Symbols can be powerful things, so searing that they linger in human hearts and minds for generations even after the cause they represent has faded into history. Such symbols become a sort of ghost, a stubborn piece of the past that continues to haunt the present.
Take, for example, the Confederate battle flag, a ghost that this week was finally laid to rest in Georgia, banished to museums and textbooks and other repositories of history where it belongs. The moment should not go unnoted, because it marks the end of an era.
Outside the state Capitol Wednesday, a small group of middle-aged men gathered to once more wave the old state flag, the banner dominated by the Confederate battle emblem, and to pledge their continued loyalty to the cause that flag represents to them.
While such rallies have become a familiar sight at the Capitol in recent years, this time there was something very different about it.
This time, the protesters were much smaller in number, topping out at around 40 instead of the 100 or more that have gathered in the past. This time, the atmosphere was noticeably more melancholy, almost funereal. I saw no smiles and little excitement.
As in the old days, the speakers talked of never giving up, of seeking political retribution against those "turncoats" who had betrayed their cause, but it seemed as though the experience of too many battles fought and lost had wrung the confidence from their words.
It would be too much to say that they were going through the motions -- that would give their sincerity too little credit. But it was hard not to see the gathering as a ritual and perhaps final pledging of loyalty to a symbol that they now knew, deep in their hearts, could never be resurrected.
Nor should it be. The St. Andrew's cross that they treasured had originally served as a rallying point for Confederate soldiers in the Civil War; tens of thousands of lives had been lost beneath its shadow, each of those lives helping to invest the emblem with meaning that for some would last more than a century.
After the war, the cross re-emerged as a symbol of redeemed white supremacy here in the South, as a sign for white Southerners that there could be victory in defeat after all. Black Southerners, not surprisingly, saw it as something quite different.
The battle flag took on yet another role in 1956, when defenders of the Old South made it a dominant part of the Georgia flag to demonstrate their support for racial segregation then under attack in the federal courts. The flag was more than a sign of reverence for the past; it was a protest against the future.
That future, though, would not be turned away. Segregation disappeared, and as black Georgians began to take their proper places in the halls of power, pressure grew to exorcise the ghost. In 1993, defenders of the racist emblem succeeded in beating back an effort by then-Gov. Zell Miller to change the flag, and they almost ended Miller's political career as punishment for his heresy. Pro-flag rallies at the Capitol in that era had a joyous, almost celebratory air about them.
In 2001, when Gov. Roy Barnes tried again to change the flag, the so-called "heritage groups" lacked the power to stop him, but in their loss they found a righteous anger that contributed to Barnes' own defeat for re-election.
The winner of that election, Sonny Perdue, had wooed flag defenders by promising to let state voters decide the matter. It was a cynical promise, and it would be cynically kept.
This week, Perdue did allow voters to voice their opinion on the state flag, but the vote held Tuesday was advisory only, and neither of the two choices on the ballot were the 1956 flag featuring the Confederate emblem. The current state flag was approved overwhelmingly, giving flag groups no conceivable means by which to push their cause further.
For them, March 2, 2004 was their Appomattox, the day that continued struggle ceased to matter. In a few isolated legislative districts, they may still have the power to threaten incumbents, just as scattered fighting continued a few weeks after Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender. But the ghost is gone, never to return, never to haunt us again.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor.
© Copyright 2004 Atlanta Journal-Constitution