Find a solution to racist symbols at Stone Mountain

Things changed on June 17.

The Charleston massacre at Emmanuel AME Church changed forever how we as Americans consider racist symbolism in our country. Symbols matter. They were used to motivate and justify the heinous actions of the terrorist who gunned down nine worshippers.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a conservative Republican, understood this. That is why she organized the legislative initiative to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state Capitol in Columbia. That is why families of the slain stood with Haley as she signed the legislation into law. That is why the time has come for leaders in Georgia to find a solution to this issue.

For this to happen, the issue of Confederate symbols has to be dealt with forthrightly. Unfortunately, there have been straw-man arguments made regarding the removal of Confederate symbols at Stone Mountain Park.

Those who disagree with Georgia sponsoring Confederate symbols on state property do not want to abridge anyone’s First Amendment right to honor their “heritage.” If any Georgians want to enshrine the memories of their ancestors on their private property as they see fit, that is their right.

What is debatable is whether traitors, slave owners and defenders of slavery ought to be enshrined on public property with public dollars. In addition, there has been an emphasis on the impracticality of removing the carvings from the mountain. Civil rights activists understand removing the carvings is an unwieldy proposition.

There has been a proposal to add a bell tower to Stone Mountain to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King’s call “to let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia” in his famous 1963 speech to the March on Washington. It is a call that continues to be an uplifting message for all Americans.

Placing the bell tower on a memorial that is the centerpiece of a giant, state-sponsored memorial to the Confederacy, however, demeans King, his legacy and the cause for which he sacrificed his life.

This would create a false equivalency between people whose cause was perpetuating one of the worst atrocities in human history — widespread, racially targeted slavery for the profit of others — with a man who sparked and led the effort to eliminate vestiges of that atrocity and the continuing oppression of African-Americans in the South through Jim Crow and voter disfranchisement laws. That kind of false equivalency does not serve us well.

That the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a proponent of preserving and promoting the “legacy” of the Confederacy, would equate the Confederacy and its cause of defending slavery with King and his cause — which advocated that every person be judged by the content of his or her character rather than the color of his or her skin — is a clear illustration why a monument to King at the top of the Stone Mountain Memorial is wrong.

Remember, the SCV is not just any old organization. Gov. Nathan Deal recently reaffirmed our state’s decision to associate with and financially support them with a specialty license plate featuring the Confederate battle emblem. (A recent redesign of the tag eliminated the larger, background image of the Rebel emblem while retaining a small version of it in the foreground.)

I am drafting a bill to introduce in the 2016 legislative session that will eliminate the state’s use of Confederate symbols. It would remove Confederate street and plaza names at Stone Mountain Memorial Park. It would also eliminate SCV’s right to a license plate and remove Confederate symbols from the state Capitol.

I am calling on Governor Deal to show leadership on this issue the same way Governor Haley did in South Carolina. He should realize that removing one Confederate symbol from a specialty license plate while allowing a second symbol to remain is a half measure that is no measure at all. A viable solution without false equivalencies needs to be worked out before the legislative session begins. That way, precious legislative time will not be devoted to a debate on hateful symbols, and a discussion of boycotts will not be needed.

Senator Vincent Fort, a Democrat, represents District 39.