Symbols and Substance: Confederate Flags, Jim Crow Laws, and Voter IDs

Georgia's Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who swept to office on a wave of white outrage over disrespect of the Confederate flag, today signed a bill that would finally repeal discriminatory laws left over from the fight against civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s. The laws had been designed to circumvent the Supreme Court's 1954 ruling against school segregation in Brown v. Board of Education; taken together, they essentially allowed white-only public schools to be reconstituted as "private" schools using state money, resources, and buildings. The old laws hadn't been enforced for years.

The Confederate state flag Perdue was defending had the same purpose and vintage as the anti-desegregation laws he has belatedly repealed. The flag, far from being an artifact of the state's Civil War heritage, was introduced in 1956 (in a bill cosponsored by a man named Jefferson Lee Davis) as an act of defiance against the civil rights movement. It replaced the state's original flag, a version of the first Confederate national flag (the "Stars and Bars"), with a banner incorporating the much more familiar (and inflammatory) "Southern Cross" of the Confederate battle flag (a blue St. Andrew's cross with white stars against a red background).

In 2001 Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes replaced the anti-civil rights flag with a blue flag that did include, in detail, a tiny representation of the previous flag; when Barnes, U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, and other Democrats were swept out of office by white backlash in 2002, Perdue brokered a compromise that resulted in a flag strongly reminiscent of the original state flag (but not the controversial Southern Cross). (Click here for more details about Georgia's various state flags.)

Meanwhile, Perdue, as Chris pointed out yesterday, has also signed into law a bill requiring voters to show government-issued photo IDs, a requirement that could result in discrimination against minorities, the poor, and the elderly, all of whom are less likely to have such identification.

"It is ironic and significant that the governor signed the infamous HB 244, the most discriminatory voting law in the 21st Century, before he repealed the unenforceable Jim Crow laws," said Senate Minority Leader Robert Brown (D-Macon). Before it goes into effect, the law has to be vetted by the federal government to make sure it doesn't violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965.