ATLANTA -- Dressed in natty gray pinstripes, the Sons of Confederate Veterans say they are not a bunch of crypto-rednecks hellbent on glorifying slavery and racist violence.

But here they are, parading down Peachtree Street on Veterans Day, waving the most controversial symbol in Georgia, the state flag.

The flag was altered in 1956 to incorporate the battle emblem of the Confederate States of America, a symbol that many people in Georgia and the South find haunting and repugnant. They want it changed.

So does Georgia Gov. Zell Miller (D), an ambitious politician who took the unusual step of asking a conservative state Legislature to restore the flag to its pre-1956 design, which bore red-and-white stripes but no emblem.

While the flag fight rages in Georgia, activists in Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina also are seeking to banish their state's ways of displaying the Confederate flag.

And so it begins again -- the seemingly endless contest in the South about the meaning of the Confederacy and its legacy in modern times. Among the combatants, there is the feeling that this fight is not so much about a flag but about the soul of the place.

"People tend to think of this as a recent story," said Edward Ayers, a historian at the University of Virginia. "But this didn't start at the beginning of the civil rights movement. This started at the end of the Civil War."

Yet the debate has been newly invigorated because the 1996 Summer Olympic Games are coming to Atlanta. Unless the flag is changed, many city boosters say, the outside world may well see Atlanta, which aspires to be known as "The City Too Busy To Hate," as an anachronistic backwater populated by racist Johnny Rebs.

"The Confederacy is nothing to be venerated," said Daniel Levitas, executive director of the Center for Democratic Renewal here, one of about 30 groups advocating a change in the flag, which he compared to "the moral equivalent of the swastika."

Earl Shinhoster, Southeast regional director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said, "There are those who maintain there are more important issues to deal with, that symbols are not so important. But I think flags are very powerful symbols, and we can't ignore the real effect they have on people. A flag ought to be representative of all the people."

The flag flap is filling newspapers here with poll results and letters, as one side links the Confederacy to genocide and the other complains that its southern heritage is being eroded by overly sensitive blacks and liberals, who see nothing good or noble about the Confederacy, just slavery, violence, fear and blood.

Charles Lunsford, who supervises the governor's office of consumer affairs and is a leader of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said he does not believe that the Confederacy was the moral equivalent of Nazi Germany nor that it stands for segregated academies and Ku Klux Klansmen in white sheets.

To him and other sons and daughters of the South, the Confederate flag symbolizes not southern atrocities but southern pride -- honor and duty, courage in the face of adversity, states' rights and not a little bit of ancestor worship.

"People just need to leave each other's heroes alone," said Lunsford, who feels that, one by one, all the symbols of the Confederacy, from whistling "Dixie" to street signs honoring its soldiers, have been taken away or co-opted by "hate groups." Those, he said, include the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP.

"We're being treated like lepers in our own country," said Lee Collins of the Georgia Committee to Save the State Flag. "We're still living in a reconstructionist state."

Collins said two Georgias exist, one inside metropolitan Atlanta's beltway and the "real" Georgia outside. Inside, he said, are newcomers and Confederate know-nothings, people who think Atlanta is Sun Belt, not South.

"People complain that the Confederate flag reminds them of old South," Collins said. "But so does fried chicken, and you don't see anybody attacking fried chicken."

As for the argument that seeing the Confederate flag will perturb Olympic visitors, Collins said: "That's what they come to Atlanta for -- the old South, "Tara" and "Gone With the Wind" and the Confederacy. That's what the people from Belgium want to see."

To which Levitas, the anti-flagger, responded: "That might be what the people from Belgium want to see, but what about the people from Africa?"

While many business and civic organizations have rallied behind the governor's attempt to change the flag, emotions run high.

A call-in survey by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the flag furor brought a record number of responses, more than the number when the newspaper asked readers what they thought of actress Demi Moore appearing nude and very pregnant on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. About 75 percent of callers said leave the flag alone.

A more recent, more scientific poll by the paper found that 67 percent like the flag as is. Of those beyond the Atlanta beltway, 70 percent said hands off. Perhaps surprisingly, about 36 percent of black Georgians also like the flag.

"It is obvious that more understanding is needed on this issue," Gov. Miller told the paper.

Miller said he believes that the Legislature ultimately will change the flag, but a measure to do so has been stalled in committee since 1987.

Although some historians have concluded that Georgia's flag was changed in 1956 by a defiant Legislature protesting court orders to desegregate, Lunsford said the alteration was made to commemorate the upcoming Civil War centennial.

John Sammons Bell, who redesigned the flag in 1956, maintains that the flag was changed to honor the Confederacy, not to protest desegregation.

Whatever the reason, inclusion of the battle flag, the most identifiable symbol of the Confederacy, can deeply disturb many black southerners.

"I truly believe that most white folks flying the flag do so to honor the Confederacy," said John Shelton Reed, head of the Institute for Research and Social Science at the University of North Carolina. "They do it as a symbol of pride, not white supremacy. But they have to understand that is how many people perceive it. That's reason enough to take the battle flag off the state flag."

Historian Ayers said there are "other ways to express affection for the South," saying he believes that many southerners want to forget that the Civil War was not only about nobility, courage, honor and states' rights but also slavery.

"The cost of keeping the current flag seems just too high," Ayers said. "It just doesn't seem worth it."

The governor of Georgia wants to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag. Four states still display the old symbol in some manner:

Alabama: Confederate flag flown above state Capitol with state flag.

Georgia: Confederate emblem incorporated into state flag in 1956.

Mississippi: Confederate emblem incorporated into state flag at its creation in 1894.

South Carolina: Confederate flag flown above statehouse with state flag since 1961.

SOURCE: World Book, AP, KRT