Albion Monitor /News

Flap Over Confederate Flag at Atlanta Olympics

by Farhan Haq

Official flag of the State of Georgia, host of the 1996 Olympics

(IPS) NEW YORK -- When the Olympic Games begin this July in Atlanta, Georgia, one peculiar flag will fly above those of the participating nations at many venues: the red-and-blue emblem of the long-defunct Confederate States of America.

The Confederacy was defeated in 1865 in the U.S. Civil War, but, to the consternation of many -- particularly African Americans -- it continues to fly as the official flag of the State of Georgia, host of the 1996 Olympics.

"The Confederate battle flag was originally adopted to represent a segment of society who supported the institution of slavery and racial oppression," argues Georgia State Rep. Tyrone Brooks.

"It represents the most blatant form of government defiance and treason this country has ever known," Brooks says.

The main Olympic Stadium will bar the Confederate flag, but it will fly over other events

A campaign to prevent the Confederacy's notorious "Stars and Bars" from waving over the Olympic Games has seen some progress in recent weeks -- most notably a pledge from Olympics coordinators that, wherever possible, the flag will be barred.

Billy Payne, president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, has promised that, on non-state-owned facilities, "the flag will not be flown." The main Olympic Stadium, in fact, will bar the Confederate flag in a concession to the sympathies of those who see it as either a racist or anti-U.S. symbol.

But anti-flag campaigners concede that, at least in some venues, the Confederate symbol will still wave. The state-owned Georgia Dome, for example, will host many Olympic events -- and is required to fly the state flag.

"We're not going to get the flag changed (as Georgia's state emblem) before the Olympic season," acknowledges Joe Beasley, a member of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and coordinator of the Coalition to Change the Georgia Flag. "That's just a fact."

For the flag to be dropped as Georgia's state emblem, Beasley notes, the state legislature would have to meet -- and it is not scheduled to do so until January 1997. Moreover, he says, "there is no political will" to hold a special session to adopt a new flag.

In fact, some black officials say, Georgia politics -- and particularly ire against the black population -- is the force that has maintained the Confederate symbol as the state flag in the first place.

"The flag was changed in 1956 to identify Georgia with the dark side of the Confederacy"

Georgia's state legislature adopted the flag, which depicts a blue cross bearing 13 stars against a red background, in 1956, at the height of the controversy over ending segregation.

As a protest against federal desegregation policies, the legislature changed the state flag in favor of the Stars and Bars only 14 days after the proposal was introduced. The then-Governor, Marvin Griffin, had gone on record weeks before to say, "I am for segregation. I am for it 100 percent."

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, embarked on a campaign last year to change the state emblem, arguing, "It is clear the flag was changed in 1956 to identify Georgia with the dark side of the Confederacy -- that desire to deprive some Americans of the equal rights that are the birthright of all Americans."

But the Republican-dominated state legislature rejected Miller's efforts last year, and no vote is scheduled to change the flag this year.

For some, the ongoing controversy is a sign of how little Georgia has changed since the days of the Confederacy. "The whole climate here in the South is one of the Confederacy," Beasley claims.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 27 percent of the population in Georgia is black. However, only six percent of the elected statewide officials are black -- while black men comprise 70 percent of Georgia's prison inmates.

Even worse, says Beasley, are plans to challenge the current drawing of Congressional districts in the state, following charges that voting districts that have elected black officials are "irregularly shaped". The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed state legislatures to examine, and even overturn, oddly-shaped districts, even if such districts help to consolidate black voters.

Two black representatives in Georgia, Cynthia McKinney and Sanford Bishop, both Democrats, are facing the threat that their districts may be divided up with neighboring majority-white areas -- making an electoral victory difficult. That would lower black political power, Beasley contends.

What may help to counter some of those problems, he adds, is the heavy international presence expected to arrive this summer for the Olympics. With the spotlight on Atlanta, he says, international attention and the interests of the business community could prod Georgia officials to adopt a different stance, on the flag and other issues.

Already, some companies -- notably Coca-Cola and Holiday Inn -- have removed the state flag from company-owned stores in the state. The pressure is expected to increase as Olympics watchers flock to Georgia.

"Wherever that flag is flying, we're going to protest and demonstrate," Beasley says. "Atlanta and Georgia will never be truly international as long as they are immersed in the sort of racism that is a fact of daily life here."

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Albion Monitor May 5, 1996 (

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