ATLANTA — For years, the flag has flown high overhead, while people below have changed with the times. Black citizens fought for — and gained — their civil rights. Black children were granted their rightful education. A black man was elected mayor of the city.

And still the flag hung up there, on a pole above the state Capitol, flapping in the breeze, unyielding to the winds of progress. It is an old flag, yet a new flag. It is red, white and blue, the colors of our United States, yet it harkens to a time when this nation was not at all united.

It is the state flag of Georgia — and it’s suddenly news here at the Super Bowl. It features the crossed bars and stars of the old Confederate battle flag, which Southern soldiers waved as they charged into war with the North. If you see the fine movie “Gettysburg,” you will see this flag as a symbol of the weary but determined Confederate Army, in their ragtag clothes and bare feet, men who believed in their causes.

One of those, unfortunately, was slavery.

They lost. A shot against desegregation

That was a long time ago. For nearly 80 years after the Civil War, the State of Georgia had a inoffensive flag. Then, in 1956, a year many of you remember — in other words, this is recent history we’re talking about — the Georgia legislators got angry. They got angry at the historic U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said all Americans, black and white, were entitled to the same education. No more black schools and white schools.

It was called “desegregation.”

And Georgia said, “Oh yeah?”

The defiant spirit of their Civil War ancestors returned, with far less nobility. The Legislature, in protest of the Supreme Court ruling, slapped the Confederate battle symbol onto their flag. A big X. Same symbol that Ku Klux Klan members used years before when killing blacks and burning their homes.

And that is the flag that flies today.

It is in the news, because the eyes of our nation fall tonight on Atlanta,

and the Super Bowl. The game will be played in the magnificent new Georgia Dome. White men and black men will star together, teammates like Emmitt Smith and Troy Aikman, Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas.

And atop the stadium: the state flag.

Some journalists have noted the hypocrisy. They ask, “Why is this flag still flying — and how can the Super Bowl be played beneath it?”

Here is the answer the NFL and the State of Georgia have given: Ignore it. Symbol of the wrong things

“The advice we have been given (from local authorities) is not to get involved,” said Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner.

“This doesn’t affect the daily lives of individuals,” said Gov. Zell Miller, who once vehemently opposed the flag but now, with an election coming up, has backed off. “I did my duty. . . . I gave it my best shot. I lost.”

What Miller discovered is old news: The majority of Georgians want to keep their flag, just as it is. The latest survey showed 56 percent in favor, 32 percent against. Any politician can read those numbers.

And so can we. You may argue that states reflect the will of their people, and if Georgians want this disturbing symbol, who is the NFL to change that?

But you can also argue that the NFL has an obligation to its players and fans. A few years back, it yanked the Super Bowl from Phoenix, after Arizona voted against the Martin Lither King holiday. That, the NFL said, was not the right atmosphere for a sport in which more than half the players are black.

How is this flag issue so much different? Or, a better question: Why do Georgians cling so tightly to that flag, so desperately, that politicians run away when the issue is mentioned? Tradition? Come on. Any Georgian more than 38 years old has already lived through one flag change.

Could it be, in this age of political correctness, that some folks here take comfort in a time when whites had the upper hand, and a black man “knew his place”? If so, is that an atmosphere for the nation’s biggest sporting event?

Is that the atmosphere for the Olympics? They come here in 1996, remember?

Now, I know what many of you are thinking: good Lord, not another political correctness issue. It’s just a flag. Can’t they give it a rest? I understand your fatigue. And the answer is no.

Hatred begins in small places. In isolated acts. In spray paint and broken windows and yes, in symbols. Any honest Georgian can tell you why that flag was changed in 1956, and any decent Georgian would admit changing it now would be admirable and just.

To deny this is to mask disrespect — maybe even hatred — for other races. To do that would indeed be to honor Georgia’s Civil War forefathers.

But it’s nothing to be proud of.

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