Originally created 01/26/01

Approval puts flag one step nearer adoption



ATLANTA - Legislation shrinking the Confederate battle emblem on Georgia's flag squeaked by a Senate committee Thursday, one day after narrowly winning approval in the House.

But the bid to replace the flag that the General Assembly adopted 45 years ago at the height of the civil rights struggle is far from certain of passing the full Senate next week and reaching the desk of Gov. Roy Barnes.

In a 4-3 vote along party lines, the Senate's State and Local Governmental Operations Committee approved a compromise measure that the House had adopted the day before by just three votes more than the minimum needed.

"We're looking to move Georgia forward," said Sen. Nadine Thomas, D-Ellenwood, the committee's chairwoman, moments before casting the tie-breaking vote in favor of the bill.

"We cannot be a state so obsessed with our past that we don't have a future," added Sen. Steve Thompson, D-Powder Springs, Mr. Barnes' floor leader in the Senate.

Thursday's vote came after a public hearing on the legislation, which would replace the St. Andrew's cross - and Confederate emblem - that dominates the current flag with a design featuring the state seal on a blue field, surrounded by 13 stars.

Below the seal on a small banner are miniature versions of five flags that have flown over Georgia, including the current one.

Of the seven people who spoke out during the hearing, six opposed the new flag design. Several objected to the way Mr. Barnes and House Democratic leaders suddenly presented the legislation Wednesday, pushing it past the Rules Committee and through the full House in a single day.

Charles Lunsford, speaking on behalf of the Heritage Preservation Association, accused lawmakers of caving in to a threatened economic boycott of Georgia by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He and other speakers characterized the NAACP's opposition to the current flag as part of a nationwide campaign aimed at eradicating all Confederate symbols.

"It doesn't take courage to slide a bill through fast, where the public can't outcry, can't come after you," Mr. Lunsford said. "It takes courage to stand up to a hate group."

But Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker said the flag issue has been simmering for years in Georgia, long enough that the idea of changing it shouldn't take anyone by surprise.

Mr. Walker, D-Augusta, said Wednesday's House vote could provide the momentum the flag bill needs to get by the Senate next week.

"The Senate realizes ... (the issue) is not going away," he said. "If it fails, it is going to be back again this session two or three times, or the next session and the next session. We have an opportunity to resolve it, finally."

But Thursday's narrow committee vote demonstrates how divided senators are over the flag debate.

While Mr. Barnes, Mr. Walker and other Democratic leaders are pushing hard for the bill to pass, senators representing parts of the state with the highest concentrations of native Southerners are feeling pressure from voters who want to save the current flag to honor their ancestors who fought for the Confederacy.

"Ninety-five percent of my constituents either don't like the new flag or don't want the flag changed at all," said Sen. Tommie Williams, R-Lyons.

Some House members cited their constituents' strong feelings for the flag, as well as their own, in voting against the change Wednesday. Twenty-six Democrats bucked the governor and their party's House leaders to join 55 Republicans in opposing the bill.

But the bill won the support of all four Democrats on the State and Local Governmental Operations panel, including Sen. Harold Ragan, D-Cairo, who represents a rural district in southwest Georgia.

The other three Senate Democrats supporting the measure Thursday - Ms. Thomas and Atlanta Sens. Donzella James and Horacena Tate - are black. Civil rights activists opposed to the current flag long have argued that legislators incorporated the Confederate emblem into the flag in 1956 to demonstrate their opposition to forced school integration.

The full Senate will take up the bill early next week, probably Tuesday, said David Sutton, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, who presides over the upper chamber.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.