In Georgia, Old Struggles Live On

By Kelli Nero

TRENTON, Ga.—Signs direct us. They tell us to stop, yield, walk, go and slow down.

During the era of racial segregation in the American South, known as Jim Crow, signs such as "colored" and "white" also dictated where black and white people drank out of water fountains, used the bathroom, sat on buses and where they dined in restaurants.

Since the victories of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s, such signs have long disappeared. But one symbol of the old days remains in some places today: the Confederate flag, an emblem with powerful and contradictory meaning for many people —for some whites, a cherished reminder of history, for many blacks a symbol of hatred, racism, and oppression.

More than 135 years after the south surrendered in the Civil War, the stars and bars still fly as part of the state flags of Tennessee and Mississippi, where leaders from the NAACP have been leading a boycott of state business in an effort to force Mississippi to disavow the symbol.

Here in Georgia, the controversy still brews despite an effort by the state to put it to sleep.

Up until last year, the Confederate flag comprised two thirds of Georgia’s state flag. However, in a move that both upset and delighted many Georgians, Governor Roy E. Barnes and the state legislature voted to remake the flag entirely, reducing the stars and bars to just a tiny symbol in a sea of blue among other depictions of Georgia’s state flags through history.

To many in Georgia, including the state’s black leaders, the change seemed a fair and reasonable way to both come to terms with the past and face the future. State Representative Tyrone Brooks, an African-American legislator who led the movement to redesign the flag, saw the vote as a personal victory.

"It was like a new day being born in Georgia," said Brooks, reflecting on how he felt upon seeing the new flag raised atop the state capitol. "I said, ‘this is a new day for Georgia. We are no longer the old Georgia that celebrated the confederacy.’"

But old struggles never seem to die in the south, and it is here, in this small, predominantly white town of 2,000 in northwestern Georgia nestled between the Tennessee and Alabama borders, that the latest fight for the stars and bars is underway. Determined to preserve it, and defying the state’s move, Trenton leaders recently adopted the Confederate flag as the city’s own.


Trenton Mayor Paul Rollings displays the city flag, newly emblazoned with the stars and bars

It is a town where some residents take part as rebel soldiers in re-enactments of the War Between the States, and belong to the Sons and Daughters of the Confederacy, and where signs reading "Let Us Vote!" dot front yards. The signs refer to the desire of white opponents of the new Georgia flag to vote on the redesign, in hopes that the electorate will prove more conservative than the state’s political leaders and choose to return the stars and bars to official status.

"...Our Liberties as Southerners"

 "They allow you to vote on the lottery, but they won’t allow us to vote on the flag," said Freddie Parris, a member of  the Sons of Confederacy, a group involved in the preservation of Confederate history. "I felt like some of our rights again, our liberties as southerners are being taken away."

Parris owns a business in Trenton where he proudly displays the stars and bars. "We’re southerners, we’re not ashamed to be southerners," said Parris. "We’re not ashamed to fly the battle flag."

While the city’s flag decision met little opposition within the four square miles of the township, many around the state, including Rep. Brooks, and some in the city itself disapprove. Said Brooks, "I thought it was a terrible mistake for them to do that. I thought it was a terrible blow to the image of their community."

Lia Harrell, a 28-year-old Trentonian and Diabetes Outreach Coordinator, also opposes the new city flag.  "We want people here, we want people to come visit us, and not something that says you know what we like things the way they are and we are not willing to change," said Harrell.

One thing that hasn’t changed is Trenton’s defiant spirit. Trenton is located in  Dade County, a Georgia jurisdiction with a colorful history of political independence verging on such outlandish eccentricity that many from the area call it "the state of Dade."

The county is geographically isolated by its close proximity to Lookout Mountain, a mammoth peak separating many here from the rest of Georgia.  "Dade has been called the lost county because of the remoteness [and] the difficulty getting here…," said Forrester, a volunteer librarian at Trenton Public Library.

The county is barely a two-hour drive from Atlanta, but its hardy isolation has instilled in its residents a defiant spirit that has endured through time. In 1860, Dade County elected to secede from the Union when it seemed s though the state would not. In fact, Dade did not officially rejoin the Union until 1945, more than a hundred years after the end of the Civil War.

Yet this county, which relies on industrial plants and factories for its economic survival, also desperately needs to attract new business if it is to survive. And therein lies the rub. How, many people wonder here, can Dade attract business if towns like Trenton adopt measures like the flag decision that effectively keep the region stuck in the past?

Trenton indeed is a community conflicted. The people of Trenton seem torn between seeing their community grow and trying to preserve the small town feeling.

"I’d like to see a variety of different cultures here [and] I’d like to see more things for these kids to do," said Harrell. "I don’t want to see a lot of big business move in here because the small town feel is wonderful."

 "You’ve got to grow otherwise you’ll die," said Bill Marshall, a retired recreational vehicle business owner and Trentonian.

After resurrecting the stars and bars it remains to be seen what type of growth, if any, can take place in Trenton.