The governor is flapping around like a headless chicken begging the feds for money to keep alive Georgia’s health insurance program for children in need. The transportation nightmare in metro Atlanta could not get worse. Water polluters and land despoilers are pushing enough legislation to fill two freight cars. Loan sharks with fresh ideas for predation are circling the Statehouse. The tax code, the criminal defense system and flagging economic development require immediate attention.
So what issue has many legislators most riled up this year? For too many lawmakers, it is none of the above. Instead, the hubbub concerns a demand for an apology for slavery and a proposal to set aside April to remember the Confederacy. Then, of course, widespread concern has emerged about the delay in putting up the portrait of a civil rights icon in the Capitol rotunda.
Are the point people for these irrelevancies nuts or just plain stupid? Or are some lawmakers, black and white, intent on replaying the race card to divert attention from legislative laziness or crookedness on a half-dozen fronts?
An apology for slavery? How about something a little more current? How about an apology for the highest infant mortality rate in the civilized world? Or maybe one for a life expectancy among black males that is lower than the life span of most Congolese? How about saying “I’m sorry” to whites and blacks for some of the worst public schools on the planet, and a capital city that is becoming best known for murders, home invasions and bank robberies?
Then there’s the idea of setting aside April to commemorate the Confederacy and, as Republican Sen. Jeff Mullis puts it, “the cause of Southern independence.” I’ve got a better idea. Let’s set aside April to conjure up the ghosts of Jefferson Davis, Alexander Stephens, Robert Toombs, John B. Gordon and similar souls and ask them a few simple questions such as: “What in tarnation were you thinking? Why would anybody engage in a war he knew the smaller, poorer, agrarian Confederacy could not win — a war that would cost the South hundreds of thousands of lives and leave our region destitute and laggard for more than a century?”
I am a fairly well-schooled fifth-generation Georgian, and I am still baffled about leadership that marched us into a disastrous, unwinnable war and why we continue to honor those leaders for doing so.
Even so, I believe I understand where Mullis is coming from. He is slapping back at African-American lawmakers for demanding an apology for slavery. The slave-apology Democrats and the hooray-for-the-Rebs Republicans are succeeding in digging the ditch deeper between blacks and whites not only in the Legislature but also the state. Shame on both sides.
Considering the tactical politics of the debate, the slavery issue is more troubling. It is a replay of the change-the-flag controversy of a few years back. For blacks, the outcome of the apology issue could be as calamitous as the flag-changing campaigns. The Democratic black leadership in the General Assembly must have lost their institutional memory.
Gov. Zell Miller in 1993 stirred up a firestorm of controversy when he tried briefly to remove the Confederate battle symbol from the state flag. The fuss nearly cost him re-election to a second term.
Then along came Gov. Roy Barnes with an active agenda for reforming schools, improving transportation and enhancing the economy. Black leaders wanted more. They demanded the Confederate cross be dropped from the Georgia flag. They threatened boycotts and promised to make a national issue of their cause. The white business community panicked and insisted Barnes move quickly on the flag issue. He did. The flag was changed, and the black-white racial divide returned in the Gold Dome.
Barnes’ political career collapsed. A biracial coalition of Democrats that had ruled Georgia for 40 years disappeared overnight. The GOP became Georgia’s white majority party. African-American lawmakers lost nearly all political influence. Legislative and congressional districts were redrawn to maximize white Republican voting strength and squeeze out Democrats of all colors. But black activists, led by Jesse Jackson, proclaimed proudly they had prevailed in the flag fight. Georgia’s new state flag includes no Confederate cross, though it is a virtual replica of the official Confederate national flag.
Now in 2007, the slavery apology debate is traveling a parallel course. If a floor debate occurs, Georgia will be back in the national headlines, and our races will be further divided. African-Americans might even get an apology for slavery, but, in the end, they will be further than ever away from acquiring the power and influence needed to confront their constituents’ real problems.
Contact Shipp at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org