LaGRANGE — Former Gov. Roy Barnes recently answered questions from LaGrange College students about his controversial 2001 decision to remove the Confederate battle emblem from Georgia’s flag during his time as governor.
Barnes said during a question-and-answer session after his speech at the college Thursday that he knew it was a hot-button political issue to change the flag that had been in place since 1956. After talking to leaders in South Carolina, he initially wanted to table the issue.
“I didn’t get up one morning and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to change the Georgia flag,’” said Barnes.
During his time as governor, Barnes said he was faced with infrastructure issues and education reform bill, as well as several other issues.
“In the fall of 2000, Georgia had 13 Fortune 500 companies,” he said. “And all 13 of them came to see me and said, ‘You’ve got to do something about this flag.’”
Barnes told students about international businessmen coming to Georgia and CEOs having to take down the Georgia flag because the only time they saw the flag was when skinheads paraded it in marches.
After he was told that, Barnes talked with his chief of staff and said, “We’re going to change the flag.”
Barnes said his chief of staff told him he was “playing with fire” and, “You’re going to have a hard time getting re-elected” if he changed the flag.
As a result of changing the flag, he said he received multiple death threats and was given a Secret Service detail in addition to the Georgia State Patrol.
“The backlash was much worse than I thought it would be,” Barnes said. “… There were some fairly ugly incidents.”
He said that there were demonstrators at his daughter’s wedding.
“I would get out and go talk to them,” Barnes said about the demonstrators. “It just used to drive security crazy.”
One night in Waycross, Barnes said he went out to talk to some of the demonstrators. Instead of talking, the demonstrators surrounded him. Georgia State Patrol went in to action, he recalled. One trooper placed his back against the governor so no one could hit him in the head. Two troopers flanked him on the right and left. The troopers yelled “no closer” to the crowd.
“I just couldn’t get them to quit screaming enough to be able to talk,” Barnes said about the incident. “… I just couldn’t explain to them that this was not a tribute to the South, this flag was put on in 1956 in retaliation for Brown versus Board of Education (the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended segregation in schools). … There was no reason, it was all passion.”
Barnes subsequently lost the 2002 gubernatorial election to Sonny Perdue.
He was awarded a Profile of Courage by the John F. Kennedy Library in 2003 for the unpopular change of the state flag.
When asked about how he felt about seeing the Confederate flag flown on the back of trucks following the Charleston, S.C., massacre, Barnes said it was their Constitutional right to do so.
“I disagree with it, but they certainly have their right — and I respect that right — but I do not believe that it helps in what I call the healing and reduction of the polarization of the nation.”
For more information about the history of Georgia’s flag, visit http://www.ledger-enquirer.com/news/local/article29462581.html
James Morton is a reporter at LaGrange Daily News. He may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2154. Follow him on Twitter at jmorton_LDN.