Cultural Symbols Of the Old South Clash With Spirit Of the Olympics
ATLANTA — To many Americans, Confederate symbols have been as much a part of the South as grits and the cajun two-step.
But as Atlanta prepares to welcome the world to the Centennial Olympic Games next week, the Southern capital is busy sanitizing its history - including taking down the Confederate flag and downplaying slave traditions - to promote itself as an international city.
The South has long battled with its thorny past, reexamining its Civil War roots and racial practices. But with more than 2 million visitors and 10,000 athletes from around the world about to descend on the region, the cultural tensions are resurfacing.
"What's happening is Southerners as a group don't know how to share the past with each other yet, and therefore they can't figure out how to share it with the rest of the world," says James Cobb, a history professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
The issue is being tested in several different ways:
*Atlanta city officials have taken down the Georgia state flag, which features a Confederate battle emblem, from city hall and county buildings. In its, place they've hoisted the flag that flew before the "stars and bars" was added in 1956. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games is prohibiting flags at venues other than those of participating countries. ACOG says the ban is a long-standing Games tradition. The Georgia flag will only fly over state-owned buildings.
*Commercial sponsors of a historic festival in Roswell, a suburb north of Atlanta, have asked city officials to delete the word "antebellum" from the festival's title and cancel a Civil War encampment. A city historic group then decided to remove a marker indicating where slave quarters once stood on the grounds of a white-columned mansion.
*Stone Mountain Park, site of the Olympics' tennis, cycling, and archery venues, and known for its large granite carving of Confederate generals, has opened a new museum that examines the park's history. But park officials have opted to show the positive impact people have had on the park and not include exhibits on the Ku Klux Klan, which held rallies and cross burnings on or near the mountain into the 1980s.
Historians say the conflict over how to treat Southern history and culture is something the Olympics may help clarify. The focus on the South during the Olympics may "accelerate the process of either forcing black and white Southerners to come to some sort of common agreement about their past ... or to admit that they're divided rather than united by it," Professor Cobb says.
Some find the efforts to treat history gingerly offensive. But the flag, perhaps more than any other symbol, ignites the most contentious debate.
"It's unfortunate that [some in Atlanta] have taken a stance that there are parts of our culture that need to be hidden," says Jim Reynolds, Georgia commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who disagrees with attempts to ban Confederate symbols. "They're trying to be politically correct, and I think they're insulting the people of Georgia," he says. "We're not willing to wave the Confederate flag as a symbol of hatred or any type of political issue. It's just a symbol of where we came from. It's like the coat of arms, a family crest hanging from your wall."
Debating what to censor
Many black leaders say they believe parts of history should not be omitted, such as removing a sign showing where slaves lived. But they take issue with the Confederate emblem on the Georgia flag, which the Legislature adopted in 1956 to protest desegregation.
"It's ludicrous to try to take away historical facts, but the flag is not a historical fact," says the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "If [the state] really wanted to present a good image ... it would have made plenty of sense to change that because the flag is an ugly symbol of defiance and nullification," he says.
The issue of how to portray Southern culture is happening in a city that has always worried how others perceived it. "Atlanta has a very image-conscious history," says Andy Ambrose, curator of "The American South: Past, Present and Future," an exhibit at the Atlanta History Center. "But you have no credibility if you don't deal with [all] aspects of the region's history."
Not unique to Atlanta
Still, the problem is not unique to Atlanta or the South.
"Look at all the things people are fighting about all over the world that revolve around different interpretations of the past," Cobb says. "I doubt that if the situation were reversed and we were visiting [another country] that they would be comfortable about showing us a completely uncensored version of their past either. We're just sensitive to it here in the South."
Most visitors will be looking for aspects of the Old South anyway, many agree, including plantation houses, hoop skirts, and antebellum and Civil War culture.
While they'll find little of this in Atlanta, it will be on display in towns and counties surrounding Atlanta. The Sons of Confederate Veterans, for example, is staging a Civil War battle reenactment and an antebellum dance in Newnan, south of Atlanta.
"When visitors go outside Atlanta they'll see people all around with flags in their yards, Confederate monuments in the courthouse square, cemeteries, antebellum houses," Mr. Reynolds says. "Those can't be hidden."