Georgia lawmaker attacks John Lewis’ legacy, loses chairmanship

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, a strong proponent of Confederate history, was recently appointed to a committee to study civics education in Georgia. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, a strong proponent of Confederate history, was recently appointed to a committee to study civics education in Georgia. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A Republican lawmaker has again had his chairmanship stripped from him after making comments disparaging the legacy of John Lewis.

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, was just reinstated to a leadership position last year after having it taken from him in 2017 for sharing an article with colleagues that challenged slavery as the root cause of the Civil War.

On Thursday, two weeks after Lewis’ funeral, Benton said during a radio interview on WJJC (1270 AM) that the congressman and civil rights leader had no accomplishments to his name.

“John Lewis, his only claim to fame was that he got conked on the head at the (Edmund) Pettus Bridge,” Benton said. “And he has milked that for 50 years — or he milked it for 50 years.”

House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, on Friday announced that he had stripped Benton of his chairmanship of the House Retirement Committee.

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Benton said he disagreed with a bipartisan effort to replace the statue of Confederate leader Alexander Hamilton Stephens in the U.S. Capitol with one of Lewis.

“I would suggest that before they do something like that, that they take a pilgrimage down to Crawfordville and visit the Alexander Stephens museum, and read all the stuff that he did do,” said Benton, who was elected in 2004. “Now, the other person they’re talking about replacing his statue with — I have never read of a significant piece of legislation that was passed with his name on it.”

Stephens, who served as the vice president of the Confederacy, is famous for his so-called “Cornerstone Speech,” given in defense of rebellion in March 1861, a few weeks before the attack on Fort Sumter.

In the speech, Stephens said Thomas Jefferson’s view of slavery as a moral evil that would “evanescent and pass away” was “fundamentally wrong.”

“The comments made by Representative Benton are offensive and disgusting. These comments do not reflect the values or the views of the House Majority Caucus. I can neither condone nor ignore such hurtful remarks,” Ralston said in a statement. “Congressman John Lewis spent a lifetime of public service advancing equality for all. He stood with Dr. King to fight for civil rights during dangerous times for which he paid a brutal price.”

This is the second time in about three years Ralston has taken a chairmanship from Benton.

In June 2017, Benton distributed an article to his House colleagues titled “The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States.”

Because he was stripped of his chairmanship of the House Human Relations and Aging Committee when the General Assembly was not in session, Benton sat out of House leadership for just one legislative year. His role for the past two years as chairman of the Retirement Committee arguably was a promotion, since that committee oversees large financial funds and has more legislation assigned to it.

The article was just one in a string of provocative comments or legislative proposals from the retired high school history teacher from Jackson County, 60 miles northeast of Atlanta. In 2016, Benton drew national condemnation for claiming the Ku Klux Klan “was not so much a racist thing, but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

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

Benton, and all other legislators, are up for reelection this year. Benton is facing Democrat Pete Fuller in November.

Benton has not faced Democratic opposition since 2006, his second term, when he won the northeast Georgia district contest with 77% of the vote.

Staff reporter Chris Joyner contributed to this report.