By Robert Stacy McCain

ATLANTA – A crisp breeze flutters through hundreds of flags, spring sunlight illuminating the banners held aloft by demonstrators marching up Capitol Avenue as a uniformed Confederate color guard leads the way.

The banners, instantly recognizable with their large Confederate battle emblems, are the old state flag — Georgia’s "real flag," according to the marchers, who came to Atlanta from all over the state to denounce Gov. Sonny Perdue as a turncoat and a scalawag.

"Sonny lied!" protest leaders chant during this march to the state Capitol on April 1, and more than 400 voices shout in reply: "Let us vote!"

What "Sonny lied" about, says protest organizer Dan Coleman of suburban Cobb County, is the Republican governor’s campaign promise in 2002 to support a referendum on restoring the state flag to the Confederate design used from 1956 to 2001.

Nearly 140 years after Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union forces captured Atlanta, the memory of the Confederate States of America remains dear to the hearts of millions of Southerners whose ancestors fought beneath the battle flag, with its starry blue St. Andrew’s cross on a blood-red field.

The question of how the Civil War should be remembered has proven to be a contemporary political and cultural bombshell — not only in Georgia but in South Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia and other Southern states. In Arkansas, where the state flag features a 1912 diamond design that loosely resembles the St. Andrews cross, critics have grumbled about the prominent star commemorating the Confederacy.

Opponents of Confederate symbols say they represent slavery and racism. Some — including Georgia state Rep. Tyrone Brooks — compare the Confederate battle flag to the Nazi swastika.

"The main tenet of what the Confederacy stood for was the maintaining of slavery," says Mr. Brooks, an Atlanta Democrat who led the effort to remove the Confederate symbol from the Georgia flag. "The Confederate battle flag was the symbol of defiance of this nation becoming one nation under God."

A ‘media canard’

The battle over Confederate heritage can boost or blight the careers of politicians. Just ask Roy Barnes, Georgia’s former governor, a Democrat once spoken of as a potential vice presidential candidate who could help his party compete in the South, a region that increasingly has tilted toward Republicans.

In 2001, Mr. Barnes pushed through Georgia’s General Assembly a new state flag design that dramatically shrank the Confederate symbol. Mr. Barnes agreed the flag issue was a key to his failure to win re-election in 2002, which made Mr. Perdue the state’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

"The flag did have something to do with it," Mr. Barnes told reporters after his defeat. "I think it brought out a white, rural vote."

Groups such as the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) helped upend Mr. Barnes’ re-election effort. And they will continue to use the voting booth to fight a bias against Confederate symbols that amounts to "modern-day McCarthyism," says Allen Sullivant, chief of SCV’s heritage defense.

"I think the whole assault on Confederate heritage is basically a media canard," Mr. Sullivant says. "Particularly for the last 10 or 15 years, you can’t see the phrase ‘Confederate battle flag’ in print without the qualifier, ‘a symbol that some find offensive.’ … People have had it drilled in their head that this is something that should offend them."

In addition to flags, memorials to the Confederacy have become flash points for debate, as has the wearing of Confederate-themed clothing, which is banned in many schools throughout the South.

In Virginia, black leaders objected to a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee as part of a riverfront mural in the former Confederate capital of Richmond. Vandals burned the Lee portrait in January 2000.

In Tennessee, a black man filed a $44 million lawsuit in 1997 seeking removal of a century-old Confederate monument from the town square in Franklin, site of an 1864 battle that killed six Southern generals. U.S. District Judge John T. Nixon dismissed that suit, saying, "There is no federal legislation that prohibits the preservation of Confederate symbols."

‘Flaggers’ fight

It’s not just in Dixie. The debate about Confederate heritage has national implications.

Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination lost steam in Iowa after rivals called attention to Mr. Dean’s claim of wanting "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

Mr. Dean apologized, but his campaign was dogged until its demise by anti-Dean protesters waving the Southern banner.

Here in Georgia, the same activists who covered the state with Confederate-themed "Boot Barnes" signs in 2002 are putting up "Punt Perdue" signs.

Activists such as Mr. Coleman say the governor reneged on a campaign promise to give voters a choice on returning to the 1956 flag.

Instead, voters in a March referendum could choose only between the "Barnes rag" — as many Georgians derided the 2001 design — and a new design that resembles Georgia’s pre-1956 state flag.

The new design won March 2 with 73 percent of the vote. But leading Confederate heritage groups boycotted the referendum, which drew 20 percent of Georgia’s nearly 4 million registered voters.

With the motto " ’56 or Fight," diehards known as "flaggers" vowed to defeat Mr. Perdue — and any other politician who gets in their way, Republican or Democrat — until they get a vote on returning to the old flag.

NAACP pressure

For decades, the Confederate history of the South was not a political issue. Tourist shops sold Rebel flags and other Civil War-era souvenirs to visitors, and heritage groups such as SCV and the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) focused their efforts on erecting monuments and preserving historic sites.

That changed after 1991, when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted a resolution condemning the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of "tyrannical evil" and "an odious blight upon the universe." The resolution committed the NAACP’s "legal resources to the removal of the Confederate flag from all public properties."

Legal and political battles over the flag soon commenced in several Southern states — and Confederate heritage groups and politicians say the issue cost some elected officials their jobs:

•In 1992, Alabama state Rep. Alvin Holmes filed a lawsuit seeking removal of the Confederate flag from atop the state Capitol in Montgomery, where it had flown since being raised in 1963 by Gov. George C. Wallace. When a state district judge ruled in Mr. Holmes’ favor, Gov. Jim Folsom, a Democrat, refused to appeal. The flag came down in 1993. Mr. Folsom lost his re-election bid the next year.

•In 1993, Georgia Gov. Zell Miller pushed to have the Confederate emblem removed from the state flag, but the measure failed in the General Assembly. Mr. Miller, a Democrat who had been elected in 1990 with a margin of more than 120,000 votes, squeaked to re-election in 1994 by about 30,000 votes. He dropped the flag issue, later saying "the people were not with me. … You can’t lead if you don’t have followers."

•In Mississippi, where the Confederate battle emblem has been part of the state flag since 1894, Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, promoted a proposal to change the flag. Voters rejected the new design supported by Mr. Musgrove, voting 2-to-1 in an April 2001 referendum to keep the Confederate-themed flag. In November 2002, Mr. Musgrove lost his race for re-election to Republican Haley Barbour, who campaigned with a state-flag pin in his lapel.

Not ‘over’ yet

Perhaps the most bitter flag fight erupted in South Carolina. The NAACP first threatened an economic boycott in 1994 unless the Confederate flag was removed from the Statehouse dome, where it had flown since 1962. The state Senate voted to move the flag to a nearby Confederate monument, but the state House rejected the measure in June 1994.In November 1996, South Carolina Gov. David Beasley — a Republican who had promised during his 1994 campaign to keep the flag on the dome — went on statewide TV to urge that the flag come down. The legislature rejected the proposal, and Mr. Beasley was defeated for re-election in 1998 by Democrat Jim Hodges, who promised not to revive the flag issue.

The NAACP announced a boycott of South Carolina in January 2000, prompting the legislature to approve moving the flag to the Confederate monument. Mr. Hodges signed the measure in May of that year.

Two years later, after declaring "the issue is over," Mr. Hodges was defeated in his re-election bid by Republican Mark Sanford.

After years of debate, some say Southerners have grown weary of battles over Confederate heritage.

"A lot of voters in Georgia are just tired of the issue," says Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "It’s not a live issue anymore in Georgia politics. No Republican or Democratic elected official is interested in fighting this fight all over again."

In South Carolina, "most people here regard

[the Confederate flag issue] as ancient history," Republican campaign strategist Richard Quinn says.

"The majority of our citizens like the Confederate flag where it is, at the Confederate soldiers’ monument, and don’t want to see that old issue resurrected," says Mr. Quinn, a consultant for Mr. Beasley’s failed bid to fill the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, a Democrat.

On voters’ minds

Mr. Quinn says the legislature’s 2000 flag vote showed Mr. Beasley had "the courage to do the right thing," and that the "state has come around to embracing his views."

Yet anti-Beasley demonstrators waving the Confederate flag showed up at most of the former governor’s campaign appearances — "usually only three or four of ’em," Mr. Quinn says — and clearly some voters were not ready to forgive and forget.

Two days before last Tuesday’s Republican primary runoff, the flag issue resurfaced when Rep. Jim DeMint, who won decisively, declared "it should stay right where it is and I don’t think the state legislature or governor should spend any more time on it."

Mr. Beasley accused his opponent of "trying to bring back the most divisive issue this state has ever had."

In Greenwood, S.C., local radio talk-show host Terry Rust says the flag issue is still "big" with listeners, as he discovered after mentioning Mr. Beasley during his WLMA afternoon program one recent afternoon.

"I started getting calls — I had three callers in a row say [if Mr. Beasley gets the Republican nomination] they would go to the polls, they’d vote for President Bush, but they wouldn’t vote for David Beasley," Mr. Rust recalls. "It’s not the flag, per se, but it’s that he lied. … He was the Republican Bill Clinton."

A recent e-mail sent to Confederate heritage groups in South Carolina included a 2003 photo showing Mr. Beasley with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

"Who can you trust? Definitely not David Beasley," the e-mail warned, declaring that the Republican had gone to Boston "to hobnob with Teddy Kennedy."

"He accepted a Profile in Courage Award on the sole accomplishment of removing the flag from the dome."

In the Old Dominion

As the annual meeting of SCV’s Virginia division is called to order, members gathered at a Best Western motel in South Hill, Va., to pay homage to three flags, saying the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag and reciting salutes to the Confederate flag and the Virginia state flag.

"I salute the flag of Virginia, with reverence and patriotic devotion to the ‘Mother of States and Statesmen’ which it represents," the state salute proclaims, "the ‘Old Dominion,’ where liberty and independence were born."

The salute is a sore point with many Virginia SCV members, who complain that "political correctness" keeps schools from teaching it to schoolchildren. Adopted by the state in 1954, it was written by Cassye Gravely of Martinsville, a leading member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

In 2002, when the state legislature voted to begin each day’s session with the salute to the state flag, black lawmakers announced they would refuse to recite it.

"I don’t want to be part of the Old Dominion. I want to be part of the New Dominion," Delegate Dwight Clinton Jones, Richmond Democrat, said at the time. Another Richmond Democrat, Delegate Viola O. Baskerville, complained that the salute "was penned at a time when our state was most divisive."

Divisive or not, Brag Bowling, past commander of the Virginia SCV, says Confederate heritage issues played a role in the state’s gubernatorial election in 2001.

Previous governors annually had proclaimed April as Confederate History Month, but Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, came under threat of a NAACP boycott in 2001. Mr. Gilmore instead issued a neutral proclamation, "in remembrance of the sacrifices and honor of all Virginians who served in the Civil War."

Angry SCV leaders declared that Mr. Gilmore "turned his back on people of Southern heritage" and paid $7,000 for a full-page ad in the Richmond Times-Dispatch paying tribute to Confederate soldiers who "spilled their blood defending the sacred soil of Virginia."

Mark Earley, Virginia’s attorney general in 2001 as well as the Republican gubernatorial candidate, went to federal court in a failed attempt to prevent the state from issuing specialty license plates for SCV members. Mr. Earley subsequently was defeated by Democrat Mark Warner.

"One of the major reasons Earley lost that election was his opposition to Confederate History Month," Mr. Bowling says. "He lost that election, in my opinion, in Southside Virginia. A Republican candidate cannot win statewide election in Virginia unless he wins in Southside" — where, Mr. Bowling says, support for Confederate heritage is strongest.

Rebel yells

Gil Davis doesn’t underestimate the political impact of the Confederate past.

"We all have a heritage that ought to be celebrated," Mr. Davis tells Virginia SCV members at their April 25 banquet.

A lawyer who is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2005, Mr. Davis traveled some 180 miles from his Fairfax home for the convention in South Hill, near the North Carolina border.

"There is no other region of the country with more patriotism and love for country than the South," Mr. Davis says at the banquet.

When he declares that he will support a Confederate Heritage Month proclamation for Virginia, the room erupts in the high-pitched whoop of the Rebel yell.

While Mr. Davis and other Republicans — including Attorney General Jerry Kilgore, a gubernatorial candidate — have expressed support for honoring Virginia’s Confederate history, SCV’s Mr. Bowling says the current Democratic governor "has done some good things for Confederate heritage."

In January, Mr. Warner issued a proclamation honoring the birthdays of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Mr. Bowling notes. Mr. Warner also issued a proclamation in March honoring the crew of the CSS Hunley, coinciding with SCV’s memorial service for a Hunley crewman from Virginia who perished in 1864 when the Confederate submarine sank after its attack on a Union ship in Charleston harbor.

"About as much as you could expect from a Democrat," Mr. Bowling says.

‘A fair vote’

Confederate heritage is a bipartisan issue in Georgia, says William Lathem, spokesman for the Atlanta-based Southern Heritage Political Action Committee.

"We’ll work against politicians on both sides of the aisle that have voted against Southern heritage and against allowing the people a fair vote on the flag," Mr. Lathem says.

Confederate heritage supporters in Georgia point to the 2001 vote in Mississippi, where the Confederate-themed state flag garnered 65 percent in the statewide referendum, even winning in some majority-black districts.

The vote proved to be an omen for Mr. Musgrove, the Democratic governor who had pushed for changing the flag. Heavy turnout of Republican voters in key counties ensured his defeat in 2002.

"You can’t look at the turnout and say the flag didn’t have an impact," says David Hampton, editorial page editor of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, Mississippi’s largest newspaper.

After the overwhelming response in the referendum, Mr. Hampton says, "I think [the state flag issue is] over for a long time now. … I don’t think there’s going to be any viable political move to change it."

Like leading newspapers in other Southern states that now regularly oppose Confederate heritage — including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. — the Clarion-Ledger, part of the Gannett chain, editorialized in support of changing the Mississippi flag.

"It was an unpopular position," Mr. Hampton says of the paper’s stance. "But we considered it important for the state’s image and economic development and still think that’s the right thing for the state."

In Mississippi, those who advocated changing the state flag warned of economic consequences if their efforts failed. However, a threatened NAACP boycott of Mississippi failed to materialize after the referendum.

John White, communications director of the NAACP, says leaders of the organization’s Mississippi branch opposed a boycott. The NAACP’s tourism boycott of South Carolina remains in force, he says.

"The boycott was not initiated by the national office, but by the state branch, and then approved at the national level," Mr. White says.

Mr. Sullivant says tourism actually has increased in South Carolina since the NAACP began its boycott.

‘Blood of heroes’

When Georgia legislators voted to keep the 1956 design off the flag referendum this year, Mr. Lathem says, "I tried to warn them if they didn’t listen to us in the General Assembly, they were going to hear from us on the campaign trail."

Legislators heard from the "flaggers" during the April rally, when their voices echoed through the marble-floored Capitol Rotunda as they sang "The Bonnie Blue Flag":

Then here’s to our Confederacy, strong we are and brave. Like patriots of old, we’ll fight our heritage to save.

Ron Wilson, SCV’s national commander, argues that Mr. Perdue and other Georgia leaders should learn a lesson from politicians who have opposed Confederate heritage.

"Whether it’s David Beasley, Jim Hodges, Jim Folsom or Roy Barnes, how many more will we have to defeat until they learn to leave our heritage alone?" he asks the crowd.

Though the Confederate symbol has been removed from the state flag, the Capitol itself still is crowded with reminders of Georgia’s past. Among them are a large portrait of Robert Toombs, a Georgia secessionist leader who served as a Confederate general, and a marble bust of Alexander Stephens, the Georgian who was vice president of the Confederacy.

"The blood of heroes flows through our veins," Jack Bridwell, commander of Georgia’s SCV division, tells the crowd. "We shall prevail."