Roy Barnes on the Confederate flag and where the South needs to go from here

Few are more qualified to talk about the South’s contradictions than Georgia’s 80th governor, who oversaw the revamp of the state flag in 2001
Roy Barnes
Photograph by Scott Areman

In the 10 days between Atlanta magazine’s request for a sit-down with former governor Roy Barnes to discuss the impact of the Charleston church shootings and the actual interview, a lot happened: South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley called for the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House grounds in Columbia, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act and affirmed the rights of same-sex couples to marry, and Governor Nathan Deal ordered a redesign of Georgia’s state-sponsored license plate that features the Confederate flag. It was a historic week for the nation—especially in the South, which once again was cast as the “other,” a region unable to resolve the tension between its past and the pull of modernity. Barnes, a throwback to Georgia’s once mighty but now dismantled Democratic machine, was eager to talk about the South’s contradictions. And, as the governor who oversaw the revamp of Georgia’s state flag back in 2001—which removed the battle emblem and arguably cost him reelection in 2002—few are more uniquely qualified.

In the New Yorker, historian and onetime Atlantan Jelani Cobb wrote from Charleston, “As is often the case, tragedy was the burden we shouldered for a moment of square introspection.” What does it say that it took a horrific act to spur reflection on the flag in a way that seems to be yielding results?
Americans, and this is particularly true of Southerners, do not like to talk about race. They push it to the back. And that causes what I call some inborn prejudices not to be aired. When you have a tragedy like Charleston, it so shocks the conscience that those matters become discussed. This is much broader than a flag. There are forms of what I call subtle discrimination that are very popular. Look at voter ID laws. The Washington Post published a study last year that went back to 2000 and found out of a billion votes there were only 31 cases of in-person voter fraud. And when we talk about “welfare queens driving Cadillacs,” there’s never any implication that person is white. But nationwide, the majority of food stamp assistance goes to white folks. In Georgia, 80 percent of Medicaid—at least it was when I was governor—goes to nursing homes where mostly white folks send Mommy and Daddy, so they take assets out of their names to qualify ‘em for Medicaid so they can go to the nursing home.

How do you explain the Confederate battle emblem’s enduring pull for some people?
That’s a question I have asked myself for years. My position is that in the Civil War, there were those who fought valiantly, but they were fighting for the wrong cause. This idea that, “Well, the Civil War was not fought on slavery grounds”? I’ve read those Ordinances of Secession, and I’ve not seen one that said, “We’re leaving the Union because we’re upset over high tariffs from the central government.” It was about slavery. Then there’s the idea that, “Well, we were invaded, and we had to fight.” Well, yes we were invaded—because we rebelled. So I just don’t understand that pull. The only way you can explain it is, that the South is a place where the subtle forces of racism have been deemed acceptable. “Heritage” instead of “I just hate blacks.”

So it’s become a euphemism?
It’s become a euphemism. When the South went through integration and resistance to integration, there was always a Confederate flag being flown. So why should we have a Confederate Memorial Day [usually observed in Georgia on April 26], where we give state employees the day off, and we don’t even declare a holiday recognizing the founding of Georgia, on February 12, 1733? Don’t you think that was an important day, more than a four-year time period in which we were in rebellion? It’s very difficult for me to understand it, as I found out when I went through [the flag redesign]. I’d thought we were over it. Well, we were not.

And it cost you re-election?
I don’t think there’s any question it cost me the election. People say, ‘What about the teachers?’ Well, the teachers didn’t get a raise for like eight years and they didn’t rise up. Their classroom size has doubled in some circumstances. They got some of the largest raises they ever had when I was governor. Well, what about the Northern Arc? Listen, most of the folks were in favor of the Northern Arc except in Forsyth County. I saw the outpouring [regarding the flag]. And I didn’t have people following me around holding up signs that said, “The Northern Arc, we’re gonna get you.” It was about the Confederate flag.

So you misread the public?
I did. But I knew it was tough because I’d seen Zell almost get beat in 1994. [Editor’s note: Then-governor Zell Miller proposed changing the flag in 1992, but his efforts failed.] I learned you can’t fool with this over a long period of time. This thing had been debated for 50 years. “Well,” people say, “we didn’t get to vote!” No, you didn’t get to vote. Nor did you get to vote on the flag in 1956 or the one in 1879. They say, “Oh, it was done so quickly.” I went back, and it passed in the same time the 1956 flag did. All of those are just excuses for, “I like the Confederate flag. I like what it stood for.” It stands for resistance to any type of racial change. It stands for hate.

Y’know, I treasure my enemies as much as I treasure my friends. When I was governor, I used to have them bring in a handful of hate mail. The funniest one said, “I hope when he dies they wrap him in the Confederate flag and bury him facedown.” [Laughs.] You can’t change their minds. Faulkner once said, “History is not dead; it’s not even past.” All I can tell you about is politics in Georgia, and I’ve been beaten more times than an old rug. But I do know this: In the South, it is necessary that we have extraordinary leaders because those leaders have to move the public, rather than being moved by the public. Sometimes that causes defeat. My answer to that is, “So what?” Believe me, political defeat is not the end of the world.

Republicans have to take on some things they know are wrong. I give Governor Deal credit: His reexamination of locking everybody up is exactly right. [Editor’s note: Deal has led prison sentencing reform.] If I had done that, they would have called me soft on crime and too liberal for Georgia. But he can do that. Just like I could try to reform education, something Republicans could not have done. So they have a special responsibility, and they see that. Standing next to Nikki Haley [when she called for the flag’s removal] was the Republican National Committee chairman, who knows they can’t win long-term with just angry white men. What brings about the greatest change is youth. Younger voters don’t understand the problem about the flag, nor do they understand the arguments against immigration.

If you hadn’t taken on the battle and Georgia’s 1956 flag were flying today, what position would the state be in?
I didn’t get up one morning and say, “Wouldn’t it be nice to change the flag?” I understand politics. I wanted to be reelected. But we had 13 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Georgia, and they came or sent representatives to meet with me in the fall of 2000 to say this flag was becoming a problem. The NCAA had already said they were not going to bring the Final Four here. Pete Correll, then the CEO of Georgia-Pacific, articulated it best: “We have three flagpoles in front of Georgia-Pacific: one for the American flag, one for the Georgia flag, one for Georgia-Pacific. When we have foreign visitors, I take down the Georgia flag. Because they’ll ask questions, particularly if they’re from Europe: ‘Why do you have this flag that we only see being carried by skinheads in Europe?’” But I was very short with them. I said, “I’ve got transportation, education. I don’t need to deal with this. You need to find some other issue.”

Did you not agree it was a problem?
I had pushed it out in favor of other issues, in true Southern fashion. Jim Hodges, the governor of South Carolina, invited me to speak at their Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner. I stayed at the governor’s mansion. They were having demonstrations [about the flag] everywhere. Hodges was up at night; I could hear him. When I got back to Atlanta, I emailed to ask him about the flag. He wrote back, “I’m looking out my window, and thousands are on one side and thousands are on the other, and I’m holding ’em apart with state troopers. It’s paralyzed our state, and you cannot allow this to happen to Georgia.” That set me to thinking I can’t put this off any longer.

Ever confident that I can persuade folks, I met with the Sons of Confederate Veterans and said, “We’re going to have to do something. I don’t mind putting the Confederate flag in its proper historical perspective, but it does not need to be a symbol of the state.” I saw there was no reasoning. One of them told me, “You’re going to take it off of Stone Mountain. What else are they gonna move?” I said, “What do you mean they? This is us. We’re all friends.” There is a proper place for the Confederate flag, in a historical setting. In museums. Stone Mountain was founded as a tribute to the Confederacy. But having it officially as part of a symbol of the state—whether it’s on the flag or whether it’s on the tag, is just not appropriate. Yes it was a part of our history, but it was a sad part. Georgia was not a hotbed of secession. That’s another thing. It was not unanimous as it was over in South Carolina. Georgia was a wealthy state before the Civil War and it knew it had great risk. It took a hundred years for us to get over that, economically. Our tax digest did not return to where it was in 1860 until 1960. Remember, on the tax digest you had all those slaves. So the wealth was gone. Land became worthless and slaves were free. We were such a stubborn folk. Lincoln was bending over backward to try to avoid the Civil War. He said, “I don’t want to touch slavery where it is; I just don’t want to expand it.” He offered to purchase the slaves. The Civil War was caused because the North and the South were fed up with each other and you had a lack of leadership in the South. Sam Houston, founder of Texas, was governor of Texas when Texas seceded, and he refused to take an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, and so the founder of Texas, the winner of the battle of San Jacinto, was removed as governor!

What was your own relationship to the state flag growing up?
I was in high school before I knew we lost the war. [Laughs] I was just like everybody else: “Why didn’t we win? We need to fight again. The South’s gonna rise again.” But that’s what education and experience does. When I went off to the University of Georgia, I’d never even been to Athens. I was a history major and began to study history, and my views changed. I became a Young Republican because Lester Maddox had been elected governor in 1966, and I said, “If that’s the Democratic party, I don’t want to be a part of it.” So I began to change. I had played sandlot pasture ball with black kids that worked on the farm, and I never thought, “Why don’t I see them at school?” It was just something you didn’t think about. You just assumed it was the normal order of things. When I went to UGA, it had only been integrated for three years. You begin to reexamine these terrible things we did to people. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said history bends toward justice, but it’s the law that bends toward justice. The law is the codification of human history, and it bends, rather than to the protection of property, to the protection of the individual. The law changed me.

Does it worry you that the guy behind the Charleston killings is only 21?
Yes. How in the world could he have a family, and we have a society, that created so much hate in such a short period of time?

Now, I’m an optimist. I see signs of great hope. I have six grandchildren. They go to a majority minority school system in Marietta. My eight-year-old granddaughter asked her mother where babies come from. Allison [Barnes’s daughter], who practices law with me, told her the biological story. Then she said that some people choose their children, by adopting them. One of Ella’s good friends is an Ethiopian girl who was adopted by two white parents. And so Allison said, “Your friend is adopted.” My eight-year-old granddaughter said, “No she’s not!” She didn’t see the difference. Allison said, “No honey, she’s adopted.” That’s hope right there. She didn’t see there was a difference in color whatsoever. Children learn the difference. It’s taught to them. But it’s tough. The third rail of politics—the third rail of life in the South—is race. I was hoping we had gone past that. In the South, we have two steps forward and one step back. This is a step back in Charleston, but it may be the cause for two steps forward.

What do the Democrats need to do in Georgia?
Lee Atwater [former chairman of the Republican National Committee who died in 1991] was the author of the Southern strategy: You make the blacks the Democrats, you make the whites the Republicans. And there are more whites than blacks. It worked. But the Democrats will benefit from youth and changing demographics. There is no silver bullet for the Democrats. When I was running in 2010, we did a focus group. They were all white, because African-Americans generally had a favorable view of me. There was a white lady in there, in her fifties or sixties, and said, “I like Roy Barnes”—she didn’t know I was standing on the other side of the mirror—“I’ve even voted for him in the past but I just can’t do it now because he’s a Democrat.” I turned to my campaign manager and said this is a tough nut to crack. But it changes over time. And time is what the Democrats need. In the meantime, they need to hone their skills. They have to be the loyal opposition, and they have to articulate it rather than go along with something they know they shouldn’t go along with. Long-term, if I was buying futures, I’d rather buy the Demcoratic futures rather than the Republican futures. And to those who are like that lady, you can’t change their mind. You can’t say well it’s been a Democrat who balanced the budget. By the way, if a Republican had not come in, the national debt would be paid off by now, that was the plan was Clinton left. It doesn’t matter. The facts are immaterial. So the brand is tarnished.

Has Obama burnished the brand?
He has. But a lot of the criticism he gets is based on race. If you had a Republican president who’d come in when the world was teetering on an economic depression, and we had returned to a period of prosperity and the stock market had more than doubled, and that Republican president had gotten us substantially out of two wars, and had killed Osama bin Laden, and had cut the deficit almost in half, we’d be renaming airports for him and erecting statues. But he doesn’t get that. One of the reasons is his personal style. The best thing that happened to the Democrats in my lifetime was Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton was so charismatic and he was such a good people person that even Republicans [liked him]. My brother is a business Republican, and for him it’s all about taxes. Even he said he’d vote for Bill Clinton. He said, “I don’t know if I can vote for Hillary, but I could vote for Bill Clinton because I made money under Bill Clinton.”

Republicans needs more African-Americans. And by the way, they are the party of Lincoln; they naturally should have more. And African-Americans are in fact very conservative. I learned as a young prosecutor: Even if you have a black defendant, unless he’s been abused by a police officer, a black jury will convict him in a heartbeat, because they’re the victims of crime. And they’re socially conservative. But the reasons the Democrats have been able to hold them is the Republicans do things like voter ID and wave the confederate flag. Republicans need more blacks, Democrats need more whites.

A version of this article originally appeared in our August 2015 issue.