The day before what would have been the 74th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. last week, some 300 demonstrators marched down the street bearing his name en route to the Georgia Capitol. Their slogan was an echo of the civil rights struggles he had led. "Let us vote," their banners and their voices proclaimed.
But these marchers were white. Many of the men were dressed in gray Confederate army uniforms. And the flags they carried were the design Georgia adopted in 1956, as an act of defiance to the Supreme Court school desegregation decision and the civil rights movement then gathering strength in the South.
That flag was retired two years ago, when a new design, with markedly reduced prominence for the stars and bars of the Confederate battle emblem, was approved by Democratic Gov. Roy Barnes and rushed through the state legislature with a minimum of debate.
In the campaign last fall, Barnes's Republican challenger, Sonny Perdue, told voters he favored a public referendum on the flag issue. "Let us vote" signs blossomed on rural roads, and an outpouring of voters in those same counties helped make Perdue the first Republican elected governor of Georgia in 130 years.
In his inaugural address last week, Perdue told an overwhelmingly Republican and white invited audience that the exemplars of "a state noble in spirit and great in achievement" are Georgia's two Nobel Prize winners, former president Jimmy Carter and Dr. King. And he praised the slain civil rights leader as a man "who called his state, his region and his nation to live up to our central founding premise -- that all men are created equal."
But the next day, on the afternoon of the march by the Sons of Confederate Veterans and other "flaggers," as they are called here, Perdue said he would keep his campaign promise by asking the legislature to authorize an advisory referendum on the flag issue.
The new governor is in a bind. His own party is divided. Republican State Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson told me, "I don't think we'll ever go back to the old flag. Like 'Dixie,' it is gone forever." He and others said the Atlanta business establishment and suburban Republicans generally fear that the fight would be divisive and the publicity would harm efforts to attract new business and jobs.
Eric Tanenblatt, Perdue's chief of staff and a key adviser in the recent campaign, confirmed reports that the White House already has urged Perdue to keep the issue off the ballot in 2004, when President Bush will be running for reelection. Especially after the Trent Lott fiasco, Bush does not want to be drawn into a racially tinged controversy.
On the other side, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, the highest-ranking Democrat in state office, said that while he dreaded the prospect of a "very divisive" flag campaign, his sense is that "a referendum on the flag would probably be good for Democratic Party turnout." Republicans fear he may be right.
Still, Perdue's promise was specific -- and frequently repeated. It was not the sole or decisive issue in his upset victory over Barnes, who had fueled controversies with teachers, commuters and local officials by a variety of decisions. But for a governor trying to set a theme of building trust in government, it is not a promise he can discard.
"The governor looks on this as a year for reconciliation in Georgia," Tanenblatt told me. "The sooner this issue is resolved, the better."
A poll last month in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that two-thirds of those surveyed said it was somewhat or very important to them to be able to vote on the flag design. But there was no agreement on what the flag should be. Overall, 41 percent favored keeping the Barnes design, 23 percent wanted to go back to the large Confederate emblem, and 28 percent favored an unspecified third alternative.
In a measure of its polarizing potential, three-fourths of the African Americans said the old flag symbolized oppression and racial division, while nearly as many whites said it is a symbol of heritage and history.
Perdue's slogan is "a new day for Georgia." But the memories and symbols of the past remain powerful here.