ATLANTA -- If Georgia holds a referendum on the state flag, many blacks won't participate, civil rights leaders warned Wednesday.
A group including the NAACP, Concerned Black Clergy and labor unions vowed to boycott a statewide vote on returning the Confederate battle cross to prominence on the state flag. Black leaders called it insulting to even ask blacks whether they wanted to see a return to the Georgia flag of 1956-2001, which is dominated by the rebel emblem.
"Would you expect the Jewish community to participate in a campaign to raise the Swastika?" said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue has promised a nonbinding vote on the flag, with the Legislature making the final decision. A bill setting up the poll has been introduced, but neither chamber has voted on it yet.
On Wednesday, standing before the Atlanta tomb of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Lowery said no black person should participate in the referendum.
Addressing the new governor, Lowery said, "If you insist on engaging in this type of political lynching, don't expect us to help put the noose around our necks."
Wednesday's rally of several dozen also included white labor union members. The head of the Atlanta Labor Council, Charlie Flemings, told reporters that unions would boycott, too.
"It's wrong. It's dead wrong," Flemings said. "We will not participate ourselves."
Many white business leaders, including Home Depot co-founder Arthur Blank, have publicly opposed a referendum that includes the Confederate cross.
Supporters of the Confederate emblem say it represents Southern heritage, while blacks and others say it represents racism and slavery.
If black voters boycott the referendum - tentatively scheduled for March 2004 - it could make it more likely that the rebel "X" would win. Georgia is about 30 percent black.
Speakers at Wednesday's rally said the Confederate banner would win even if they did vote. They pointed to a Mississippi referendum two years ago in which the Confederate emblem won with 65 percent of the vote.
"Be not deceived!" Lowery cried. "The referendum proposed by the governor is a vehicle deployed to make possible the restoration of the rebel battle flag."
Not all black officials are calling for a boycott, though. The Legislature's top-ranking black member, House Rules Chairman Calvin Smyre, said he's not ready to advocate not voting.
"But I'm afraid that's what it's going to boil down to," Smyre said, calling the referendum "divisive."
Perdue's office declined to comment on the boycott. Earlier this month, Perdue said he hoped to avoid a black boycott by calling for a series of statewide forums on "racial reconciliation" to coincide with the flag vote.
Not good enough, said Walter Butler, the head of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP.
"He's saying that he's here to heal, but he's sticking us with the bayonet of the Confederate flag," Butler said.