Friday, September 29, 2006

Memories of Ole Miss and Gov. Barnes

As the 4-0 Bulldogs travel to Oxford for a meeting with Ole Miss, a memory from 5 years ago stirs........

So what does Ole Miss and Gov. Barnes have in common? Well when I think of both, I think of flags. Ole Miss has spent much of the last 20 years locked in a battle with both internal and external forces over its use of the nickname "Rebels" and the use of the Confederate battle flag by its fans.

And, of course, Gov. Barnes was the man bold enough to coax, prod, preach, and even arm twist members of the Georgia legislature to change the state flag. As everyone remembers, under Barnes, we went from the 1956 flag with the Confederate "stars and bars" prominently displayed to a flag that was born out of good intentions, but ugly as homemade sin.

It was early Nov. of 2001 and I had attended a conference in Savannah. The sessions ended Friday morning. So I left a little early (if you stay at the Hyatt Regency you'd better leave early) and made the long drive from Savannah to Memphis. I was going to the UGA/Ole Miss game with two other friends who decided to fly rather than make the long drive.

The trick to this trip was that (then) State Rep. Hugh Broome had invited my tax commissioner and I for a private meeting with Gov. Barnes in his office the following Monday morning. The meeting was really about a property tax matter that the commissioner was helping Rep. Broome to get passed and had nothing to do with me or my job. But hey, I'd never been invited to the Gov.'s office before, so I accepted. All of this meant, though, another long drive on Sunday and an overnight stay in Atlanta.

I had never visited Memphis or the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi, which was only about an hour's drive from the TN state line. So this trip was something I had been looking forward to. I wasn't disappointed. Memphis was somewhat reminiscent of New Orleans but not as flashy. Although Beale St. is pretty flashy.

The next day we headed down to Oxford. We wanted to see a little of the local charm that attracted Faulkner, Hemmingway, and Grisham to the area. It was easy to see what they loved about the town, and why they found it inspirational. Many SEC schools are in "small towns." But Ole Miss really sneaks up on you in Oxford. It was as lovely and different as I had always been told.

Tailgaters mingled in "the Grove" with their tents, table cloths, and even some candlelabras. The people were friendly to visitors, offering us some fried chicken, "tater" salad, beer, etc. It was really a sight to behold as they seemed to have their own way of doing things. Which is part of what makes visiting different college towns so interesting.

We didn't see many Confederate flags around. And what we did see was basically the same thing that we see at other SEC and ACC towns in terms of old south symbols and imagery. I've been from Baton Rouge to Knoxville and from Gainesville, FL to Clemson, SC and all of those places (including Athens) feature a certain segment of their fan base that likes to display such things. Georgia Tech isn't excluded either. Just check out the parking lot at Alexander Memorial Coliseum on their campus during a home game. Yet, because of their nickname, "Rebels," Ole Miss seems to bear the brunt of the criticism on the subject.

On a beautiful afternoon, Georgia won the game, 35-15. I crossed another locale off my list of places to visit. The next day, I dropped my friends off at the airport and made the long drive across northern MS and AL to Atlanta for the next morning's meeting.

I love visiting the Georgia state capitol. We are so fortunate to have such a beautiful symbol of our state government. This might sound corny or cliche, but when I go there, I always the exact feeling of reverence that I did the very first time I went there.

I ran accross the street to purchase some population maps in preparation for some local reapportionment and stopped by the Sec. of State's office to pick up some supplies. And then I met the others for our meeting. Rep. Broome, an interesting character himself, regaled us with stories of his playing days at UGA under legendary Coach Wally Butts as we waited.

By the looks of the waiting area of the inner sanctum of the Gov's office, Barnes was having a busy Monday morning. Which made it all the nicer when we were ushered in and sat down for a 30 minute talk. He and Rep. Broome sat in the two rocking chairs sitting in front of the couch area, and we discussed the property tax bill that Rep. Broome would be introducing during the next legislative session.

But before we left, Gov. Barnes, as he sat there tugging on an unlit pipe, was very gracious in asking us about things in our home county. You know, "how's so and so doing?" "Tell his mamma I asked about her." "And is there anything that we can do to help you solve this problem?"

I complimented him on his bold gambit in changing the state flag and thanked him for showing the courage to do so. And I added that history will look upon him kindly for his efforts. Coming from a south Georgian, he seemed genuinely pleased to hear that. Indeed, after he left office, the JFK Library would honor Gov. Barnes with a Profiles in Courage Award for standing against even members of his own party to change the Georgia state flag.

Part of a politician's skill is her/his ability to meet people one-on-one or in large groups. Most of them are better at one than they are the other. Roy was no exception. He was a lot better one- on-one, at least on that morning anyway. Today, he acts like he's found his niche. Which can be hard to do when you're a beaten incumbent. It makes you re-think everything you've ever done. Looks like he's happy just being a lawyer. Given his work opposing the voter ID bill alone, we should all be thankful.

Zell was very good at both. One of the biggest thrills I've ever had listening to a speech was that night at the 1992 Demoratic convention when Zell set Madison Square Garden on fire. The Georgia contingent yelled over and over, "Give 'em hell Zell!" Before the speech was done, the entire room was joining us. It's hard to believe that Zell supported President Bush's re-election bid, joining people that made careers out of trying to tear Zell himself apart.

In fairness to Sonny, meeting him was very pleasant. Though he wasn't nearly as charming the first time I met him back in 1999 when I wasn't one of his constituents. Perhaps that's something he's worked on since then.

But one of my all time favorites was former Lt. Gov. and fellow Georgia Conservency member, Pierre Howard. As far as I'm concerned, he was a rare gentleman at that level of politics. I didn't rush to embrace Roy Barnes in 1998. It was Pierre that I wanted to support all along.

So as I reflect back on flags, football, and governors past, I am reminded of the fact that people are so different and so imperfect. We have different ideas, strengths, cultures, styles and motivations. But if there are two things that can really bring people, even the most unusual bed fellows, together in the south, it's football and politics.


Rocky said...


Great story - but I do feel the need to correct one minor point. The '56 flag did not incorporate the Stars and Bars (aka First National Flag of the Confederacy). Instead, it was the St. Andrew's Cross that was put on the flag in '56 as an act of defiance to Brown vs. Board of Education. Interestingly, it is our current flag that has the Stars and Bars in it. Of course it's the intent behind the incorporation which really matters. See the flag overviews here.

I think Barnes is still my favorite Governor because he was willing to take the political risk to do what was right. Even though "Uncle Zell" paid for my education (before he went off the deep end, talking about his party losing focus, supporting the current administration, and challenging C.Matthews to duels), Barnes showed the courage we need in our leaders. The Profiles in Courage award was well deserved. Barnes is still doing some great work. In addition to the voter id bill, let's not forget his part in bringing the Cobb laptop debacle to an end.

Interesting slightly related thought... today I was in Target and a young kid (probably 14 or so) was wearing a shirt with the battle flag that said "if this flag offends you, you need a history lesson". I was quite tempted to ask the young punk for the history lesson, but figured nothing good would come out of provoking a redneck adolescent.

There's also an interesting related article in today's Journal-Constitution about the issues surround the retired Ole Miss mascot, Col. Reb.

And perhaps most importantly.... go Dawgs!

Tina said...

In Georgia it would help it people would pay just a LITTLE more attention to what's actually happening in state government than they do to what's happening on the football field.

Button Gwinnett said...

Hey Rocky,

Thanks for the correction on the flag. That's not the first time I've made that mistake.

Last night's game wasn't pretty. Not playing up to par for two weeks in a row doesn't make me feel good about this week. Even though we've beaten Tennessee so often lately.

Button Gwinnett said...

Hey Tina,

Yes ma'am, now that Oct. is here (my favorite month by the way), I suspect that we'll have a lot more to talk about concerning the upcoming elections. So I promise to keep my priorities straight. But if I don't, please feel free to remind me. We all need a little help sometimes.


Tina said...

October is my favorite month, or would be but for the fact that it will mark birthday number 70! Eeeks. Last year I won four free tickets to the Georgia-Georgia Tech game in Athens and it rained all over me and son-in-law and grandkids. I am sure there are people that would have given their shirts for those four tickets. We left early because of the weather. At least I can claim i have been to one game in recent years.

rlpants said...



Button Gwinnett said...

LOL! Yeah I wouldn't exactly put Grisham in the same category as Faulkner and Hemmingway. But even though I Grisham attended Miss. St. in Starkville, I think he was also influenced by Oxford. I like a couple of his books, so I threw him in for funsies.