Controversial House member 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

SCLC and Confederate group clash over lawmaker’s MLK statue decision

The president of the organization founded in 1957 by Martin Luther King Jr., said he wants the name of state Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) included on a plaque that will accompany a statue of King that will soon be unveiled at the state capitol.

That is if Benton believes in justice.

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

Earlier this month, Benton asked that his name be omitted completely from the statue after a request was made to everyone who was going to be included on the statue to double check the spelling of their names.

“I want everybody 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.

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»  FROM 2015: A King memorial for Georgia

Benton, who was a prominent member of the House leadership, has seen a spiralling demotion to backbencher status, thanks to the controversial headlines he has been making lately.

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.

Those demotions likely affected Benton’s decision, said Grady Vickery, a member of Sons of Confederate Veterans in Dawsonville. Vickery does not personally know Benton, but 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.

“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,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

Steele said that there is an SCLC chapter in Jefferson and he is ready to mobilize a march.

“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, because right now, it is an insult and belittles the progress that we as Americans have made.

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