A 1992 photo of Stacey Abrams, who is now the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, has resurfaced, showing Abrams ― who was in college at the time ― at a protest where students burned what was then Georgia’s state flag. The flag prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem, a symbol that has strong historical associations with racism and white supremacy.
In the photo ― originally from a 1992 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, and republished in The New York Times on Monday ― a young Abrams stands with three other students burning the flag at the Georgia Capitol. The original Journal-Constitution story quotes one of the student protesters as saying, “We’re going to send Georgia’s racist past up in flames.”
As the New York Times article made the rounds on social media Monday and Tuesday, some criticized the Times for covering the matter on the eve of Abrams’ debate against Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), her opponent in the governor’s race. (The New York Times article said the photo had “begun to emerge on social media.”)
At Tuesday night’s debate, Abrams addressed the panelists’ very first question to her, about her participation in the 1992 flag-burning protest, by saying she was a “very proud Georgian” and noting she went to college in Atlanta and came back after law school because she “wanted to help build my state.”
“Twenty-six years ago, I along with many other Georgians … were deeply disturbed by the racial divisiveness that was embedded in that state flag with the Confederate symbol,” Abrams said. “I took an action of peaceful protest. I said that was wrong.”
Many people on Twitter were quick to support Abrams’ participation in a protest during her college years, noting the Confederate symbol’s ties to Georgia’s and America’s racist history. Georgia’s flag was changed in 2001 to remove the Confederate emblem.
Abrams’ campaign said in a statement that Abrams in 1992 “was involved with a permitted, peaceful protest against the confederate emblem in the flag.”
At the time, the state was “at a crossroads, struggling with how to overcome racially divisive issues, including symbols of the confederacy,” the campaign said. There was a broader movement, including efforts by students and prominent groups, seeking to remove the Confederate symbol from Georgia’s flag.
The state flag that Abrams was protesting had been redesigned in 1956 to include the Confederate emblem. The redesign was a response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision two years earlier to end racial segregation in schools, according to a 2000 paper from the Georgia state Senate research office.
In recent years, there has been widespread debate over Confederate symbols, and people have protested monuments to the Confederacy nationwide. Some of those monuments were subsequently taken down. During the Civil War, Confederate Southern states fought to uphold the enslavement of African-Americans.
Last year, Abrams called for the removal of Confederate war leaders on the face of Georgia’s Stone Mountain, which is owned by the state. She wrote on Twitter: “We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the union.” Kemp in turn posted on Facebook that if elected governor, he would “protect Stone Mountain and historical monuments in Georgia from the radical left.”
The Georgia governor’s race has also made national headlines in recent weeks as issues of voting rights have surfaced. The Associated Press reported earlier this month that over 53,000 voter applications ― nearly 70 percent of them from black people ― were on hold for verification with Kemp’s office. As secretary of state, Kemp oversees elections in the state.
After the AP report came out, civil rights groups sued Georgia in federal court over the process to verify new voter registrations, saying it was unreliable and discriminatory. Abrams has accused her opponent of voter suppression, and her campaign reportedly called for Kemp to resign as the state’s election chief. Kemp has denied purging the voter rolls of people of color, saying the state’s policy amounts to routine voter roll maintenance.
The story has been updated with Abrams’ comments during the debate.