferred flag went up in the council room, Rozier took the old one - to his city office.

"I would proudly fly it there until this flag flap is over," he said.