ATLANTA – The Georgia Senate voted Tuesday to give the state its third flag in just over two years, but not before fixing typos in the bill that could lead to the legislation's defeat.
The Senate approved a temporary flag that could become permanent depending on a referendum next year. But the Senate also fixed typos that would have made the flag a foot longer than other state flags.
The changes mean the flag bill must return to the House, where black lawmakers -- with just one legislative day remaining -- pledge to filibuster the measure, likely killing it for this session.
Black lawmakers want to derail the bill because it allows a possible referendum on the Confederate battle cross.
"It's going to die in the House. This is a victory," said Democratic Sen. Nadine Thomas. Black senators, who make up about a fifth of the chamber, cheered loudly when the typo amendment passed.
Georgia's flag saga began in 2001, when black lawmakers led a movement to change the 1956-issue state flag that was dominated by a large Confederate emblem. Then-Gov. Roy Barnes pushed a new flag through the Legislature in less than a week with no public hearings, creating a backlash that figured in his defeat to Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue.
The proposed compromise flag would feature the state seal on a blue field and the words "In God We Trust" in the top left corner, with three red-and-white stripes to the right. It was designed by a Republican and echoes an old Confederate banner, but it does not include the more-familiar rebel "X."
Even if the new flag clears the House and is adopted, it must be approved by voters next March. If voters reject it, the state would hold another referendum with two choices -- an early Georgia flag or the Confederate banner adopted by the all-white Legislature in 1956, not long after the federal government ordered public schools desegregated.
Perdue became Georgia's first GOP governor in 130 years in part because he promised a vote on the flag.
"This will never be over until the people of Georgia decide for themselves," Sen. Dan Lee, one of Perdue's floor leaders, said Tuesday.
Deliberations were emotional, with Sen. Valencia Seay pleading for lawmakers to avert a referendum.
"I have seen the bitter hatred that we have had to endure in this state over the years. To see us retrogressing, going backward, I am sick at the thought of it," Seay said.
Sen. Charlie Tanksley, the lone Republican who rose to oppose the bill, sobbed on the lectern.
"I can't for the life of me understand why so much promise and prosperity that is this state ... has to be thrown away to unresolvable arguments about the past," he said.
Supporters countered that voters would accept the new flag and never need a referendum on the Confederate symbol. "We all know the nation's eyes are on Georgia," Lee said.
If the legislative session expires with no flag bill, it could die until next year or it could be revived in a possible special session on the budget.