By Kristen Wyatt ~ The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- In a move that is certain to inflame race relations in Georgia, the new governor on Wednesday proposed a referendum next year on whether to bring back the old state flag with its big Confederate emblem.
Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue said he wants the nonbinding vote to be held the same day as the state's presidential primary in March 2004.
He acknowledged that "Georgia is somewhat a divided house" over the flag and called it "an issue that should be healed as soon as possible."
The state NAACP immediately threatened an economic boycott of Georgia if the state goes back to the flag with the prominent Confederate emblem.
"If they think we're playing, they should try us. They'll see," state NAACP president Walter Butler warned as several hundred NAACP members gathered at the Capitol.
The NAACP has been boycotting South Carolina for the past three years over a Confederate banner that flies on the Statehouse grounds. The Confederate emblem is not part of the South Carolina flag.
Supporters of the Confederate emblem say it represents Southern heritage, while blacks and others say it represents racism and slavery.
Perdue had campaigned on the promise to give voters a say on the flag, but had given conflicting signals in recent weeks over whether he would keep his word.
The referendum proposed by Georgia's first GOP governor in 130 years would have to be approved by both the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House. The Legislature could then use the results to decide whether it would consider making a change.
Democrats have repeatedly said a flag vote would be too divisive.
Hoping to avoid the kind of turmoil that convulsed South Carolina, the Georgia Legislature changed the flag two years ago, reducing to a tiny square the big Confederate emblem that was adopted in 1956 in the midst of Southern segregationist defiance.
It was Gov. Roy Barnes, a Democrat, who led the fight to get rid of the Confederate emblem. He blamed his loss to Perdue in last fall's election to anger over the move, especially among rural whites.
Charles Lunsford, president of the Heritage Preservation Association, applauded Perdue's proposal. "It gives us an opportunity for a fair contest," he said.
Under Perdue's plan, voters would be asked two ballot questions, the first a yes-no question on whether to keep the current flag. The second would ask if voters wish to revert to the previous state flag with its big Confederate emblem, or to the flag that flew until 1956 and did not bear any version of the Confederate symbol.
NAACP leaders urged lawmakers to block the referendum, saying they are certain the Confederate version would win.
"If it were up to the majority of people in the state of Georgia, slavery would still be legal and lynching would still be the law of the land," said the Rev. Charles White Jr., director of NAACP's Southeast region.
State and national Republicans had worried that Georgia might put a flag referendum on the ballot during the November 2004 presidential election. They feared that would spark a huge turnout by blacks and moderate whites and hurt GOP candidates, including President Bush.
Since the November election, Perdue had released very few details of his plans for a vote, drawing criticism from supporters of the Confederate emblem. In January, on the day after his inauguration, some 300 supporters of the old flag marched to the state Capitol to demand that he and the Legislature hold a statewide vote on the banner.