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Georgia's Evolving State Flag

At the beginning of the Civil War, several flags represented the Confederate States of America. The flag of the Confederacy, called the Stars and Bars, contained a large blue stripe on its left side, with a circle of stars representing each state in the Confederacy. On its right side were three stripes—two red and one white. The Confederate Battle Flag, the more     well-known flag from the Civil War, featured a blue cross, or “X” shape, on a red background, with stars in the blue. It evolved during the Civil War to include large white portions and a red stripe. From 1920-1956 Georgia's state flag included the old Stars and Bars flag of the Confederacy: down the left, a blue stripe with the Georgia state seal; on the right, two red stripes with one white stripe.

In 1948, as a symbol that many Southern whites opposed integration, the Confederate Battle Flag appeared at a Dixiecrats convention in Birmingham. This flag represented a protest against the social changes that were beginning to happen, and the desires of African Americans to earn an equal place in society.  In May 1954, for example, the landmark Supreme Court ruling of Brown v. Board of Education paved the way for the acceleration of the Civil Rights Movement and the end of segregation when it declared racial segregation unconstiutional. Many white southerners staunchly opposed the idea of their children attending school with black children. The dramatic public reappearance of the Confederate Battle Flag symbolized such mounting tensions. 

In 1956, Governor Marvin Griffin and members of the Georgia state legislature introduced a bill designed to give historical significance to the state flag, which they perceived as lacking a genuine connection to Georgia’s past. They conceived a new state flag, where one-third of the design featured a blue stripe inserted with the Georgia seal. The old Confederate Battle Flag crossed the remaining two-thirds of the design. The cross on the battle flag portion contained thirteen stars, representing the thirteen original colonies and Georgia’s connection to the founding of the United States.

On February 9, 1956, the legislature passed the bill approving this new state flag, and it was signed into law four days later. Its supporters thought that the new flag would honor the coming centennial of the Civil War and would commemorate the bravery of the soldiers who fought in it. Opponents of the new state flag were concerned that it was a veiled and negative reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education decision, because the majority of Georgia's citizens had not voiced dissatisfaction with the old state flag.

In the late 1990s, Governor Roy Barnes vetted proposals for new state flags. Much controversy followed, making the flag discussion one of the pivotal issues during the Georgia 2002 gubernatorial election. In 2003, with Sonny Perdue as Governor, the state flag changed once again. It now features Georgia's coat of arms, encircled by thirteen stars in a blue field. Two red stripes and one white stripe frame this design.

These changes in the state flag have paralleled the ongoing discussion of race relations among Georgia's citizens. While laws have been enacted to ensure the equal and fair treatment of African Americans, Native Americans, and other non-white groups in the state, flags and other material objects from the Civil War and eras Jim Crow can send mixed messages about how much progressive change truly has been accomplished. When Americans divide by race over the empowering or oppressive meanings of the Confederate flag, or the O.J. Simpson trial, or the Rodney King verdict, they suggest a concern for something more than issues of heritage or respect. Perhaps what rests behind such debates are perceptions that social conditions have not significantly improved for members of minority groups, or if the Civil Rights Movement did accomplish its goals for social equality, then members of the majority group now risk being diminished and oppressed.       

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Discussion Questions

1. Discuss other symbols besides Georgia's state flag that may possess conflicting or controversial meanings. Examples might include the yellow ribbons seen on homes, trees, clothing, and cars during wartime, or the "X" symbol for the civil rights-era activist Malcolm X on baseball caps and T-shirts. Is it possible for people who are not offended by a symbol to wear or display that symbol with respect for those who are offended?

2. Songs like "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "You're a Grand 'Ole Flag" attach meanings of reverence, pride, and patriotism to the national flag. Explain how flags function to unite the diverse members of a nation, and at what points in history their meanings are especially effective.

3. Read our essay on North Georgia's Alternative Press in our Athens pages. Examine why you think a countercultural newspaper would call itself Flagpole?

Take it to the Streets!

Working in small groups, design an original flag for your school, community, or city. Be prepared to explain how your choices of symbols, colors, words (if applicable), and design reflect the character and priorities of the people that your flag represents.

Writer: Mary Boyce Hicks   
Editors: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Researchers: Mary Boyce Hicks
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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