Big battle looms as Atlanta insists on flying flag for Dixie: Civil rights groups say Confederate banner is racist

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The Independent Online
TWO BATTLES will be fought in Atlanta tomorrow. One is the choreographed warfare of the Superbowl, American football's equivalent of the Cup Final. The other surrounds the state flag of Georgia, which will fly above the stadium where the gladiators will perform - holdover from a Civil War that formally ended 129 years ago, but even now is not quite over.

While the Dallas Cowboys and the Buffalo Bills perform onfield in the most lucrative annual setpiece of US sport, civil rights organisations from around the country plan their own demonstration outside to protest at the Confederate emblem contained in the flag, proof they say of the racism that lives on below the Mason-Dixon line.

For decades, the symbols of the Confederacy have split the South. Devotees argue they are simply part of the region's history and culture. But for America's blacks, and not only them, they signify oppression, white supremacy and slavery. 'The flag is the Confederate swastika,' says Georgia State Representative Ralph Abernathy, son of the former civil rights leader.

At the heart of the row is the famous battle flag of 13 stars inside a diagonal cross, introduced by the Confederate commander General Robert E Lee at the outbreak of hostilities in 1861. In 1956 the Georgia legislature, enraged by a Supreme Court ruling banning school segregation, incorporated it into the state's own flag.

And there it has remained ever since, mocking every effort of Atlanta - birthplace of Martin Luther King - to project itself as the cradle of the modern civil rights movement and standard-bearer of an enlightened and dynamic 'New South'. Indeed, the Confederate flag has become a favourite banner of neo-Nazi and other far-right groups, in the US and beyond.

The Superbowl is only part of the problem. If nothing is done, the same state flag will be flying when the Olympics, the biggest international sporting jamboree of them all, comes to town in 1996. Worry over what might happen then, when Atlanta for a fortnight is centre of the universe, prompted Georgia's Democratic Governor, Zell Miller, to try to bring back the old flag two years ago. But huge local resistance forced him to back down.

Nor is the row over the Confederate flag confined to Georgia. Mississippi displays it on its own state flag. South Carolina flies it from its state capitol; so, until January 1993, did Alabama. Only last weekend in Washington, a new dispute erupted when police unexpectedly barred another Confederate flag from a ceremony marking the 187th anniversary of Lee's birth.

But short of an unexpected diplomatic solution, an estimated 750 million television viewers around the world will see the offending object tomorrow, in all its dubious splendour. And rightly so, says Lee Collins of the Heritage Preservation Association among others: 'These Confederate symbols serve as a memorial to people who died fighting for independence; there is nothing wrong with that.'

And whatever the sleek modernity on which Atlanta prides itself, selling the Old South will be part and parcel of the 1996 Games. The Confederate flag may or may not be flying. But a dollars 30m ( pounds 20m) 'Gone with the Wind' theme-park will be one of the city's main non-sporting Olympic attractions.

(Photograph omitted)