May 21, 2019

Stacey Abrams and the Politics of the Georgia State Flag

“The “October surprise,” that peculiarly American tradition of a last-minute revelation intended to alter the course of a political campaign, has typically hinged on an act of unsavory behavior. In October of 2016, the public learned of vulgar comments that Donald Trump had made about women during an “Access Hollywood” shoot—though the extent to which this should be classified as a “surprise” is debatable. Trump won, anyway. Similarly, in early November of 2000, news broke of George W. Bush’s decades-old D.U.I. arrest, though, through the Florida recount debacle and a Supreme Court decision, Bush became President, too.

It is not surprising that an election as closely contested as this year’s Georgia governor’s race might also feature a late-season revelation, but the specific nature of it says more about attitudes in the state than it does about its target. On Monday, photographs surfaced showing Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee, participating in the burning of a Georgia state flag, in 1992, when she was a sophomore at Spelman College, in Atlanta. At the time, the flag was a source of great controversy in the state, because it incorporated the Stars and Bars of the Confederate flag. Only in a looking-glass view of democracy could opposition to a regime that defended slavery be considered a character flaw. Yet it is an issue with proven effectiveness. An attempt to change the flag nearly derailed Governor Zell Miller’s political career, in 1994, and, eight years later, Governor Roy Barnes lost his bid for reëlection partly as a result of his having successfully removed the Confederate elements from the flag.

The timing of the flag-burning photographs’ release, just two weeks before the election and the day before Abrams faces the Republican nominee, Brian Kemp, in a televised debate, suggests that it was meant to galvanize certain sectors of Georgia’s white Republican voters. The oddity lies in the implication that Abrams’s actions betray a disqualifying aspect of her character. Elements of the Confederate flag had been incorporated into the Georgia flag in 1956, as part of that state’s massive resistance against the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The threadbare defense of the Confederate flag that is used today—that it represents heritage, not hate, etc.—falls flat when considered against the circumstances under which it was instituted. Its existence is inextricably bound to the state’s legacy of Jim Crow and to the violence that was required to maintain it. And yet that defense has a long history in Georgia politics.”

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