Georgia leaders take creative steps to move Confederate statues

A 30-foot obelisk Confederate moment, which has stood for 112 years, was taken down in the downtown Decatur square late Thursday night. The monument was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Photos by Amanda Coyne / AJC
A 30-foot obelisk Confederate moment, which has stood for 112 years, was taken down in the downtown Decatur square late Thursday night. The monument was erected in 1908 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Photos by Amanda Coyne / AJC

A box rose a few days ago around the base of a Confederate statue in downtown Macon, soon to be covered by colorful images and bright-yellow lettering that read “Justice for All.”

In Savannah, after a bust of a Confederate war leader at the landmark Forsyth Park was vandalized, a direct descendant of the general offered to buy it back from the city.

Athens officials are set to vote Thursday on whether to move an obelisk memorializing the Confederate war dead from the busy intersection outside the college town’s fabled Arch to a more remote locale.

And in Atlanta, dozens of descendants of John B. Gordon are pleading for the removal of the bronze statue at the state Capitol of the former governor, in full Confederate regalia, standing vigil on horseback pointed defiantly north.

Georgia lawmakers adopted a measure last year to make it harder to relocate Confederate markers, requiring that they be moved to a "site of similar prominence, honor, visibility and access" rather than stored in a museum or shunted to a far-off park.

And President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he plans to issue an executive order to restrict the removal of monuments memorializing leaders of the Confederacy.

But amid nationwide protests over race and justice, local leaders are experimenting with new efforts to move or diminish the Rebel monuments — and testing the limits of the Georgia law.

Some seek judicial rulings to declare the monuments public hazards. Some are dusting off transportation plans to legitimize their removal. And some are relying on the descendants of the once-lionized men memorialized throughout the state to build their case.

061720 Decatur: Local residents and protesters hold a rally calling on DeKalb County to follow a judge’s order to “swiftly” remove the Confederate monument from Decatur Square on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Decatur. In an order issued Friday afternoon, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger said the monument to the Confederacy in the square should be relocated by midnight on June 26. The city argued that the 30-foot obelisk had become a threat to public safety during recent protests about racism and police violence toward black people. Seeliger’s order says the monument should be placed into storage until further notice.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
061720 Decatur: Local residents and protesters hold a rally calling on DeKalb County to follow a judge’s order to “swiftly” remove the Confederate monument from Decatur Square on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, in Decatur. In an order issued Friday afternoon, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger said the monument to the Confederacy in the square should be relocated by midnight on June 26. The city argued that the 30-foot obelisk had become a threat to public safety during recent protests about racism and police violence toward black people. Seeliger’s order says the monument should be placed into storage until further notice. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

None has succeeded as vividly as last week’s lightning-strike removal of a 30-foot Confederate monument in Decatur Square that had become a hot spot for protests.

The statue's dismantling was cleared by a DeKalb County judge who ruled it had become a "public nuisance" that needed to be put in storage as a matter of public safety. DeKalb County Chief Executive Michael Thurmond approved the takedown on the eve of Juneteenth, the holiday celebrating the emancipation of slaves.

Other communities wrestling with their own divisive questions quickly took note. Athens-Clarke County Commissioner Russell Edwards said he sent word of Decatur’s decision to the county’s attorney, in case it proved useful for their own push to relocate an obelisk that’s become the epicenter of protests.

>>MORE: Inside the standoff over a Confederate statue at Georgia's Capitol

Athens officials are set to vote Thursday whether to approve a $450,000 plan to move the nearly 150-year-old memorial situated in the middle of one of the college town’s busiest intersections to a far less visible site a few miles away near the county’s only Civil War battlefield.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz and other supporters pitch the plan as a safety project that would allow hundreds more pedestrians to cross the congested street each hour. It doesn’t hurt, he added, that the side effect would be removing a statue that’s become a town flashpoint.

“There’s the legal frame and the moral frame. And the moral frame is the far more significant one to me,” Girtz said. “I’ve told a lot of mayors this: You have to go into this saying that you accept some level of risk. There’s a state code that’s open to interpretation.”

‘Silent teachers’

Supporters of the monuments see little bend in the law.

The Sons of Confederate Veterans filed a legal complaint seeking to pre-emptively block any moving of the statue in Athens, saying that taking it to a less conspicuous location flouts state law.

On a day that would have been the start of Summerfest, canceled due to the pandemic, about 1,000 protesters gathered at the corner of Virginia and North Highland avenues and marched down Virginia Avenue to Piedmont Park, where they planned to join with other protest groups and march downtown. (Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)
On a day that would have been the start of Summerfest, canceled due to the pandemic, about 1,000 protesters gathered at the corner of Virginia and North Highland avenues and marched down Virginia Avenue to Piedmont Park, where they planned to join with other protest groups and march downtown. (Photo: Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com)

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Martin O’Toole, a spokesman for the group’s Georgia chapter, said his group opposes any attempt to minimize the monuments, which he said stand as memorials to both the bloody conflict and the Georgians who shaped politics of the day.

“If you’re going to remove the statue, you’ve got to move it to a place of equal prominence. And anyone who does the merest traffic count in Athens can understand they’re not doing that,” O’Toole said. “The intention is clearly concealment. They want to obliterate Georgia’s history.”

Girtz said the county is poised to argue that “prominence” is a vague term that can also account for traits such as historical significance and uniqueness.

“We must contemplate more than just how many vehicles pass a certain spot,” he said.

Other communities have taken a different approach to downplay the monuments. Macon Mayor Robert Reichert allowed artists to install a large plywood frame around the pedestal of a monument to an unnamed Confederate soldier shortly after it was defaced with graffiti.

Artists adorned it with a giant heart, a black power fist and other images designed to prevent the statue from being defaced again while, organizers said, presenting a contrast to the 11-foot tall stone soldier standing above, armed and facing north.

The northwest Georgia city of Rome has held emotional meetings about the fate of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and founder of the Ku Klux Klan, near a cemetery. Dueling petitions to save or scrap the monument have attracted droves of signatures.

And the great-great-granddaughter of Lafayette McLaws, a Confederate general, offered to buy his Forsyth Park bust from the city of Savannah after it was adorned with a KKK hood and a black power fist earlier this month.

“Now these memorials instead of serving as silent teachers have become embarrassments to the city of Savannah,” Gertrude McLaws Helms wrote Savannah Mayor Van Johnson. “The city is no longer able or maybe even willing to protect them.”

‘We cannot erase them’

Georgia’s new law was passed at the urging of Republicans who said it would protect war memorials — they tried to train the focus mostly on World War II monuments — from damage by imposing stiffer penalties on vandals.

When Kemp signed it into law last year, he made no direct mention of the Civil War, though he acknowledged "there are monuments in our history that do not reflect our values."

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp receives information about a community COVID-19 testing site from Public Health District 2 Director, Dr. Pamela Logan (right), in the parking lot of La Flor de Jalisco #2 during a visit to Gainesville, Friday, May 15, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp receives information about a community COVID-19 testing site from Public Health District 2 Director, Dr. Pamela Logan (right), in the parking lot of La Flor de Jalisco #2 during a visit to Gainesville, Friday, May 15, 2020. ALYSSA POINTER / ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

“We cannot erase them from our history. We must learn from them,” he said. “These monuments and markers remind us of how far we’ve come not only as a state but as a country.”

Critics noted the irony that a law designed to preserve Confederate monuments could wind up hastening their removal.

Sheffield Hale, the president of the Atlanta History Center, said he supports either adding important context to monuments or removing them to less prominent sites, perhaps to “quarantine” sites.

“These laws are an issue because they take away the ability of local communities to have a say in what history is presented in their own public spaces,” he said. “When these monuments were erected, it was not by state fiat but by local white people who wanted to reinforce their values. Black citizens did not have a seat at the table.”

The demonstrators who regularly gather at the state Capitol demanding the removal of Gordon's statue — one of the most controversial monuments to the Old South in a Statehouse complex replete with them — ask the same query.

Aside from being a Confederate war commander, Gordon is generally acknowledged as being a leader of the KKK in Georgia. And rallies demanding to "tear down Gordon" have focused on the statue since the police killing of George Floyd.

“It’s time to remove that statue,” said Annette Jones, who earlier this month joined a march from Big Bethel AME Church to the Georgia Statehouse to demand an end to systemic racism. “Why does Georgia have a statue that represents white supremacy on the front lawn of the Capitol?”

JOHN BROWN GORDON STATUE (Georgia Capitol): The State Capitol grounds pay tribute to several Confederate-era political figures, including this imposing John Brown Gordon statue. Gordon was a three-star Confederate general and served as governor and U.S. senator. Historians generally agree that he was also the unofficial leader of Georgia's Ku Klux Klan. (Chris Hunt / Special to the AJC)
JOHN BROWN GORDON STATUE (Georgia Capitol): The State Capitol grounds pay tribute to several Confederate-era political figures, including this imposing John Brown Gordon statue. Gordon was a three-star Confederate general and served as governor and U.S. senator. Historians generally agree that he was also the unofficial leader of Georgia's Ku Klux Klan. (Chris Hunt / Special to the AJC)

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

Making the same case are 44 relatives of Gordon who wrote an open letter calling for a statue whose main purpose is to "to celebrate and mythologize the white supremacists of the Confederacy" to be removed from the Capitol grounds.

Kemp has declined to comment on the effort, though other critics cast them as attempts to shelve history. State Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gillsville, has questioned whether doing so would open a "Pandora's box" that could lead to the takedown of other monuments to imperfect politicians.

Democrats are ready to have that debate. State Rep. Shelly Hutchinson, D-Snellville, introduced legislation this week that would ban symbols of the Confederacy and others "advocating for slavery" from public property with exceptions for museums and Civil War battlefields.

Hutchinson is the first to acknowledge her measure has no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Legislature. But she said policymakers need to address the same issues she’s discussed with her children as they see vestiges of the Old South across the state.

“Think of all the children who have to go to Robert E. Lee elementary schools. It does something to a child’s psyche,” said Hutchinson, a clinical social worker. “This is the definition of institutional racism.”

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