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Georgia Legislature endorses new flag

Lawmakers approve design without Confederate battle image

From top: Georgia state flag from 1956-2001, the current Georgia state flag and the proposed new state flag design.
From top: Georgia state flag from 1956-2001, the current Georgia state flag and the proposed new state flag design.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The Georgia Legislature voted late Friday to change the design of the state flag and eliminated any chance that the Confederate battle emblem -- diminished on the banner two years ago -- can be prominently revived.

Less than two hours before the end of this year's legislative session, the state Senate voted 33-23 for the compromise, which passed the House about an hour earlier. The House vote was so close that House Speaker Terry Coleman, who by tradition rarely votes, had to step in to provide the 91st vote needed to win a majority.

Friday's votes were the latest episodes in a dispute over incorporating Confederate imagery in the state flag, an issue that has dogged Georgia lawmakers for more than a dozen years.

To become law, the bill must be signed by Gov. Sonny Perdue, who in his campaign last year promised Confederate heritage groups a flag referendum.

The governor had pushed a two-tiered referendum process that could have led to the return of the Confederate battle emblem, a prominent feature of the Georgia flag from 1956 until 2001, when it was greatly reduced in a redesign championed by then-Gov. Roy Barnes.

The backlash against Barnes contributed to Perdue's surprise victory last fall, which made him Georgia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction.

The bill would adopt a new flag design, a modified version of the flag that flew before 1956, which bears a resemblance to the Confederate national flag, or "Stars and Bars." In a referendum in March, voters would choose between the new design and Barnes' flag, which some critics have compared to a place mat.

Although the new design is based on a Confederate flag, it does not incorporate the more familiar blue "X" on a red field with white stars on the "X." That emblem -- adopted as a feature of the state flag in an era when the battle over desegregation was raging in the South -- has been used by white supremacist and racist groups.

Perdue had endorsed a proposal that would have adopted a new design, also without the "X," and put it to a vote in March. But if that flag were defeated, voters would have been asked in a second referendum in July to choose between the flag with the prominent Confederate battle emblem and the pre-1956 flag.

The possibility that the Confederate battle emblem could be put to a statewide vote angered many black lawmakers and alarmed some state business leaders, who feared it could harm Georgia's image and lead to economic boycotts. Amid the heated rhetoric in the Legislature, state Sen. Mary Squires, a white Democrat from suburban Atlanta, accused Perdue of being a racist.

Friday's successful effort to strip the second referendum out of the bill was a victory for black lawmakers, who failed in a similar effort when the flag bill came through the Democrat-controlled House earlier in the session. They got a second chance to alter the bill when the Senate made changes in the measure, forcing a return trip through the House.

After the House stripped out the second referendum Friday evening, the GOP-controlled Senate went along with the change, which is likely to anger Confederate heritage groups that have lobbied for a vote that includes the battle emblem as an option.

Black legislators have been trying to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag for more than a dozen years. The effort gained steam in 1993, when then-Gov. Zell Miller, now a U.S. senator, pushed the Legislature to remove the Confederate battle emblem. Lawmakers rejected the idea, and Miller nearly lost his re-election bid the next year for having proposed the change.

When he pushed a new flag design through the Legislature in 2001, Barnes, too, drew the ire of Confederate heritage groups, as well as other Georgians who thought the matter ought to be put to a statewide vote. Those voters came out strongly for Perdue in the election last year.

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