After years of pressure and a recent court order, the Confederate monument in the downtown Decatur square has come down.
By 10:30 p.m. Thursday, a large, energetic crowd had gathered near the 30-foot obelisk, which a DeKalb County judge ordered last week should be removed and put into storage. Word had spread quickly as law enforcement and construction crews gathered in the area and a crane was brought in to pluck the monument from its perch outside the historic DeKalb County courthouse.
Police officers on the scene moved observers away from the gazebo near the monument, which was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
“Don’t know what it’s going to look like when it comes down,” one officer said.
By 11:30 p.m., the crowd had grown to a few hundred. And like that, the obelisk was pulled from its pedestal.
The pedestal itself, which bears the engraved words honoring DeKalb’s Confederate soldiers, took a few more hours to be extracted and loaded on a trailer.
Mawuli Davis, co-chair of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, was among those present for the occasion. He called the removal a victory for activists.
Beacon Hill, another group called Hate Free Decatur and other local leaders renewed their push for the monument’s removal amid ongoing nationwide protests over racism and police violence. They held the latest in a series of rallies Wednesday night, urging DeKalb County to hurry up and take the obelisk down.
“It took this community to start what we hope will be a chain reaction in Georgia and across the country to bring down all of these symbols of white supremacy, as we focus on dismantling the system ... that has left so many people hurt, killed, and so many families broken,” Davis said. “We know that it's possible.”
Video from @AmandaCCoyne pic.twitter.com/014amzMqrM— tyler, the reporter (@ByTylerEstep) June 19, 2020
In his ruling issued last week, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger declared the monument to be a public nuisance and gave officials until June 26 to act.
The ruling, which came in response to a formal complaint filed by the city of Decatur, paved the way for Thursday’s activities — the culmination of a years-long effort to take the divisive pillar down.
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After the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, local groups pushed to have Decatur’s monument removed. DeKalb County launched a search for folks who might be willing to take it off their hands.
They had no such luck.
So last year — after the Georgia General Assembly updated state law to make it even harder for local jurisdictions to remove or relocate Confederate monuments — the county settled on adding a contextualizing marker. The marker, which was installed in September, says that the monument was erected to “glorify the ‘lost cause’ of the Confederacy” and has “bolstered white supremacy and faulty history.”
The obelisk, however, drew fresh ire in recent weeks and became an increasingly frequent target for protests and vandalism. On June 10, Decatur city attorney Bryan Downs filed a formal complaint asking a judge to declare the monument a nuisance and a threat to public safety -- a move that avoided directly challenging Georgia’s Confederate monument law.
“In short,” Seeliger wrote two days later, “the Confederate obelisk has become an increasingly frequent target of grafﬁti and vandalism, a ﬁgurative lightning rod for friction among citizens, and a potential catastrophe that could happen at any time if individuals attempt to forcibly remove or destroy it.”
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It was unclear where the obelisk would be stored. It was also unclear what circumstances, if any, could lead to the monument being re-erected in the future.
The Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans recently threatened legal action but had not filed any by Thursday.
Davis and other members of local civil rights groups were sitting near the monument all evening, hoping it would be the night the obelisk came down. Once they saw police officers and construction crews move in, they felt their hopes were becoming reality.
Davis and his fellow demonstrators moved protest signs from the monument to the DeKalb History Center just steps away.
“So they could preserve history,” Davis said. “This is history. I want to go wake up all the young people in Decatur who marched with us. This is a beautiful moment, a victory after 112 years.”
DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond did not immediately respond to inquiries. Earlier in the day, he had announced a Friday morning press conference to discuss the "pending removal" of the monument.
Crowd around 10p was maybe 50 people. A couple hundred are here now to see the confederate monument taken down in downtown Decatur, GA. pic.twitter.com/o05sWIPTLs— Amanda Coyne (@AmandaCCoyne) June 19, 2020
As it turns out, the removal process started just a few hours before the start of Juneteenth, which dates back to June 19, 1865, when enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas, learned that they were free — more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued.
That coincidence wasn’t lost on observers and those who have pushed for years for the monument to be taken down. The gathered crowd counted down as midnight approached.
“I can think of no more fitting start to Juneteenth,” said Sara Patenaude, a leader of Hate Free Decatur.
As the obelisk was still being towed away, someone handed a bottle champagne to Davis.
Fonta High, a Beacon Hill board member, offered a toast.
“This is to white supremacy going down,” she said.
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Photo from @AmandaCCoyne. Local attorney and co-chair of Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights @MawuliMDavis toasts with champagne pic.twitter.com/seudDr7j26— tyler, the reporter (@ByTylerEstep) June 19, 2020