There were raised voices, an expletive or two, a pop-up sprinkling of tears and one who even spit on the Lost Cause monument behind the historic DeKalb County Courthouse. A day earlier somebody had smeared feces on the landmark, but that was long gone by the time 80 or so people showed at 8 p.m. Saturday in Decatur’s square to discuss the fate of the monument. The gathering was efficient (about an hour long), mostly polite and unequivocally peaceful. But none said they favored keeping the 109-year-old obelisk at its current location.
Sara Patenaude, an historian and PhD candidate at Georgia State University and Hannah Hill, who co-pastors The Church of Mary Magdalene in Decatur, organized the event. Earlier in the week Hill started a petition, now with about 2,000 signatures, calling for the removal of the Lost Cause monument from Decatur’s square.
“I want to see this ugliness go away,” one speaker told the crowed.
Another said, “People were made inhuman by this monument. This is about celebrating whiteness and erasing blackness.”
The age range of Saturday’s crowd appeared roughly 30-50, out of which at most five were black.
Karcheik Sims-Alvarado didn’t attend the rally, but she saw a similar racial demographic emerging out of the tragedy in Charlottesville. A professor of history at Georgia State University and the Atlanta University system, her book “Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement, 1944-1968,” was published earlier this year. Her great-great-great grandfather was a freed black and a medical doctor who fought for the Confederacy.
“What I find interesting, when you look at Charlottesville, is that liberal whites are finally speaking up,” she said. “Charlottesville was about whites opposing whites. And the liberal whites are saying [to the so-called “alt right”] ‘you don’t represent us.’ They’re saying, ‘I’m tired of getting a bad rep because of your rudeness, your loudness and violence.’ “
Out of the 718 Civil War related monuments identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the 90 in Georgia represent the second most of any state.
Decatur’s was commemorated in 1908, and it’s a complicated one. As Melissa Forgey, executive director of the DeKalb History Center points out it’s a blending of two styles. From the 1860s-1880s, most Confederate monuments were obelisks, like this one, but placed in cemeteries, focusing on local men who died during the war (as this one does).
From 1890s-1920 many monuments featured statues of generals or soldiers (this one doesn’t), were placed in public areas (like this one), and focused more on justifying the Southern cause (which this one does).
Further complicating matters is the 232-word passage often attributed to local attorney Hooper Alexander Sr., who in a 1913 speech repeatedly referred to freed slaves as “savages.” But his authorship is by no means certain and to modern readers that inscription can seem impenetrable.
“That language is so formal, it’s hard to know what to make of it,” Sims-Alvarado said. “It’s poetic, it’s abstract and I don’t see anything overtly racist. But then again you have to ask, is it purposely saying something while avoiding what it really means? Is it purposely ambiguous?”
Forgey, a preservationist and historian generally opposed to anything being destroyed or moved, says that she’s gone through a sea change in the week after Charlottesville.
“Something’s been triggered in the American subconscious,” said Forgey, who also didn’t attend Saturday night’s event. “What we’re seeing is way past intellectual, way beyond symbols and history, and is now emotional. There needs to be a thoughtful, engaged conversation. Some people would like to see [the monument gone] and those people need to be heard.”
Patenaude and Hill would like to see the monument moved, perhaps to the Decatur cemetery, or to Stone Mountain, or inside the DeKalb History Center (Atlanta’s History Center, she said, is not interested).
The monument and surrounding property is owned by DeKalb County. A 2010 state law prohibits public monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion; provided, however, that appropriate measures for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments or memorials shall not be prohibited.”
Patenaude said she’s received several legal opinions suggesting the monument can be moved without changing the law. She is going to both Decatur’s commission meeting Monday night and Tuesday morning’s DeKalb commission meeting to seek support.
“Removing the monument doesn’t mean you’re removing history,” Sims-Alvarado said. “Even if you move it, you still have the right to discuss slavery and the war. If the public wants them down, then we have to respect that. That just gives us the opportunity to create new memories and new monuments.”
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