April 14, 2007 — -- A civil rights leader in Alabama today accused former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani of flip-flopping and pandering on the confederate flag during his visit to the state capitol earlier in the week.
Giuliani, currently the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination, has in the past seemed to voice personal opposition to the flag, which to many African-Americans is an offensive symbol of bigotry and slavery.
But when the former New York mayor visited Montgomery, Ala., on Tuesday he said simply that the matter was a state issue.
Edward Vaughn, the president of the NAACP Alabama State Conference, who was in Montgomery that day, told ABC News that Giuliani's remarks disappointed him.
"Giuliani is posturing himself to try to get the conservative, right-wing, Southern white vote in Alabama," Vaughn said. "He used to oppose the flag, but now he's backtracked because he's running for president."
The Giuliani campaign responded that the mayor's position has consistently been that this issue should be decided by each individual state.
In September 1998, when then-South Carolina Gov. David Beasley was trying to remove from the state capitol in Columbia the symbol of the confederacy, which many white southerners argue is a symbol of heritage and pride, Giuliani praised him for his bravery during a visit to the state -- saying Beasley took "a very courageous stand … at great political risk," according to a New York Daily News account at the time.
"FLAG'S NO SOUTHERN COMFORT FOR GIULIANI," screamed a New York Post headline from that time.
"Mayor Giuliani, venturing into the Deep South on another of his 'non-presidential' swings, yesterday urged South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from atop its state capitol," the newspaper reported.
Two months later, Beasley lost his re-election campaign, in no small part because of his attempts to have the flag removed from atop the capitol.
This week in Alabama, Giuliani seemed a tad more reluctant to wade into the dangerous waters of race in the South.
Asked about the Confederate flag, Giuliani said, "one of the great beauties of the kind of government we have, which is a national/federal government, is that we can make -- on a broad range of issues -- we can make different decisions in different parts of the country. We have different sensitivities, and at different times we are going to come to different decisions, and I think that is best left up to the states."
Vaughn was critical.
"He knows full well that the flag is anti-American," Vaughn said, "that these people took up bombs against the U.S. government. He's said before that the flag should be taken down."
The Giuliani campaign noted that in 1998, as he did this week, the mayor said that the flag was a state issue.
"There is disagreement in South Carolina," he said nine years ago, "and South Carolina has to work that out."
Giuliani campaign spokeswoman Maria Comella told ABC News: "The bottom line: Mayor Giuliani has been consistent in his belief that this is an issue best left up to the states."
Absent from Giuliani's remarks this week were any hints as to his personal feelings about the Confederate flag and any praise for those who opposed its display.
To some, the comments seemed incongruent with Giuliani's take-me-or-leave-me campaign rhetoric, in which he tries to appeal to GOP primary voters by acknowledging his liberal views on abortion and same-sex civil unions while emphasizing the "90 percent" of areas where he and conservatives agree, such as national defense, taxes and the appointment of conservative judges.
A Republican strategist affiliated with a rival campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity, told ABC News that the flag flap is an example of how "Giuliani risks appearing disingenuous by not addressing issues and risks appearing too liberal if he tells voters how he really feels."
The confederate flag does not sit atop the Alabama state capital, though several fly at a nearby memorial to confederate soldiers. But the flag is still a potent symbol in the Deep South -- and, state NAACP President Vaughn said, "a symbol of defiance and bigotry and slavery."
The civil rights leader said "the largest confederate flag I've ever seen" hangs adjacent to Interstate 65 between Montgomery and Birmingham, displayed by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group the Southern Poverty Law Center calls, "a southern-heritage group that has been largely dominated by racial extremists."
Because of the importance of the South Carolina primary, most of the national attention to the Confederate flag issue has revolved around the state, which removed the flag from atop the state capitol in 2000 but kept it on statehouse grounds.
In 2000, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., found himself hoisted on the confederate flagpole while running for president.
During a TV interview in January of that year, McCain called the confederate flag "offensive" and "a symbol of racism and slavery."
Weeks later, campaigning in the South Carolina primary, McCain waffled into a more conservative view, saying: "Some view it as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage."
After losing the nomination, McCain returned to South Carolina, called for the flag to be taken down, and criticized himself for having pandered, calling it a "sacrifice of principle for personal ambition."