Rep. Benton's Klan remarks draw criticism from Senate, House

While Rep. Tommy Benton's remarks about the Ku Klux Klan have yet to draw any official rebuke, two legislators made public comments Monday directed at five-term Republican.

Last week, Benton, R-Jefferson, called attempts to bring down or alter Confederate memorials "cultural terrorism" and said the Ku Klux Klan "made a lot of people straighten up."

The Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

Benton also described legislation introduced by Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta,that would prohibit the state from formally recognizing Confederate heroes with state holidays as "no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments."

McKoon called on Benton to apologize.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Augusta, seen in a file photo from 2015, condemned Rep. Tommy Benton for his comments and called on him to apologize. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

"The comments made are contemptible and wrong and deserve the strongest possible condemnation," said Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus. "In 2016 one would hope we would not have to even have this discussion."

McKoon referred to the Klan as "the original domestic terrorist organization."

"There is simply no excusing the murderous terroristic campaign they waged against Americans. I hope that the author of these comments will reconsider them and apologize for them," he said. "It has been my experience that almost all of my colleagues do not feel same as that member."

McKoon referred to Benton's remarks about Fort as "grotesque and beyond the pale."

"(Fort) should not be stripped of his humanity and demonized because a member disagrees with him," he said. "Such rhetoric is beneath the dignity of this body."

State Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia

Over the in House, no one directly upbraided Benton for his comments. But when Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, took to the well of the House to commemorate the beginning of Black History Month, she shaped her comments around the controversy, beginning with the 1911 mob lynching in Lawrenceville of Charlie Hale, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

"I wanted to remind everybody that our American history has not always been the best," she said. Kendrick noted Hale had been lynched outside of the Gwinnett County Courthouse, which had been rebuilt following an 1871 fire set by Klan members seeking to destroy evidence of bootlegging.

Kendrick said she tailored her remarks as an answer to Benton.

"Usually I just try to highlight all the good work and contributions to society that black Americans have made," she said. "We don’t come from a flowery past and we have to recognize the misdeeds in this country and the role organizations and individuals played in that.”

Benton's comments were originally made to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview about legislation he's introduced that would require the state to formally recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee's birthday and seek an amendment to the state constitution further protecting Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial.

Democratic and progressive groups have called on House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to personally condemn Benton. On Monday, the Georgia chapter of the NAACP criticized Gov. Nathan Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Ralston for not issuing public statements.

Benton's comments have been carried by publications around the nation. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

About the Author

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