Clayton House members vote no to flag

By Justin Reedy

A bill that would change Georgia's flag to a new design and set up a referendum that could allow the return of the state's controversial post-1956 banner has passed the state House and will be taken up by the Senate next week.

The new design would lack the Confederate battle emblem prominent on the flag flown from 1956 until 2001, when the emblem was drastically reduced in size by the General Assembly.

The new flag features red stripes on the bottom and top of the flag, a white stripe on the middle third, and a blue field in the top left corner with the state seal encircled by 13 stars. It includes the words "In God We Trust" on the white stripe. The proposed flag is very similar to the first Confederate national flag, or "Stars and Bars," which had the same red-and-white stripes and a blue field with a circle of 13 stars representing the 13 states which seceded from the Union.

The bill, which passed the House late Tuesday night after hours of debate, would also allow voters to choose whether they wanted to keep the new flag, and if not, to choose either the pre-1956 flag or the controversial flag adopted in 1956. If approved by the GOP-controlled Senate, the new flag could be flying in the state by July.

A referendum on the new three-stripe flag would be held next March, with a follow-up vote on the Confederate cross held in July if the new flag is rejected.

The proposal was supported by most Republicans and some Democrats, with most opposition coming from black Democrats who spoke out against the referendums. Black legislators have expressed concern that the Confederate flag could be revived in a statewide vote because the state's population is only about a third black.

The measure finally passed, 111-67, just before midnight on Tuesday, when the bill would have died for the year because of legislative rules. All of Clayton County's legislative delegation, including white and black legislators, voted against the proposal.

Some legislators voiced anger over the fact that the state flag is even being debated with Georgia facing severe budget woes. The state is nearly $1 billion short in revenue, and will likely have to make up that shortfall through a combination of tax increases and spending cuts. Critics of re-instituting the post-1956 banner have warned that the flag's prominent Confederate battle emblem could lead to boycotts of the state by businesses and organizations.

"I can't believe we're setting up here without enough money to fund our budget, trying to work out how to balance the budget, and at the same time we're talking about something that will cost us even more revenue," said state Rep. Mike Barnes, D-Hampton. "And buying the flags, getting them flying, holding referendums n that all costs money, too. It disappoints me, and I think it makes the state look very close-minded."

Rep. Victor Hill, D-Riverdale, is also worried about the economic impact of possibly returning to the controversial post-1956 flag.

"What we've got to realize is that this isn't a black and white issue n it's about money," Hill said. "Right now, our state is about $1 billion in the hole, and I would hope that the state wouldn't do anything that could make us lose more money."

The flag switch was brought up in the legislature at the urging of Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, who defeated incumbent Democrat Roy Barnes last year partly because of his promise to hold a referendum on the state symbol.

The rebel cross is seen by many blacks as a symbol of oppression, while Confederate heritage groups maintain it is just a symbol of Southern history. The Confederate battle emblem has occupied two-thirds of the flag since an all-white legislature resisting racial desegregation approved the new banner.

Barnes drew fire from pushing to change the flag so quickly, and without public hearings, during the legislature's 2001 session.

A similar situation occurred recently in South Carolina, which was criticized by black organizations for displaying the Confederate battle emblem atop the Statehouse. A boycott was put into effect by the NAACP, urging all conventions and tourists to boycott the state. Eventually, the flag was taken down and moved to an area on the Statehouse grounds.

That time-consuming debate took its toll on business in the state, according to Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Shane Moody, who worked for a chamber of commerce in South Carolina at the time.

"I can speak from experience when I say there was several hundred million dollars of capital investment for business expansions and relocations that were put on hold until the flag issue was resolved," Moody said. "(The flag debate) does hurt us economically n there's no doubt about that. Businesses don't want to expand or relocate to a place where there's political controversy."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.