On a rainy Monday morning in June of 1992, I happened to have a meeting in the Georgia State Capitol (I was communications director for U.S. senator Sam Nunn at the time). Upon arriving, I learned a demonstration against the Confederate flag insignia that segregationists added to the state flag in 1956 would soon begin on the steps outside. But it looked like a war was imminent: Just inside the doors at the Capitol, there was a phalanx of State Building Authority police officers in full riot gear. Walking behind their ranks, peering over them to see what was happening at the protest site, was none other than former governor Lester Maddox, the last of the state’s segregationist governors. Turns out he was, like me, just there for a meeting, but for all the world it looked like those mostly black cops were there protecting ol’ Lester from civil-rights protesters.
I went about my business, and I suppose Maddox did, too; meanwhile a brief protest took place just outside the building. The general feeling at the time was that the state had massively overreacted to a small, peaceful demonstration. The reason was obvious: Just over a month earlier violent protests had erupted in Atlanta (as in other cities) after the Rodney King verdict in Los Angeles. At one point, a car parked just outside the Capitol (belonging, ironically, to then–Governor Zell Miller’s top African-American staffer) was overturned. There were no deaths, fortunately, but there were many injuries.
And so in June the flag protesters were outnumbered not just by nearby riot police, but by Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents taking snapshots and trying to intimidate the young college students carrying out the protest. They briefly set fire to the 1956 flag. The rain probably extinguished the fire pretty quickly.
Another piece of context is crucial to this story: Just two weeks earlier, Governor Miller, a Democrat who had once been Maddox’s chief of staff (and who would be a supporter of many conservative candidates later in his career), had called for getting rid of the Confederate emblems on the Georgia flag — a stance that quickly gained the support of soon-to-be U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a conservative Republican from Georgia. So the position, if not the incendiary behavior, of the June protesters was very much in the political mainstream (though it would take another near-decade for the flag to change, under Governor Roy Barnes in 2001).
All this would be a forgotten footnote to the long story of social change in the Deep South had not one of those protesters at the Georgia Capitol been Stacey Abrams, who is running to become the first Democratic governor since Barnes won 20 years ago. Someone dug up a 1992 article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that showed Abrams among the flag-burners, and posted it on Facebook. The New York Times wrote it all up, omitting most of the context I outlined above.
It’s unclear whether this will become an issue in the red-hot, very close contest between Abrams and her conservative Republican opponent, Brian Kemp. Abrams’s underlying position on the flag is now, of course, accepted by everyone other than hard-core neo-Confederates. She has taken far more controversial positions on other divisive relics, such as the giant marble billboard of Confederate leaders chiseled onto the face of state-owned Stone Mountain. But in a racially as well as ideologically polarized gubernatorial election in which Kemp has worked hard to depict Abrams as some sort of lawless radical (particularly in the context of Abrams’s long-standing efforts to register poor and minority voters), the symbolism of flag-burning is easy to exploit, and the larger Lost Cause will also rouse not-so-quiet racists.
The protests in which Abrams participated were righteous then and now, and posed no threat to public safety or order. Brian Kemp, however, as supervisor of Georgia’s elections, has battled Abrams for years as part of his efforts to suppress votes, or as he would put it, to fight “voter fraud.” Maybe he has the decency to leave the quarter-century-old flag incident alone. I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.