Georgia Capitol heavy with Confederate symbols

Statues, portraits offensive to many, sacred to others.
The statue of John Brown Gordon, U.S. Senator and Governor of Georgia (1873-1880 and 1891-1897), appears to ride into the an uncertain and modern future, still clad in his military uniform, sword and on horseback. Gordon was also head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia after the Civil War. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL

Credit: Chris Hunt

Credit: Chris Hunt

The statue of John Brown Gordon, U.S. Senator and Governor of Georgia (1873-1880 and 1891-1897), appears to ride into the an uncertain and modern future, still clad in his military uniform, sword and on horseback. Gordon was also head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia after the Civil War. CHRIS HUNT/SPECIAL

This summer’s mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church by an avowed white supremacist reopened a long-simmering conflict over Confederate and segregationist symbols across the South.

In Georgia, the state's most famous Confederate memorial — the carvings at Stone Mountain — captured the public's attention, but almost forgotten is a mother lode of Civil War and segregationist artifacts located at the very seat of government: the Capitol.

Counting its statues, marble busts, plaques and towering oil paintings, the Capitol boasts monuments to the vice president and secretary of state of the Confederacy, Georgia's two Confederate senators, the state's Civil War governor, six Confederate generals, a colonel, a major, a naval commander and a lieutenant.

As a bonus, the Capitol collection also includes three men central in the forced removal of Cherokee Indians from the state in the Trail of Tears and a choir of 20th-century segregationists who did all in their power to keep African-Americans from obtaining equal rights.

“There’s no easy answer to this,” said Matthew Hild, a history professor at Georgia Tech and West Georgia University.

Hild said seeking contemporary meaning from historical figures and symbols is fraught with difficulties, but he said it would be hard to justify the inclusion of many of the statues and paintings today.

“The Capitol is supposed to be open to all Georgians, not just some Georgians,” he said.

Sporadic attempts over the years have tried to make Capitol art and statuary more representative of all Georgians, but the end result has been to keep the public history of Georgia’s past heavily weighted on the glories of the Confederacy. Just six of the dozens of works at the Capitol speak to the African-American experience of the Civil War and its aftermath.

The intensity of the fight over the Confederate flag in South Carolina, a similar fight brewing in Mississippi and the pro-flag demonstration at Stone Mountain Park last month, however, make it likely that a debate over Confederate symbols will spill into the Georgia Legislature, which convenes in January. Interviews with several lawmakers suggest the battle lines are already being drawn.

A brewing fight

Moved by the massacre in Charleston, which claimed nine lives, State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, said he intends to introduce a bill for the 2016 legislative session forbidding the official recognition of Confederate symbols. While the bill is aimed at the state’s celebration of Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Fort said the prohibition may extend to Confederate “iconography” as well.

“The premise being that the state shouldn’t be honoring traitors,” he said. “Symbols have so much power, so much in our lives, that it’s time to do something.”

In 2005, Fort pushed through a resolution creating the Henry McNeal Turner Tribute Commission charged with raising money for a statue on the Capitol grounds of the Reconstruction-era black lawmaker and preacher.

Turner is a logical choice for such an honor. Apart from being a bishop in the AME church, he took part in writing the state’s post-war constitution and was an organizer of the state Republican Party.

But modern-day Republicans tied the work of the Turner commission to another study group set up to create guidelines for who gets recognition at the Capitol.

A decade has passed and Fort said he is still waiting for the first appointment to the Turner commission. In the meantime, Fort said the Capitol continues to be “chock full of Confederates and slave owners and other ne’er-do-wells.”

“It’s disturbing, not just as an African-American, but as a citizen of this state and country to walk to the halls and see these people,” he said.

It is this kind of talk that upsets state Rep. Tommy Benton.

“I’m proud of my heritage,” said Benton, R-Jefferson, a retired middle school history teacher who, without irony, refers to the Civil War as the “second American revolution.”

“It’s an attempt in my opinion — and I’m not speaking for anybody but me — it is an attempt to have a cleansing of the Confederacy,” he said.

For the past several years Benton has pushed legislation that would forbid anyone from moving, altering or obscuring any state monument. House Bill 50 did not pass this year, but Benton pledged to continue the campaign in 2016.

“I don’t particularly agree with what Jimmy Carter did with the Panama Canal but I’m not trying to get the statue removed,” he said, referring to Carter’s statue at the Capitol. “I don’t have a problem with any of them.”

The man on the horse

It’s not Carter’s statue that is likely to come under scrutiny. Figures like the statue of John B. Gordon, who sits in full Confederate regalia astride a horse in the northeast corner of the Capitol grounds, are more likely targets.

Gordon was a major general in the Confederate army, commanding half of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s troops by war’s end. After the war, he was one of the state’s foremost political figures, serving as governor and senator.

He also was one of the leading proponents of both the New South creed and the Lost Cause, a philosophy that greatly romanticized the South’s role in the war. Moreover, he is generally acknowledged as having been the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia. Gordon defended slavery as “morally, socially and politically right” and called the Klan “a brotherhood of … peaceable, law-abiding citizens.”

Kenneth Noe, a professor of Southern history at Auburn University and a Civil War expert, described Gordon as a good soldier and an important general for the Confederacy, but “a pretty corrupt politician” who used his time in office to personally enrich himself.

Gordon’s questionable resume hardly sets him apart from others enshrined at the Capitol.

Across from Gordon, on the southeast corner, is a statue of Joe Brown and his wife. Brown was the Confederate governor of Georgia and after the war served as senator. He also was an ardent secessionist who played on white fears of interracial mingling. After the war, Brown served briefly as chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court and authored an opinion upholding the state’s ban on interracial marriage that described such marriages as “productive of evil, and evil only, without any corresponding good.”

Brown’s judicial work has long legs. That opinion was cited in several briefs in the Supreme Court’s recent decision on gay marriage as an example of how government has consistently erred in defining marriage.

A monumental ‘power play’

Historians say these memorials say as much about the leaders of the time they were erected as they do about the people depicted. White politicians were solidifying Democratic power, holding together a political coalition of aristocratic land barons, New South industrialists and poor whites based on a platform of maintaining the state’s social caste structure.

“You can look at the Brown monument or the Gordon monument and say these are Civil War monuments and that’s true,” Noe said. “They are also about the power of people who could choose those particular symbols, put them on the statehouse lawn. And they are about the relative powerlessness of the people who wouldn’t want those statues erected.”

Putting up a monument to a Civil War general or a fire-eating secessionist amounted to a “power play,” Noe said. It was a signal of who was in charge.

Gordon’s statue was erected in May 1907, not even a year after a white mob rampaged through the city killing dozens of blacks in what is now called the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906. A contemporary account of the unveiling described a “vast throng” of onlookers cheering while a choir sang “Dixie” and the nostalgic antebellum song “Sunny South.”

Noe said these statues cemented in the minds of white Southerners a view of the Confederacy as a beloved, lost cause — an ideology that was political to the core as post-Reconstruction Democrats beat back challenges from populists and Republicans.

“That call to the Confederate past was part of a present call to voters,” he said.

Many monuments, little context

Today the question of what to do with that legacy is a thorny one.

Anne Farrisee, a historic preservationist who served as Capitol historian for 15 years, said visitors would get more from the collection if it, and its interpretation, were in better balance.

“If you just walk around and read the plaques, you just get the story that was told at the time,” she said.

If that. Sometimes there’s no story at all — just a name below a painting.

One such honoree who is displayed without much context is Hoke Smith, one-time publisher of The Atlanta Journal, who between 1907 and 1921 served as governor and U.S. senator.

Smith was a fiery white supremacist who was evangelical in his opinions. In 1911, after having secured a seat in the Senate, Smith told The New York Times that blacks were not capable of governing themselves and claimed a half-century of freedom had hurt black farmers.

“Under slavery they were compelled to work and forced to learn within the limits of their capacity,” he said. “Now there is no compulsion, and many of them neither work nor learn.”

Of course, what politicians say and what they do may be two different things, but Smith’s deeds were as good as his words. He ran for governor in 1906 on a platform to legally disenfranchise the black vote. Once in office he successfully pushed through a literacy test for voters and constitutional amendment known as the “grandfather clause” — both explicitly designed to rob black voters of the privilege.

Smith has plenty of company. His portrait hangs alongside a procession of segregationist governors on the Capitol’s second floor.

Who stays? Who is added?

One argument for protecting the Capitol’s current crop of statues and paintings is that the removal of politically incorrect symbols has no end.

“Logically, if you start with the Civil War generation it takes you to (Sen. Richard) Russell and (Gov. Eugene) Talmadge,” Noe said. “I don’t see how you leave Russell and Talmadge up if you take Joe Brown down.”

Russell and Talmadge are towering figures in 20th-century Georgia politics, but their influence is remembered in large part because of their staunch opposition to federal civil rights legislation. They are memorialized with paintings inside the Capitol and statues outside.

Benton believes even past associations with the Klan need to be taken with a historical grain of salt. Klan membership was not uncommon among prominent white men of the South in the period, he said.

“Should that affect their reputation to the extent that everything else good that they did is forgotten?” he said.

Curiously, one Georgia governor has been forgotten. Rufus Bullock, a Northern-born abolitionist and Republican, was elected in 1868 over Democrat John Gordon.

As governor, his administration was dogged by allegations of corruption leveled by Democrats furious over the governor’s pleas to prolong military Reconstruction and his commitment to extending political rights, including the ballot, to freed slaves. Bullock blamed his political ills on recalcitrant secessionists and the Klan.

Today every elected governor since 1850 has at least a portrait in the Capitol except Bullock.

The complicated collection of artwork in the Capitol has been tackled before.

After he was elected governor in 1970, Jimmy Carter addressed the imbalance in the Capitol’s art collection.

“If you walked through the State Capitol as a visitor — say, a Georgia group of school children — nowhere in the State Capitol or on the grounds of the Capitol would you see any indications that we had black citizens who were distinguished and accomplished,” Carter said in a recently recorded video that accompanies a self-guided tour of the Capitol.

A committee created to nominate notable black Georgians recommended portraits be added of Martin Luther King Jr., early black legislator Henry McNeal Turner, and black educator Lucy Laney.

In 1974, Carter unveiled the King portrait while the Klan marched around in protest outside. Portraits of Turner and Laney were added shortly thereafter.

In the 40 years since, just three additional portraits of notable black lawmakers have been added, bringing the total to six.

Atlanta City Councilman Michael Julian Bond, who sponsored a resolution seeking changes to Stone Mountain, spent his childhood gazing at the Capitol’s collection of paintings of mostly white men. His father, civil rights icon Julian Bond, served in the Legislature for more than 20 years.

“Most of these men, almost all of them, were products of their time,” he said. “I think it is more of an atrocity … to exclude the other forces of Georgia’s history from the Capitol grounds, the state parks, other public places that better demonstrate the wholeness, the depth of this whole state.”

The Civil War was a blip in the state’s nearly 300-year history, he said. “Yet we are constantly defining ourselves by the four-year period.”