Acceptance Speech

My wife Marie drives a mid-'90s red Mustang convertible - a result of a midlife crisis, and a reward for raising three great children.

Being a faithful wife after almost 33 years of marriage, she still wears proudly a fading Barnes for Governor bumper sticker.

The other day she was enjoying the beautiful spring weather in Georgia, scooting around town with her convertible top down. At a red light a passenger in a pickup truck pulled up beside her … I'm sure not recognizing who she was … and said, " I'm sorry you were for Barnes. You know he is a traitor to his race."

Now, I'm not worried about Marie. For those of you who don't know her, she's no shrinking violet. But when she told me about that incident, it caused me to reflect on my last few years … on how race, unfortunately, is just below the surface of our society … and on what it means to be from the South.

You can't hear my voice and not know me as a Southerner. Though I do not hear it myself, I speak in the Southern tongue, where my wife's name with its French roots is pronounced Ma-ree. Where I come from, folks never misunderstand my drawl.

It is a special place, the South. Friendly people, gracious living and courtesy, which is rare in the world today, are common there. A place where men still allow women to walk ahead of them, and rise when a woman enters the room.

In the South, as William Faulkner said, "the past is not dead. It is not even past." Our past and our heritage are intertwined with who we are.

We love the land and long for more of it. We wistfully recall when the South was an agrarian society, though few of us would return to those days. And we all have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War, as I do. We honor their bravery, even as we now recognize that their cause, linked as it was to slavery, was wrong.

I was raised in the 1950's and 60's, and during my 12 years of public education I never attended an integrated school. Finally I arrived at the University of Georgia, where the color line had been broken only five years earlier.

Things have improved much since then. The legal separation of the races is history, and no longer defended as proper or right. There is much more social interaction between black and white people than was allowed in my youth … and we all understand that people of every race should be able to vote, to live where they want to live, and to work at any job for which they're qualified.

One reason for this progress is because white people, even in the segregated South, had personal relationships with African Americans. Many of our playmates and those who helped raise us were black. Those personal relationships transcended social constraints, and they have been one of the brightest lights of racial reconciliation.

Progress also resulted from the dreams and courage of leaders like President Kennedy … his brother Robert … and a beloved son of Georgia, Martin Luther King Jr. They in turn inspired thousands of others who fought for civil rights.

We have come a long way in my lifetime. But sadly, in the last few years, the forces that divided us have risen up again, seeking to drag us back into the past.

The debate you hear in the South today is not about whether segregation is right, or whether African Americans should vote. That would be impolite.

No, the discussion across the South … from South Carolina to Mississippi to Georgia … is whether the Confederate battle flag, the St. Andrews cross, is the only acceptable symbol to honor an era when our ancestors fought with valor … even though they fought for a cause that was wrong.

It was wrong to rebel against the United States. It was wrong to defend the horrible institution of slavery. It was wrong to take up arms, brother against brother, to solve our differences as Americans.

Don't misunderstand me. I believe we have a right, and even a duty, to honor our ancestors who made the ultimate sacrifice. But we don't really honor them by flaunting a symbol that inflames and injures. That doesn't honor their valor … it perpetuates their tragic mistake.

Today, for the South to become as great as it can be, we must embrace our whole history. We can't deny the painful parts, but neither can we focus only on those chapters.

The true South … the South that can be … must celebrate not only the genius of Robert E. Lee, but also the vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. The bravery of Stonewall Jackson, and the courage of John Lewis.

Prior to January of 2001, Georgia's state flag was dominated by the Confederate battle emblem. As governor, I was already working to create a regional transportation agency, implement a new education plan, and prepare a statewide water policy. The last thing I wanted to do was change the state flag.

Not only did I have a full agenda, but I knew the political danger of tampering with the Confederate flag. So I didn't want to get involved in this volatile issue … but events dictated otherwise. I finally realized I had to do what I thought was right, regardless of the risk. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I don't think my decision required extraordinary courage. There simply comes a time in the life of every politician when he must choose between a course that is popular … or one that is right, but could lead to defeat.

It's not a pleasant choice, but I have learned that there are worse things than losing an election.

It is worse to lose our moral bearings.

It is worse to run from a tough issue.

It is worse to succumb to fear.

President Kennedy told us that courage will be required of us all at some point in our lives He also taught us there are different kinds of courage.

The most obvious is bravery in the face of physical threat … the soldier facing battle … the policeman walking down a dark street … the fireman racing into a blazing building.

But there's another kind of courage … one that is more common, perhaps, but no less important in making the world the kind of place we want it to be.

This courage is the one to search our own souls … to confront what we find there … and if necessary, to change.

I told you that I am a son of the South who came to understand that the Confederacy, and what it stood for, were wrong.

That is not an easy thing for a Southerner to admit.

It always takes courage to challenge prejudice and hatred … because prejudice and hatred are rooted in fear.

But in the course of my lifetime, I have seen millions of Southerners, black and white, find that courage within themselves.

So as I humbly accept this award today, I hope you will join me in thinking about my fellow Southerners. Our world has changed … and our hearts have changed also.

Thank you.

Remarks delivered by former Georgia Governor Roy E. Barnes on accepting the 2003 Profile in Courage Award, May 12, 2003.