Vote Shrinks Rebel Symbol on Georgia Flag

The Georgia Senate has approved a new design for the state flag, voting 34-22 to shrink the Confederate battle flag symbol on the banner.

Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, lobbied for the new flag as the Senate met to debate the issue, telling lawmakers they could ease divisions he said had plagued the state over the 50 years since the Confederate symbol was added to the state flag.

The Confederate battle flag has sparked heated debate throughout the South, where it was long a part of several state flags. Southern pride groups say the emblem represents Southern valor, while others say it conjures images of slavery and racism.

"We are one people forever woven together in a tapestry that is Georgia," Barnes declared as the Senate debate neared. "We are all one or at least we should be, and it is our job, our duty and our great challenge to fight the voices of division and seek ... reconciliation."

Barnes, who made a similar plea to the House last week before it passed the bill, spoke for about 10 minutes. Moments earlier, Lt. Gov. Mark Taylor, the Senate's presiding officer, also urged adoption of the new flag.

"Make no mistake about the significance of the vote today -- it will echo across the South and across the nation. It is a vote of very real economic significance ... a vote of fairness, dignity and respect."

Democrats control the Senate 32-24, and 29 votes were needed for a majority in Tuesday's vote.

The Senate began debate shortly after 11 a.m., about four hours before the vote, in a statehouse under tight security. Only a handful of demonstrators were on hand. As the vote approached, nearly everyone was predicting that it would be close.

Some black leaders say the Confederate emblem is a symbol of racism and segregation. The new flag, they say, will stave off a threatened economic boycott of the state.

Southern pride groups, however, say backing the new banner means betraying the state's heritage and giving in to "economic terrorism." The Southern Heritage League rallied in the state Capitol rotunda Monday, calling for a referendum on the flag change.

Many senators spent the weekend listening to constituents' views and returned Monday to intense lobbying from both sides.

"The pressure is coming out of the governor's office and the business community," said Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson, a Republican. "They are the big dogs."

Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, a Democrat, argued that the efforts to influence the vote would not be a factor.

"I don't think you can get a vote like this on a horse trade," he said. "You get this one on conscience."

Many legislators said Monday they were still undecided.

The new Georgia flag would feature a gold state seal against a blue field. Along the bottom would be five small replicas of flags that have flown over Georgia, including the current one.

The Georgia controversy resembles similar flag fights in other southern states. South Carolina recently moved the Confederate flag from atop its Statehouse to a spot on the grounds after several marches, protests and an NAACP travel boycott.

And after a divisive public debate, lawmakers in Mississippi will let voters decide if the state should replace the current flag, which includes the Confederate emblem, with a new design.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report