Ga. leaders agree on flag compromise

They would eliminate familiar Confederate battlefield emblem

April 05, 2003|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ATLANTA - Hoping to skirt a racially charged debate over the Confederate flag symbol, Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue and Democrats agreed yesterday on a proposed redesign of the Georgia state flag that would eliminate the emblem.

The compromise flag design - approved by a key legislative committee - adopts elements of a lesser-known banner of the Confederate government and drops the familiar battlefield emblem, a blue cross of St. Andrew on a red field.

The design, which must be passed by the state House of Representatives and Senate, would replace the current flag immediately, but voters could reject it at the polls next year.

Although its prospects remain uncertain, backers said the compromise eases the tensions that have surrounded the flag issue for months. Many whites see the Confederate emblem as a symbol of their Southern heritage. Civil rights activists say its use by racist groups has made it a symbol of hatred.

"It's a good resolution," said state Rep. Glenn Richardson, a Republican floor leader in the House.

The Confederate emblem occupied two-thirds of the state flag before Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, engineered an overnight change in 2001 that shrank it to near oblivion, angering many white rural voters.

Perdue capitalized on that ire in his successful campaign to replace Barnes, promising to let the voters have a say in the design of the state flag.

In February, Perdue proposed holding a referendum next year to allow voters to decide whether to retain the current flag or to restore one of two earlier versions, including the one with the dominant Confederate emblem.

Perdue's proposal met opposition from business leaders, who worry that restoring the Confederate battle symbol to its former prominence could hurt Georgia's image and harm tourism and other trade.

Perdue said the compromise approved by the House Rules Committee yesterday would allow voters to make their feelings known by ballot. If passed, the flag design would be put to a vote March 2. Rejection would trigger a second referendum, in July, that would ask voters to choose between two options, including the flag with the dominant Confederate emblem.

"In the past, people have felt excluded from the process," Perdue said in a statement after yesterday's vote. "This proposal will allow the people of Georgia to express their views on our state flag and moves us a step closer to finding a resolution to this important issue."

The newest proposal displeases those who want to make sure the Confederate battle emblem never appears on a ballot, and it deprives Southern heritage activists of their goal of reviving the former state flag. The Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce said it is too soon for it to take a stance.

The proposed design is based on the First National Flag of the Confederacy, known as the Stars and Bars. A version flew over Georgia before 1956, when the banner with the rebel symbol was adopted. The proposed flag would contain three broad stripes of red and white and a blue canton bearing the Georgia seal. The middle white stripe would carry the words "In God We Trust."

Richardson said the proposal blends components of three alternatives.

Ken Ellingwood is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper

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