Just 30 or so people attended the 1992 protest on the steps of Georgia’s State Capitol — a smattering of student activists but mostly reporters and a few Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents, snapping photos of demonstrators lighting a state flag on fire.
In the center of an Atlanta Journal-Constitution photo chronicling the event was a Spelman College freshman named Stacey Abrams, who, 26 years later, finds herself locked in a close race that could make her the nation’s first black female governor — and who is unapologetic about her role in the demonstration.
In Tuesday’s gubernatorial debate, Abrams said she was “proud of Georgia and proud to be a Georgian," but “deeply disturbed” by what the Confederate symbol stood for.
“Twenty-six years ago as a college freshman, I along with many other Georgians — including the governor of Georgia — were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that was embedded in the state flag with that Confederate symbol,” Abrams said in a response to a question, according to CNN. She called the protest “an action of peaceful protest” that reflected the views of many.
“I said that that was wrong," she added about the Confederate symbol. "And 10 years later, my opponent, [Georgia Secretary of State] Brian Kemp, actually voted to remove that symbol.”
Kemp, a Republican, did not speak on the flag issue during the debate, and his campaign did not return messages seeking comment. He has tried to portray Abrams as “too extreme for Georgia.” In ads and speeches since Abrams won the Democratic primary in May, Kemp has been calling her an out-of-touch liberal.
When Abrams was in college, more than half the Georgia state flag was made up of the Confederate emblem, which squeezed the Georgia state seal into a small rectangle on the left. The Confederate emblem was added in 1956 “as a rebuke of the growing civil rights movement,” the Associated Press reported. Previous flags had featured the state seal and blue and white bars.
Political pressure to change the state flag began to mount again as the state sought to host the 1996 Olympics and concerns rose that a blatant symbol of the Confederacy was harming the state’s business reputation, according to the AP.
In 2001, the state put the Confederate emblem in a much less prominent position on the flag, part of a smaller display of previous state flags beneath the phrase “Georgia’s History.” The latest iteration of the Georgia state flag, from 2003, erases the “Stainless Banner.”
Abrams has made no secret of her disdain for the Confederate images and symbols that dot her state, and the picture of her during the protest has become part of a growing debate about the role of those symbols in places of public veneration.
Georgia has one of the largest commemorations, a gigantic bas-relief carving on the side of Stone Mountain that features Confederate leaders: Gens. Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis.
In 2017, shortly after violence in Charlottesville during a white nationalist march, Abrams said the monument on Stone Mountain should be removed.
“Paid for by founders of the 2nd KKK, the monument had no purpose other than celebration of racism, terror & division when carved in 1915,” she wrote on Twitter. “We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the Union. Confederate monuments belong in museums where we can study and reflect on that terrible history, not in places of honor across our state.”
On the campaign trail, Kemp has said he would protect the monument “from the radical left.”
The differences of opinion about the flag were reflected on social media, where some said they would never vote for someone who had desecrated a flag, while others lauded Abrams for doing her part to get rid of a symbol of racism.
“Good for her,” one person wrote of Abrams. “I’d have set that thing on fire too.”