Nathan Deal on debate over Confederate symbols: 'We cannot deny our heritage'

Gov. Nathan Deal said he will not rule out comprehensive changes to state laws that protect Confederate images and commemorate Georgia's Civil War legacy. But he warned critics of those symbols against sweeping reactions amid the recent uproar over the emblems.

"I'm not closing the door on anything. But we have to be cautious that we don't get caught up on a sweep of emotion here, and fail to recognize the heritage that is associated with these symbols and these holidays," he said in an interview. "We cannot deny our heritage and the purpose of many of these is to celebrate that heritage. I'm going to be cautious in that regard, and I would hope that everyone else would as well."

The images, deeply embedded in Georgia law, have come under new scrutiny in the wake of the murders of nine black worshippers at a Charleston church by a white man who told police he wanted to start a race war.

Democrats are urging the state to quit celebrating Confederate Memorial Day and Confederate Heritage Month, and the state has stopped selling license plates with the Rebel battle emblem after Deal announced a "redesign" of the tags. Another lawmaker, state Rep. LaDawn Jones, called on residents to boycott Stone Mountain Park until it removes Confederate flags from the base of the memorial to the Confederate dead.

Deal said he'll leave it up to the General Assembly to hash out those debates in January, and state Sen. Vincent Fort expects a fight. He's asked legislative counsel to draft legislation that could ban the Confederate emblem on state-issued license plates, and he said he was "appalled" by Deal's comments.

"What heritage does he want to celebrate? The heritage of white supremacy, lynching and slavery?" said Fort, D-Atlanta. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but this is who he is. It's unfortunate."

Deal did dismiss another controversial issue: Redesigning the state flag that was adopted in 2003.

That version removed the Rebel war emblem but is modeled after the first flag of the Confederate States of America. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told NBC's "Meet the Press" on Sunday that the state flag "may well be changed again" in light of the Charleston tragedy.

The governor said he doesn't intend to reopen that debate any time soon.

"I like Georgia's current flag. It has the red, the white and the blue, the 13 stars and the symbol and the emblem of the state of Georgia," Deal said. "It embraces all that everybody intended for it to embrace, and we don't need to read any more into it than just that."