Confederate group sues over removal of Decatur monument

A 30-foot obelisk Confederate moment, which has stood for 112 years, was taken down in the downtown Decatur square late Thursday night. The monument was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Photos by Amanda Coyne / AJC

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A 30-foot obelisk Confederate moment, which has stood for 112 years, was taken down in the downtown Decatur square late Thursday night. The monument was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Photos by Amanda Coyne / AJC

City attorney calls suit ‘a lost cause’

The Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans has filed a new lawsuit challenging the removal of a Lost Cause monument from the Decatur square.

The nine-page suit filed last week in DeKalb County Superior Court asks that the 30-foot Confederate obelisk, plucked from its perch last June, be returned to its “former place of honor.”

It names Decatur city attorney Bryan Downs and all seven DeKalb County commissioners — including two who weren’t in office when the obelisk was removed — as defendants, suggesting that officials took “collusive action” to circumvent state law protecting Confederate monuments.

Martin O’Toole, a spokesman for the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans, wrote in a Sunday afternoon Facebook post that putting the monument back up would “send a message around the state and nation vindicating our laws.”

ExplorePhotos: Confederate memorials in metro Atlanta

“Decatur and DeKalb [County’s] actions have been cited in several venues as an example of a legitimate means by the ‘Cancel Culture’ to censor history,” wrote O’Toole, who is also a leader with the Charles Martel Society, an Atlanta-based white nationalist organization.

“This lawsuit should expose the falsity of these claims.”

The United Daughters of the Confederacy erected the obelisk outside what’s now known as the Historic DeKalb Courthouse in 1908, part of a widespread Jim Crow-era effort to perpetuate myths about the Civil War and glorify white supremacy.

DeKalb County officials tried for several years to remove or relocate the monument but, even before Georgia laws restricting such actions were tightened further, couldn’t find a way to do so. In September 2019, the county settled for installing a contextualizing marker that called the obelisk an attempt to bolster “white supremacy and faulty history.”

Then, last summer, as nationwide protests over police killings of Black Americans and systemic racism roiled, the monument in Decatur became a frequent target for vandalism.

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061720 Decatur: Local residents and protesters hold a rally calling on DeKalb County to follow a judge’s order to “swiftly” remove the Confederate monument from Decatur Square on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Decatur. In an order issued Friday afternoon, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger said the monument to the Confederacy in the square should be relocated by midnight on June 26. The city argued that the 30-foot obelisk had become a threat to public safety during recent protests about racism and police violence toward black people. Seeliger’s order says the monument should be placed into storage until further notice. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

061720 Decatur: Local residents and protesters hold a rally calling on DeKalb County to follow a judge’s order to “swiftly” remove the Confederate monument from Decatur Square on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Decatur. In an order issued Friday afternoon, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger said the monument to the Confederacy in the square should be relocated by midnight on June 26. The city argued that the 30-foot obelisk had become a threat to public safety during recent protests about racism and police violence toward black people. Seeliger’s order says the monument should be placed into storage until further notice.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Combined ShapeCaption
061720 Decatur: Local residents and protesters hold a rally calling on DeKalb County to follow a judge’s order to “swiftly” remove the Confederate monument from Decatur Square on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Decatur. In an order issued Friday afternoon, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger said the monument to the Confederacy in the square should be relocated by midnight on June 26. The city argued that the 30-foot obelisk had become a threat to public safety during recent protests about racism and police violence toward black people. Seeliger’s order says the monument should be placed into storage until further notice. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

By June of 2020, Downs, the Decatur city attorney, had filed a lawsuit asking that DeKalb County — which owns the monument — be ordered to take it down. The petition did not directly challenge state law protecting Confederate tributes but called the obelisk a “public nuisance” and a threat to public safety.

Within a few days, and without DeKalb County filing a formal response, Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger issued an order agreeing with the city’s stance. He gave the county about two weeks to remove the monument and put it in storage.

Crews hired by the county took the obelisk down as the night of June 18, 2020, bled into the morning June 19 — Juneteenth, the holiday marking the day in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were freed by Union troops.

In September, Seeliger issued a final order declaring that the obelisk “should not at any time” be returned to the square.

DeKalb officials did not immediately respond Monday to inquiries regarding the new lawsuit from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The county typically does not comment on pending litigation.

But in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Downs called the suit a “tardy, vexatious attack on properly entered rulings by a Georgia court of law.” The Decatur city attorney wrote that the Confederate group had more than three months to try and intervene before Seeliger issued his final order, but did nothing.

“The Petition they have now filed is factually incorrect, legally flawed, and procedurally deficient,” Downs wrote. “In short, it is a lost cause.”

STORY SO FAR

In June 2020, the city of Decatur filed a petition calling the Confederate obelisk outside the Historic DeKalb Courthouse a public nuisance. A judge granted the petition and ordered DeKalb County to take the monument down. DeKalb complied, the monument was removed and has remained in storage since.

Last week, the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a new lawsuit arguing the monument should be replaced, saying the city and county acted in collusion to circumvent state law.