Georgia lawmaker famous for 'Klan' remark named to civics committee

Georgia state representative who said the Ku Klux Klan "made a lot of people straighten up" and tried to force the state to formally recognize Robert E. Lee's birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as official holidays has been named to a study committee on civics education.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, made the announcement via a press release Friday appointing Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, as one of three House Republicans tapped to study how the state should train its young citizens.

The committee is charged with "furthering Georgia's students' civic literacy" by reviewing state standards and making recommendations to the state Board of Education, State School Superintendent Richard Woods and others on what children should be taught.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution asked Ralston and Benton for comment Friday on the appointment, but House Communications Director Kaleb McMichen responded with an emailed statement instead.

"Chairman Benton is a retired teacher who holds degrees in history and middle school education," McMichen said in the statement. "He spent 30 years in the classroom teaching subjects including Georgia history and American history."

Benton, who chairs the House Aging and Human Relations Committee, is a retired school teacher from Jackson County, but his unconventional takes on American history have outraged some and earned him criticism in the past. In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constutition amid public debate over the continued display of the Confederate battle flag, Benton claimed people misunderstood Southern history, including the role of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said, in comments published by the AJC in January 2016 .

“It made a lot of people straighten up,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

Benton also suggested that criticism of the Confederate flag was a distraction from problems within the black community.

“Nobody said anything about black-on-black crime, and that’s about 98 percent of it. Nobody said anything about family life and who’s in the home and who’s not in the home. It’s always something else that is the problem," he said.

In trying to explain his position, Benton made matters worse by suggesting that slaveholders in the South should have been compensated for their "property."

“The North was advocating they do away with slavery, but they offered no idea as to what the South would do with a loss of $2 billion of property, per se,” Benton told Channel 2 Action News. “I understand that African Americans, for the most part, have a problem with the slavery issue, but they don’t denounce their ancestors in Africa who were selling slaves.”

Benton's comments were published as he was pushing a bill that would have forbidden moving Confederate memorials. Another piece of legislation would have required the state to formally observe Confederate General Robert E. Lee's birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as state holidays.

Yet another bill would have caused streets renamed since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to revert to their pre-1968 names. An effect of that bill, had it passed, would have resulted in a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlanta reverting to its earlier name of Gordon Road, in honor of Gen. John B. Gordon, a Confederate general and former governor and senator for Georgia who also was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

At the time, Benton said his bills were in response to "cultural terrorism," a term he used to refer to efforts to remove or minimize public displays of Confederate flags or symbols. Despite a broad historical consensus to the contrary, Benton also said slavery was not the primary cause of the Civil War (which he referred to as the "Second American Revolution").

Benton's remarks drew blistering criticism and mocking commentary from around the nation, prompting Ralston to issue a statement mildly, but not specifically, condemning his colleague.

“I condemn commentary that would seek to reverse the progress that we have made in the last century and a half,” the speaker said. “While we are mindful of our history, the business of the General Assembly isn’t in rewriting or reinterpreting the past, but rather to focus on improving Georgia’s future.”

Benton withdrew his legislation, so as not to cause "a negative perception."

Benton again courted controversy earlier this year during the legislative session with a resolution honoring "Confederate History Month." The resolution referred to the Civil War not by name but as a "four-year struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, and local governmental control, which they believed to be right and just.”

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, holds a press conference in March 2017 to discuss his resolution to honor and recognize Confederate history in the state. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Benton called a press conference in March  with other supporters of the bill to explain the resolution. But when he was asked if the observation of Confederate History Month should include acknowledgement of the exploitation of African-American slaves, Benton simply replied, "Next question."

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who has tangled with Benton in the past over his House colleague's views, said he was shocked to hear that he had been appointed to the committee, considering Benton's pattern of "racially insensitive" remarks. Fort said he did not understand Ralston's rationale in choosing him.

"You can't expect better from a Tommy Benton. He is who he is," Fort, D-Atlanta, said. "But I do expect better from the speaker."

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About the Author

Chris Joyner
Chris Joyner
Chris Joyner is an investigative reporter. An Atlanta native, Joyner has been with the AJC since 2010.