Senate OKs new state flag

By Justin Reedy

The Georgia Senate voted on Tuesday night to change Georgia's flag and hold a public referendum that could bring back the divisive Confederate battle emblem to the state's banner, but a simple typo could derail the legislation.

The Senate passed a measure changing to a compromise banner that would be up for public approval in a referendum next year. But senators also approved an amendment to the bill fixing a typographical error that made the flag a foot longer than traditional state flags.

Since the bill was changed from the version approved by the House earlier this month, it heads back to that chamber for approval on the final day of the legislative session. Black legislators have promised to filibuster the bill there, killing the measure for this session.

"It's gonna die in the House. This is a victory," said Democratic Sen. Nadine Thomas.

Black lawmakers opposed the measure because it opens the door for a referendum on the state flag that could bring back the post-1956 state banner, which included a prominent Confederate battle emblem.

"I have seen the bitter hatred that we have had to endure in this state over the years. To see us retrogressing, going backward, I am sick at the thought of it," said Sen. Valencia Seay, D-College Park.

The flag approved by the Senate doesn't include that controversial Rebel cross, but does hearken back to the Confederate national flag.

If the new flag were passed by the House this week, it would have to be approved by voters next spring in a public referendum. If rejected, the voters would then choose between an earlier Georgia flag, also known as the pre-1956 flag, and the post-1956 flag, which was instituted by an all-white legislature during the fight over racial desegregation in Georgia.

The proposed flag has the state seal and the words "In God We Trust" on a blue field in the top left corner, and three red-and-white stripes to the right. The design strongly resembles the "Stars and Bars," the national flag of the Confederacy.

The amendment to the bill, which ensured it would go back to the House and possibly fail there, passed the politically divided legislative body by a 29-26 vote, with both Seay and fellow Clayton County lawmaker Terrell Starr, D-Jonesboro, voting yes. Sen. Mike Crotts, R-Conyers, who represents much of Henry County, voted against the amendment.

Many local residents were upset to see the Confederate battle emblem re-enter the flag debate because of its ties to slavery and the state's opposition to integration during the civil rights movement. Most blacks asked about the possibility of bringing the Confederate emblem back are in opposition, while most support for that flag comes from whites.

"I feel like the (post-1956) flag represents a time when the Civil War was going on, when slavery was still around," said Riverdale resident Ervin Brown. "We're in a whole new millennium, and we should leave that flag behind. I feel like anything having to do with the Confederacy should be left in the past."

"I don't like the Confederate flag," added Melikah Davis, a Jonesboro business owner. "I like the flag (instituted under former Gov. Roy Barnes). It's not just the flag, it's more the Southern mentality for racism. I don't think the flag was created because of racism, but it's part of that mentality."

Joni Boatwright, a senior at Forest Park High School, disagrees, saying that the Confederate emblem is a symbol of the state's past.

"My opinion is it's the history of our state," Boatwright said. "We're not going to change every state's flag because we don't like its history."

One organization leading the fight to get a vote on the post-1956 flag has been the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group dedicated to the heritage and history of the Confederacy. Though that group has been somewhat divided on the flag debate, most members agree that the flag pushed by Barnes should be done away with, according to Jeff Lowe, the commander of the Jonesboro Camp of the SCV.

"My sense from talking to SCV and (United Daughters of the Confederacy) members is that any change is better than the blue Barnes flag," Lowe said. "We don't like it, we don't like how it was done."

Many SCV and UDC members hope that the new banner would be defeated in next spring's statewide referendum, Lowe said, so they will be allowed to vote on the post-1956 flag. But that could be difficult, he added, since the banner approved by the Senate is an homage to a previous Georgia flag and the former national flag of the Confederacy.

Lost in the shuffle of the flag debate, however, is the fact that the banner approved by the Senate includes the words "In God We Trust," which some see as blurring the line between church and state.

"I'd be happier with the flag is those words weren't on there," said Lowe, who is also a Baptist minister in Clayton County. "Not everyone in this state is a Christian, and not everyone even believes in a deity that could be called ?God.'"

The Associated Press contributed to this story.