Benton says he still doesn’t want his name on MLK monument at Capitol

Despite calls from a legacy civil rights organization to reverse course, embattled state Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) said he still won't allow his name to be added to part of a monument to Martin Luther King Jr.

The monument and a plaque naming the legislators who helped get the statue on Capitol grounds is scheduled to be unveiled in August. A clay model of the statue depicts King striding with purpose, a book in one hand. It's being shipped to be cast in bronze this week, said Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus).

» PHOTOS: Martin Luther King Jr. statues from around the world

» FROM 2015: A King memorial for Georgia

Benton and Smyre, as members of the Capitol Arts Standards Commission, were among the lawmakers assigned to approve the statue’s design and funding.

Those legislative sponsors were asked earlier this month to double-check the spelling of their names for inclusion on a plaque that will accompany the monument. But Benton asked that his name be omitted.

Reached Tuesday, a day after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Benton would not allow his name on the plaque, the lawmaker said he doesn’t regret his decision.

“I felt like it’d be hypocritical to have my name on it after I voted against it,” Benton said. “If they’d wanted to put it on Liberty Plaza, I would have voted for it.”

Liberty Plaza is a public park directly across the street from the Gold Dome.

Benton said statues on the Capitol grounds should only represent presidents, governors, senators and other elected officials from Georgia.

“That’s all that’s out there,” he said.

While a statue of President Jimmy Carter is outside the Capitol, there is statuary inside the building representing non-elected officials — including James Oglethorpe, a founder of Georgia, and Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts.

Smyre, who is also chair of the King Tribute Committee, said he had not spoken with Benton about his decision to remove his name. But Smyre pointed out that Benton was an opponent of putting the statue at the Capitol.

“At least there’s some consistency there,” Smyre said. “He’s holding on to his position.”

A new statue of Martin Luther King Jr. planned for the Georgia Capitol will be based on this historic photo of King walking with Bayard Rustin and Ralph David Abernathy (not seen here) leaving the Montgomery County Courthouse after an arraignment during the Montgomery Bus Boycott on Feb. 24, 1956. (AP photo)

Credit: AP photo

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Credit: AP photo

The new statue is based on a 1956 photo of King walking with Bayard Rustin, an architect of the civil rights movement, as the two leave the Montgomery County Courthouse after an arraignment during the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

In the photo King is wearing a fedora, but the King family requested that the hat not be depicted in the sculpture, Mack Cain, a landscape architect on the project, wrote in an email to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On June 14, at the State Properties Commission board meeting, the Georgia Building Authority authorized a final $100,000 payment toward the completion of the statue.

Jen Talaber Ryan, deputy chief of staff for communications in the office of Gov. Nathan Deal, said because the $100,000 is coming from an authority, it is not classified as taxpayer money — keeping a promise that the public would not foot the bill for the $300,000 statue.

Additional funding came from: The Atlanta Apartment Association ($75,000); Coca-Cola ($100,000); and the Department of Community Affairs’ Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council (25,000).

The head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the civil rights organization founded by King in 1957, said he wants Benton’s name included on the plaque.

That is, if Benton believes in justice.

Landscape architect Mack Cain and sculptor Martin Dawe of Cherrylion Studio stand next to a partially constructed clay model of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue that is being planned for the Georgia Capitol. Courtesy of Mack Cain Landscape Architect.

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“I want everybody’s name who was associated with the statue on the statue. In the spirit of Dr. King we want it,” said SCLC President and CEO Charles Steele. “If he believes, to any degree, in the upward mobility of what he is supposed to represent, he would want his name on there. But if you don’t believe in freedom and justice, we don’t want you.”

That seems to be the question.

Benton has every right to remove his name from a statue honoring King, said Grady Vickery, a member of an organization charged with keeping the memory of the Confederacy alive. Vickery said the lawmaker probably felt betrayed by his colleagues.

Benton was a prominent member of the House leadership. But he has seen a spiralling demotion to backbencher status lately because of controversial headlines he has made.

Last week Benton forwarded an article titled "The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States," to several members of the House, including House Speaker David Ralston, (R-Blue Ridge.)

Last Friday Ralston stripped Benton of his leadership position as chairman of the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging.

Ralston also bounced Benton off a study committee on civics education in Georgia’s public schools. Ralston had appointed him to the committee earlier this month. The appointment was controversial, as Benton had spent the past two years making provocative comments about the Civil War, race relations and the Ku Klux Klan.

The demotions likely affected Benton’s decision, said Vickery, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Dawsonville. Vickery does not personally know Benton, but he supports Benton’s statement that the Civil War was not started over slavery. He also supports Benton’s failed moves to protect Confederate iconography in Georgia.

A clay modeling of the Martin Luther King Jr. statue to be placed on the state Capitol lawn in August. The pose is based on an historical photo of King walking down the street in Birmingham. Courtesy of the Georgia Building Authority.

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“If you start taking down monuments to the Confederates, then before you know it you’re going to go after statues of Martin Luther King,” Vickery said. “How are we going to teach our young people if we don’t keep these benchmarks to show them what happened?”

In an interview with the AJC published in January 2016, Benton said the 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,” Benton said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, is refusing to have his name associated with the new Martin Luther King Jr. statue that will be unveiled at the State Capitol. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

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Vickery said the issue of race is now inescapable, especially when talking about Confederate monuments. Benton offered legislation that would have caused the names of streets that were renamed after King’s assassination to revert to the names of Confederate generals and segregationists.

“At every turn, we’re considered racist because we’re not black,” Vickery said. “But the left wing and the right wing both belong to the same bird. There’s got to be some type of balance.”

But Steele, of the SCLC, suggested Benton’s viewpoint cannot be taken in a vacuum. “It is not about him. It is about who he represents,” Steele said.

“Can his district allow this kind of mindset to represent them? We need to take a trip down to his district and rally,” Steele said, “because right now, it is an insult and belittles the progress that we as Americans have made.”