ATLANTA — More than a century after the end of the Civil War, the governor of Georgia thinks it is time to lower the Confederate battle flag for good.
Bowing to pressure from civil rights groups and others who called the emblem offensive and an embarrassment to the state, Gov. Zell Miller said Thursday he will introduce a measure when the Legislature convenes in January to change the Georgia flag, which currently incorporates the striking red and blue design of the Confederacy.
"It's just time to make a change," Miller said. "I think it is the final step that Georgia must take to really become a member of the New South."
Besides Georgia, three other states fly Confederate flags over their capitols in some form--Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina. The NAACP and other civil rights organizations have fought unsuccessfully since 1987 to have them removed. Their efforts have been staunchly opposed by many whites who see the flag as a symbol of ethnic and regional pride.
But Miller said Thursday that the current Georgia state flag, which was adopted in 1956 to protest integration, stood only for a shameful, divisive past.
"The Georgia flag is a last remaining vestige of days that are not only gone but also days that we have no right to be proud of," he said. "We need to lay the days of segregation to rest, to let bygones be bygones and rest our souls. We need to do what is right."
The battle over the flag is part of an agonizing larger process of change that has been going on throughout the South as the region struggles in the post-civil rights era to redefine itself, to recast its symbols and mythology to encompass the history of both whites and blacks.
While whites might see the Confederate flag as representative of Southern honor and a proud heritage, blacks see something else altogether. Miller alluded to that Thursday when he said, "What we fly today is not an enduring symbol of our heritage, but the fighting flag of those who wanted to preserve a segregated South in the face of the civil rights movement."
The first-term Democrat previously had steadfastly refused to take a stand on the issue. He made it clear that a primary reason for his change of heart is the state's reputation. Atlanta will be the site of both the 1994 Super Bowl and the 1996 Olympics.
"I want the world to see Georgia as a vibrant growing state, a state that is moving ahead," he said, "and not as a state that is entrenched and holding fast to the symbols of a time when we resisted efforts to right the wrongs of our past."
Organizations that had been fighting to change the flag hailed Miller's change of heart, even though the new design he endorsed--the state's pre-1956 flag--also incorporates Confederate elements.
"The flag is a compromise," said Douglas Alexander, chairman of Georgians for the Flag--an organization pushing for return to the pre-1956 flag. "It has some Confederacy in it. . . . It has the Confederacy without such a divisive Confederate emblem."
The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People had been in favor of readopting the state's original flag--the Georgia seal on a blue field. Miller endorsed a later design in which the seal and blue field cover the left third of the flag and the remainder is occupied by two horizontal red bands enclosing a band of white.
That flag was a variation of the little-known official Confederate flag adopted in 1861. The more familiar Confederate emblem bearing the large blue star-studded "X" on a red field was used in battle to better distinguish the Confederate flag from the Union banner.
"You cannot take the Confederacy away from Georgia," said Frank L. Redding Jr., a Democratic representative who has introduced legislation during the past six sessions to change the flag. "History is important. We should learn from our history.
"I think the Confederate battle cross has a place, but that place is in the museum so children can learn about the history of the state."
He praised the governor's proposal and predicted it will pass.
Miller indicated that he is flexible on which old design is chosen. "I don't have any great deal of problem about what we go back to," he said. "I just think we should not have this flag."
The governor's position is sure to be unpopular with many for whom the symbols of the Confederacy remain sacred icons. Throughout the Deep South, these symbols are as common as the kudzu vines that cover the hillsides. The flags adorn caps and clothing and are waved in great number at Ol' Miss football games. The song "Dixie" is still a favorite of high school marching bands and "Rebels" remains a popular athletic team name.
The Sons of the Confederate Veterans, a 15,000-member organization made up of descendants of Rebel soldiers, is among those opposed to changing the flag.