- Bill Banks For the AJC
Decatur, if allowed by state law, could be among the first Georgia communities to move a Confederate monument.
The City Commission recently voted unanimously to approve a resolution to remove a roughly 30-foot-tall obelisk from its city square. The catch, however, is that the monument, located behind the former DeKalb County Courthouse, is owned by the county.
There’s also the matter of a state law that appears to prohibit such monuments from being “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion.”
A critical clause in the Decatur resolution addresses both those issues, supporting “action by the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners, when so authorized,” to move the monument to another location within the county.
DeKalb’s Commission has been noncommittal on the subject, at least until Tuesday. After a morning meeting, County Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson announced on Twitter that she will introduce a resolution, probably on Oct. 10, calling for the monument’s removal.
Meantime, state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, and state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, have begun drafting legislation to allow local governments to take action involving monuments in their communities.
They hope to file a bill by Nov. 15 for the General Assembly session that begins in January.
Parent said she intended to write the bill all along, but Decatur’s resolution “hurried” the process. She also said state Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur, is drafting similar legislation.
The Confederate monument, erected in 1908, has been the target of scathing rhetoric since the Aug. 12 violence during a white supremacist demonstration in Charlottesville, Va.
Supporters for removal of the monument see it as a symbol of white supremacy and a landmark of intimidation to African-Americans.
Others say it’s more complicated than that.
“I’ve been looking at that monument since I was a child in the 1950s,” said Chris Billingsley, who taught civics and history at Decatur High School for nearly 40 years. “It is very complex, and this group’s whittled it down to a simple issue. But primarily it was dedicated to the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy.
“When that monument was erected, there were still Confederate veterans in Decatur,” Billingsley said. “The war was still fresh in many memories. Downtown still had physical scars (from an 1864 skirmish between Confederate and Union troops), and there were still trenches on the square.”
Helping lead efforts opposing the monument is a group that formed shortly after the clash in Charlottesville, Hate Free Decatur.
The group launched a petition drive that collected more than 2,000 signatures. It has since partnered with, among others, the Beacon Hill NAACP and Create Community 4 Decatur: Black Lives Matter in holding a march on the monument Sept. 9 that drew more than 300 people.
Those groups brought 35 activists to Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, with two speaking during public comment. Otherwise, there was no mention of the monument until Johnson produced her tweet. One of Hate Free Decatur’s founders, Sara Patenaude, said she was told by a DeKalb staffer that Johnson was still speaking with counsel about the resolution’s precise language.
Patenaude said she also has received “several legal opinions suggesting the monument can be moved without changing the law.”
Last week, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond told Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett that he would, in Garrett’s words, “ask the county attorney to ask the state attorney general for an opinion and clarification of the statute.”
“The law hasn’t been tested, and I haven’t researched this myself,” said Parent, a lawyer. “But for me, the best thing is to get the law changed. That’s the safest way to look at it.”
Other options have been explored about how to treat the monument.
Earlier this month, Decatur City Manager Peggy Merriss began preparing a proposal that would have included a “semi-permanent” exhibit near the monument, likely in the form of panels reflecting the “experience of African-Americans in the South” surrounding the war era.
The goal was to unveil the $40,000 exhibit next year on Martin Luther King Day.
Create Community 4 Decatur quickly denounced the project in a series of emails, and Hate Free Decatur sent out a press release Sept. 17 also opposing the proposal.
“We will not be placated with the erection of ‘panels,’ ” the press release stated. “We want DeKalb County to take a stand and do the right thing: Take It Down.”
Following 90 minutes of public comments mostly backing removal of the monument on Sept. 18, Decatur commissioners tabled the panel proposal, likely killing it. After that, Commissioner Tony Powers introduced the resolution calling for the monument’s removal. It passed 4-0, with Commissioner Scott Drake absent.
“I have said all along this is a community-driven process,” Powers said during an interview this week. “The fact is, we are getting a message that’s pretty clear.”