Carl Rowan is a very lucky man. For most of us, public policy is a difficult matter of tangled rights and needs, a knot that can only be cut with finesse. But Rowan's world is a simple place, where unchecked indignation and character smears amount to good journalism.

I am not so lucky. I do not live in Carl Rowan's simple world. I live in, and govern in, Alabama.

Rowan compared the flying of the Confederate flag over the capitol in my state to those who sport swastikas and worship Adolf Hitler. He said that someone who flies the Confederate flag is someone who "thinks the Civil War still goes on . . . a racist who thinks it is only a matter of time before this nation makes white supremacy its official policy and returns to slavery." Such judgments are easily made from the drawing rooms of the local press club.

Oddly enough, the Confederate flag has flown over the Alabama state capitol for many years under several Democratic governors and legislatures. Only now is it becoming the focus of vitriolic, personal attacks. Could there be another purpose to Carl Rowan's diatribe, perhaps a partisan desire to embarrass a Republican governor?

But if Carl Rowan really believes what he writes, then he believes that those who favored the Confederate flag in a recent Alabama newspaper poll by a margin of almost 3 to 1 see it as a symbol of slavery. Only in Carl Rowan's world of drawing-room abstractions could this be true.

There is no denying that the Confederate flag is abused by a sick few, just as the American flag is sometimes misused. But the reason most Alabamians want a Confederate flag is that they revere it as a banner of southern pride and tradition.

Are we racists if we refuse to tear down the First White House of the Confederacy, located across the street from the capitol, or if we refuse to remove the star that marks the spot on the steps of the capitol where Jefferson Davis was sworn in as the first president of the Confederacy? Are we racists if Virginia does not remove the name of Robert E. Lee from one of its great universities? Must we dynamite the face of Stone Mountain in Georgia to remove the relief portrait of southern generals? By the same token, are we also to order torn down the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church, a building down the street from the Alabama capitol where the great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once was pastor? In other words, are we to deny the unique history of the American South?

The Alabama state legislature has for three consecutive years voted down proposals to remove the flag, sometimes by margins of 4 to 1. Alabama legislators know, as their constituents know, that the Confederate flag is a reminder of the grandeur and the suffering of the South. Nothing more.

Unfortunately, the flag issue has been used by a few who thrive on an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination. Getting arrested before minicams for trying to scale the fence of the state capitol is undoubtedly a tremendous ego boost for some. But it is my duty to allow law officers to arrest those who want to make decisions for the rest of us. This is true of trespassers trying to scale the capitol dome. This also is true of Ku Klux Klanners who may insult and assault black Alabamians. (Besides, with the capitol under renovation, protesters could easily get hurt.)

The bottom line is simple: the flag issue is not going to be resolved to everyone's complete satisfaction because those for and against the flag are passionate and unyielding.

As governor of Alabama, the future of the flag is very low on my list of priorities. My state has the highest rate of infant mortality in the nation. Black Alabamians are in desperate need of better schools, decent housing and more jobs. We must put behind us forever the politics of divisiveness and seek new symbols of unity. One way to do that is to define what the flag means in unequivocal language and state in equally blunt terms what it does not represent. And then let us get on with the gritty and less glamorous work of building schools and homes, improving schools, saving dying babies and helping abused children.

Alabama has a Martin Luther King Day to honor the martyrs of the civil rights movement. Alabama also has a flag to honor the slain heroes of the Civil War. This is our twin history of suffering, our complex heritage. This is what makes us the South. Do not ask us to pull down our history, our pride and our tradition. Do not ask us to repudiate ourselves. -- Guy Hunt The writer is governor of Alabama.