The Jolt: John B. Gordon’s descendants plead for his state Capitol statue’s removal

JOHN BROWN GORDON STATUE (Georgia Capitol): The State Capitol grounds pay tribute to several Confederate-era political figures, including this imposing John Brown Gordon statue. Gordon was a three-star Confederate general and served as governor and U.S. senator. Historians generally agree that he was also the unofficial leader of Georgia's Ku Klux Klan. Learn more here. (Chris Hunt / Special to the AJC)
JOHN BROWN GORDON STATUE (Georgia Capitol): The State Capitol grounds pay tribute to several Confederate-era political figures, including this imposing John Brown Gordon statue. Gordon was a three-star Confederate general and served as governor and U.S. senator. Historians generally agree that he was also the unofficial leader of Georgia's Ku Klux Klan. Learn more here. (Chris Hunt / Special to the AJC)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

<i>News and analysis from the AJC politics team</i>

The descendants of former Gov. John B. Gordon delivered an unequivocal message for the current occupant of that office: Remove the bronze statue of him, sitting in full Confederate regalia, from the grounds of the Georgia Capitol.

In a letter sent to Gov. Brian Kemp over the weekend, the 44 relatives of Gordon wrote that the “primary purpose of the statue was to celebrate and mythologize the white supremacists of the Confederacy” and called for it to be disappeared.

“The continuing presence of this statue on public property serves to negate and undermine the past and ongoing struggle of Georgians to overcome and reverse the legacy of slavery and oppression of black Americans,” they wrote.

Groups of protesters have gathered outside the Gold Dome demanding the statue's removal since George Floyd's death ignited rallies for racial equality across the nation.

Unveiled in 1907, the statue is one of the most controversial monuments to the Old South on the Capitol grounds. Aside from being a Confederate war commander, Gordon is generally acknowledged as being a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.

And even when state officials in 2013 relocated a statue of another white supremacist leader from Georgia's past – a fist-pumping mold of Tom Watson – Gordon and other Confederate icons were left intact.

Back then, state officials had more leeway to move controversial statues. But under a law signed by Kemp last year, Confederate markers can only be moved to a "site of similar prominence" — which means retiring Gordon's image to an out-of-the-way park is likely out of the question.

But the removal of a Confederate monument in Decatur last week — the civil government equivalent of a midnight lightning strike — showed a potential path.

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond made the decision to dismantle the monument in a window of time created by Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger, who had ruled that the 30-foot obelisk had become a public nuisance and allowed Thurmond to circumvent the 2019 law.

Sheffield Hale is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center. Over the last several years, Hale has been a significant mediator in debates over what to do with Confederate monuments in Georgia and the rest of the South.

In some instances, he has argued, simply adding the proper historical context to a monument can suffice.

But in some cases Hale says a community must have the option of removing an edifice. And in an AJC op-ed that appeared over the weekend, Hale argued that legislative protection of Confederate monuments may actually have the effect of hastening their removal:

The table was reset for conflict in 2019. That year, the Georgia legislature passed a strengthened monument protection law prohibiting local Georgia residents from determining what version of the past is represented in their own public spaces. Ironically, as we now see, these laws ultimately will accelerate the removal of monuments by creating more vitriol, less dialogue, and a lack of democratic options.

Though supporters claim that the legislation protects history, this law effectively reanimates the original purpose of monuments by a state sanction. Monuments are made untouchable and unchangeable, elevating them to objects of veneration and political symbols honoring Lost Cause mythology.

...Georgia’s monument protection law … undermines the process of community engagement. The law eliminates the possibility of democratic consensus-building by permanently erasing an option, creating a false choice, animosity, and lack of trust from the outset. How can communities have productive conversations knowing that deciding to remove monuments, even after thoughtful engagement, is not legally possible?

***

06/19/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Sen. Harold Jones II (D-Augusta) questions the proposed amendment provided by Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), foreground, on HB 426 during a Senate Judiciary committee meeting on day 34 of the legislative session at the Paul D. Coverdell building in Atlanta, Friday, June 19, 2020. Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) added an amendment to HB 426 that would add first responders to be a protected class in Georgia's proposed hate crime law. The amendment passed the committee with no support from Democrats and will now be presented to the House.(ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
06/19/2020 - Atlanta, Georgia - Sen. Harold Jones II (D-Augusta) questions the proposed amendment provided by Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens), foreground, on HB 426 during a Senate Judiciary committee meeting on day 34 of the legislative session at the Paul D. Coverdell building in Atlanta, Friday, June 19, 2020. Sen. Bill Cowsert (R-Athens) added an amendment to HB 426 that would add first responders to be a protected class in Georgia's proposed hate crime law. The amendment passed the committee with no support from Democrats and will now be presented to the House.(ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

To Georgia Democrats, the Senate overhaul of hate-crimes legislation that included police officers and other first responders as a protected class was a "poison pill" meant to doom the proposal.

To Senate Republicans, it was something else -- perhaps a steroid to ensure its passage in the chamber.

Once it became clear Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan's complicated version of the legislation wouldn't muster Democratic support or enough GOP votes to escape committee, his allies went back to the drawing board.

The first-responder provision — which emerged on Juneteenth holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves — was meant to win over wavering Republicans who had bottled up the legislation last year without so much as a hearing.

It also made a hate-crimes law that Democrats have demanded since an earlier statute was struck down 16 years ago even more polarizing.

House and Senate Democrats sent a note late Sunday outlining their opposition to the bill and noting existing state statutes that provide legal protections to police officers, including a "Back the Badge" law enacted in 2017.

From the statement:

Hate crime legislation is meant to protect those who suffer from a violent personal or property-related crime that is motivated by a bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity. By including professional affiliation as a protected class, Senate Republicans have decided to ignore the cries of Georgians who are pleading for justice. 

Our police and first responders are already protected with laws that enhance sentencing when crimes are committed against them. Everyday Georgians deserve that same type of protection.

***

We visited northwest Georgia to get a sense of how voters in District 14 are responding to Marjorie Taylor Greene, the front-runner for that congressional seat whose racist and xenophobic comments have caused several Republicans to back her opponent.

What we heard was mixed reviews, with some voters believing Greene is the truth-teller they want representing them in Washington and others worried she is hurting the party and its efforts to build a broader coalition:

Kenneth Huckabee, 65, said he has been a loyal supporter of Greene’s and will vote for her in August despite her remarks. He also doesn’t mind that prominent Republican leaders have condemned her behavior.

“I don’t like anyone who is too far involved in being with the establishment,” Huckabee said. “I really don’t like cowardly people in Congress.”

Other voters are supporting Dr. John Cowan, the Rome-based neurosurgeon and business owner who finished second to Greene in this month’s GOP primary and is now her competition in the runoff.

Kenneth Studdard, a 54-year-old bookstore owner in Rome, said Greene’s comments were troubling and he also was bothered by her move into the district to campaign.

“I’m voting for John Cowan, but if he wasn’t running, I would vote for anyone but her,” he said. “I want someone from here to represent me.”

***

Marjorie Greene, center, of Milton, and candidate for congress in the sixth district, participates in a "Stop Impeachment Now" rally outside the office of Rep. Lucy McBath on Wednesday, October 9, 2019, in Sandy Springs. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Marjorie Greene, center, of Milton, and candidate for congress in the sixth district, participates in a "Stop Impeachment Now" rally outside the office of Rep. Lucy McBath on Wednesday, October 9, 2019, in Sandy Springs. (Elijah Nouvelage for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Credit: Elijah Nouvelage

Democrats are also using Greene's problematic comments as an attack line against Rich McCormick, the Republican nominee in the competitive 7th Congressional District race.

The "Silent Rich" ad, which is running on Youtube, includes video of Greene making those problematic comments about Muslims, immigrants and Black people. Overlaid text calls out McCormick for not speaking out. "Why won't McCormick condemn Greene's racism?" the ad asks. "Rich McCormick's silence speaks volumes."

The spot is targeted to Black people and white, college-educated women who live in the district and is sponsored by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

In response to the ad, McCormick’s campaign said that his personal history and recent attempts to reach out to the district’s diverse voters speak louder than anything he could say about Greene. They also provided a statement making general comments about political decorum without naming her specifically.

“Today, it’s more important than ever for candidates from both parties to take a look in the mirror,” McCormick said. “If they are demonizing their fellow Americans because of their race or religion, they shouldn’t be running for office.”

***

"Senate Sellouts." That's what the Democratic Party of Georgia is calling a new website that breaks down a timeline of the stock transactions of U.S. Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue during the pandemic.

***

If you're curious about the Georgia delegates to the Republican National Convention, most of whom are now headed to Jacksonville, check out our running list here.

And here's a tally of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention who are headed (maybe?) to Milwaukee in August.

***

The chief executive of a chain of Georgia nursing homes has been named to a federal task force on improving safety protocols for elder-care facilities dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neil Pruitt, chairman and chief executive of PruittHealth, is one of 25 people appointed to President Donal Trump's Coronavirus Commission on Safety and Quality in Nursing Homes, part of his "Open Up America Again" initiative. The commission will study how nursing homes responded to the pandemic and come up with new strategies for protecting patients.

***

The High Museum of Art is preparing for a July reopening, but an exterior wall that normally is used to promote exhibits currently displays one of U.S. Rep. John Lewis's quotes: " ... when we saw the need for people to speak up, to organize, to mobilize, and to do something about justice, we came together."

***

Our deepest sympathies: Connie Curry, who ran the city of Atlanta's Bureau of Humans Services under Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young, died on Saturday at age 87. Curry, the daughter of Irish immigrants, attended Agnes Scott college where she became involved in the Civil Rights movement both as an activist and an author.

About the Authors

ajc.com

ajc.com

In Other News