ATLANTA – The Georgia House voted Tuesday to change the state flag and set up a possible referendum on the Confederate battle emblem.
If the Senate also approves the bill, Georgia would take down the current flag, which was changed in 2001 to shrink the rebel cross. The replacement flag would feature the state seal on a blue field in the top left corner, with three red-and-white stripes and the words "In God We Trust" to the right.
The new design is similar to the national flag of the Confederacy, rather than the more familiar battle flag.
If voters reject the three-stripe flag next year, a statewide referendum on restoring an old flag with its Confederate symbol would be held.
"This can bring an end to discussion and give us something we can look up and say, 'That's our flag,'" said Rep. Glenn Richardson, who sponsored the bill.
Black lawmakers launched more than six hours of debate to block the bill because they oppose any chance for a public vote on the symbol.
"We're supposed to be one of the most progressive states in the South. We can see that we are not. Racism is the basis for this flag consideration," said Rep. Jo Ann McClinton.
The bill eventually passed 111-67 with just about 20 minutes before midnight, when the bill would have died for the year.
Lawmakers considered the flag switch and referendum at the urging of Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican who booted an incumbent governor last year in part because Perdue promised a vote on the state banner.
While most blacks consider the rebel cross a painful symbol of oppression, many whites were miffed that the flag was so quickly changed in 2001. Then-Gov. Roy Barnes ramrodded a new flag through the Legislature in less than a week, with no public hearings.
The Confederate emblem had occupied two-thirds of Georgia's flag since 1956, when an all-white Legislature was resisting desegregation.
The bill now heads to the Senate, which the GOP controls. A statewide referendum on the replacement flag would be held in March 2004. If most voters reject it, another referendum would be held in July 2004 on reviving the Confederate banner.