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Echo of flag fight still unresolved

Former Gov. Sonny Perdue has been nominated to be the next Secretary of Agriculture, which could be very helpful to Georgia’s farmers.

To get there, Perdue should have to answer questions about his record as a candidate for Governor in 2002 and during his time in the office. Perhaps the most important issue he needs to address is his 2001 vote as a State Senator against Gov. Roy Barnes’ successful effort to change the Georgia flag, and his use of the flag change against Barnes in the 2002 election.

The Georgia flag at issue was approved in 1956 and was dominated by the Confederate Battle Emblem. There had been moves to change the flag for some 30 years, including by Gov. Zell Miller in 1993.

Fast-forward to 2001. Barnes was reluctant to take on the flag, but too much was at stake for Georgia – our position as a growing, dynamic state and leader in the South was on the line. If he did push for a change, he knew he had to succeed – or it might be years before another attempt could be made.

Many Democrats, including some in rural districts where people strongly opposed the change, stepped up, as did several Republicans, creating a coalition to get the bill through. Sadly, many ambitious Republicans, including state senators Sonny Perdue and Tom Price, the new HHS Secretary, fought the change tooth and nail.

To be sure, the flag was a tough vote for rural legislators, including Perdue. The current Chair of the Georgia Democratic Party represented a rural House district, and voted against the change. Perdue, however, went beyond just voting against it. He made his fight to keep the Confederate battle emblem a centerpiece of his 2002 campaign to oust Barnes. The flag change became a matter of national attention, with Barnes receiving the John F. Kennedy Library’s Profile in Courage Award for sacrificing his reelection in the successful effort to change the flag.

Brandt Ayers, the publisher of the respected Anniston, Alabama, Star, wrote a month after the election, “[Georgia] voters said: ‘Don’t touch that flag!’…That is the voters in white rural counties. Republican Sonny Perdue carried 95 of 96 counties which are at least 65 percent white, where popular T-shirts shouted, ‘Change the governor, keep the flag.’ ”

Ayers concluded, “Sonny Perdue had George Wallace’s sense of how to unleash old resentments in the South.”

You may hear Perdue tout 2003 legislation, passed while he was Governor, scheduling a referendum that excluded the 1956 flag. I ask members of the U.S. Senate not to buy that explanation. At the time Perdue fought the flag change in the Georgia Senate, he was seeking political advantage by siding with racial hatred that divided Georgians for too long. He was willing to force African-Americans to live under a state flag that was an insult to them and their rights. He was willing to accept terrible economic fallout for failing to change the flag.

In the world Perdue fought for, the 1956 flag could well still be flying over every courthouse, every school and every government building in Georgia. What would Georgia’s children think about that flag, as they saw its use by the KKK and other white supremacist groups? How were they to feel about reading about the Selma to Montgomery March, all while the 1956 flag flew at their school? What kind of fair trial could an African-American defendant expect when the 1956 flag is flying over the courthouse, and in the courtroom where the defendant’s freedom is at stake?

What about the economic damage? Georgia would have lost a Women’s Final Four Basketball Tournament and three Men’s Final Four Basketball Tournaments. Georgia will be the center of the sports world in the coming years, hosting the College Football Championship, the Super Bowl and the Men’s Final Four. SunTrust Park should be in line for an MLB All-Star Game in the next five years. None of this would be possible with the 1956 flag.

After African-American churchgoers in Charleston were murdered by a Confederate flag-waving white supremacist, then-Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican who serves as President Trump’s UN Ambassador, removed the battle flag from their Capitol grounds, recognizing its divisiveness. Republican Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley did the same. Now Perdue needs to show he recognizes the divisiveness of his use of the flag for political gain.

If Perdue is confirmed without being called to account for his actions, how will Secretary Perdue’s fairness not be called in question in dealing with our black farmers who have a history of unfair treatment by USDA? How can his fairness in administering critical programs like federal food stamps and school lunches not be called into question?

Georgians and Americans can be a forgiving people. Perdue has many capable advisers, and I’m probably the last person he wants advice from, but he can begin to dispense with this issue simply by saying what he never has: that he regrets his 2001 vote and his use of the flag in his gubernatorial campaign.

Bobby Kahn was chief of staff for former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes.

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