2003 Profile in Courage Award recipient Roy Barnes with Caroline Kennedy, May 12, 2003.

Background

In January 2001, in his first term as governor of Georgia, Roy Barnes succeeded where his predecessors had failed, winning the state legislature’s approval for a new state flag that minimized the prominence of the Confederate battle emblem, which had long been a focus of intense political conflict in the American South. Barnes undertook the effort quietly and without fanfare, hoping to spare his fellow Georgians an incendiary public debate over the politics of race, the history of slavery and the heritage of the Confederacy.

While Barnes had every reason to suspect that a protracted public dialogue about the flag would stoke the fires of racial politics in Georgia, he also knew his efforts to make the change, however careful, might have political consequences for him. His advisers urged him to delay action on the flag until after he had been safely re-elected. He refused, and the new flag was raised amid controversy and over the objection of vocal, pro-heritage “flaggers.”

In the fall of 2002, Barnes lost his bid for re-election to an opponent who made the flag change a centerpiece of his campaign, promising Georgians a public referendum on the new flag. Many political observers believe the flag contributed to Barnes’s defeat. The flag controversy persisted after Barnes left office; the Georgia legislature voted to take down Barnes’s flag and paved the way for a public referendum on yet another flag design. In March 2004, the newest flag, which does not bear the Confederate battle emblem, won a non-binding vote by three-to-one margin over Barnes’s flag. It now flies over the Georgia capitol.