By SCOTT LEITH
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 01/20/05

And you thought the battle over the state flag was finished.

For most people, it is, thanks to a 2004 referendum that overwhelmingly approved the banner that now flutters across Georgia.

But the Rev. Bill Swann and a group of fellow thinkers are still out there, fighting for a return of the old flag and its long-controversial Confederate symbol.

Swann’s pet project in the effort is an ongoing boycott of Coca-Cola, a company he believes was partial to opponents of the old flag. He’s been avoiding Coke drinks since 2002.

"I was 52 years old then, and I’d never tasted a Pepsi drink," Swann said. Now, even the church where he preaches has replaced a Coke machine, and Swann claims he’s been joined by tens of thousands of other like-minded people.

The flaggers face long, long odds. But the ongoing debate is a reminder that, in the South, history is never history. It’s even been enough to prompt fights against some unlikely targets, including Coca-Cola, the South’s most famous company.

Those who are passionate about the flag issue are pursuing other boycotts, too, against businesses they think were against them, such as Home Depot and Delta Air Lines. They especially dislike the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, which wanted a new flag.

To those who fought for the changes, the ongoing protests are of little worry. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) labored two decades to rid Georgia’s banner of the Confederate battle flag, which appeared in 1956. He’s not expecting another change.

"We won that battle," Brooks said. "The debate over the flag is over."

Referendum sought

But the flag has remained of interest to some fringes of the electorate, chiefly outside Atlanta. On Wednesday, the battle flag was flying again as dozens of Confederate loyalists gathered at the state Capitol to mark the birthday of Robert E. Lee.

Not surprisingly, the crowd was heavy with loyalists to the old flag. One lawmaker, state Rep. Timothy Bearden (R-Villa Rica), has even decided to take up the issue, despite slim chances for success.

A former cop who now runs a business that makes awards and trophies, Bearden is new to the statehouse. During his campaign in 2004, Bearden said he found many voters who still talked about the flag issue and wanted a chance to vote on the 1956 banner.

He has introduced a bill to stage an "advisory referendum" that would offer the 1956 flag as an option. Flaggers are still rankled that last year’s referendum left out the controversial ’56 flag.

Rusty Henderson, of the Atlanta-based Heritage Preservation Association, favors another vote. In flagger circles, however, Henderson is on the moderate side, and he’s not in favor of tactics like boycotting Coke.

"We would really like to do this in a noncontroversial way, if possible," he said.

Swann, on the other hand, stopped drinking Coke after an article in the Journal-Constitution noted the company was among several businesses that gave money to candidates who wanted a new flag.

That was in 2002. As the debate swelled, Swann, of Marietta, got in touch with others who preferred the old flag. He said his anti-Coke views were cemented when he wrote a letter to former Chairman and Chief Executive Doug Daft, only to get what he viewed as a dismissive response.

A popular target

Today, Swann and others like to note that Coke was invented by a Confederate war veteran, pharmacist John Stith "Doc" Pemberton. Nevermind that this overlooks another fact — the name "Coca-Cola" and its now-familiar logo were created by a Union Army veteran, Maine native Frank Mason Robinson.

As the best-known company in the world, Coke is accustomed to protests, even ones loosely connected to the company.

The company has been a top target of anti-American activists in the Middle East, for example. In Colombia, union supporters have claimed Coke supports anti-union violence. That protest took off in some quarters, chiefly among left-leaning groups on college campuses.

Coke declined to comment about the flaggers, who are convinced their boycott is hurting the company’s sales. The evidence: Coke’s laggard business in North America.

It’s true that Coke’s sales volume in the region has been sluggish. But even if the boycott has 200,000 adherents, as Swann believes, that’s still a small portion of a market which, counting the United States and Canada, includes about 320 million people.

"I think they’ll have little impact on Coke," said Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University. Black also doesn’t expect the flag matter, with its abundant controversy, to come back for another debate.

"For most people, this issue is resolved," Black said.