Georgia gears up for fraught legislative debate on Rebel monuments

With legs crossed and hands clutching the arms of its chair, a white marble effigy of Georgian Alexander H. Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, sits only 10 or so feet away from a bronze statue of civil rights hero Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol.

More than 600 miles away, on the grounds of Georgia’s state Capitol, a sparkling new monument of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. rises just steps from the statue of John B. Gordon, a former Georgia governor and Confederate war hero mounted atop a horse.

The striking arrangements in some of the most prominent corridors of power have Georgia lawmakers preparing for what’s likely to be a delicate, and raw, debate over the dozens of Civil War monuments and symbols scattered across the state or sanctioned by its government.

These fraught discussions have raged behind the scenes for decades but were sparked anew by the deadly violence of the chaotic white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va. And this time, Georgia leaders say they are open to broader changes to laws that have safeguarded Rebel symbols.

Reaching a consensus in an election-year environment, punctuated by dueling calls from candidates over some of Georgia’s most prominent symbols, won’t be easy. A racially charged Facebook exchange between a GOP lawmaker and his Democratic ex-colleague underscored the epic challenge ahead.

In that stunning back-and-forth, state Rep. Jason Spencer of Woodbine warned former state Rep. LaDawn Jones of Atlanta that she could "go missing" in the Okefenokee Swamp if she continues to call for the removal of statues in South Georgia.

“Too many necks they are red around here,” he wrote. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you about ’em.”

An ‘in-depth look’

Georgia’s leaders are braced for the potential minefield that awaits.

House Speaker David Ralston said through a spokesman that he's planning a "thorough, reasonable and civil dialogue" next year. And Gov. Nathan Deal said he expects lawmakers to take a "serious look" at how to handle monuments, memorials and street signs commemorating the Confederacy.

The Civil War monuments across the state — there are at least 170 of them by some counts — are protected by law that makes it illegal to "deface, defile, abuse contemptuously, relocate, remove, conceal or obscure" any Confederate memorial without authority.

It was signed into law in 2001 as part of a compromise aimed at removing the Rebel emblem from Georgia’s state flag. The same code section explicitly safeguards the carving of Confederate leaders on Stone Mountain, the nation’s largest monument to the Rebel war dead.

The governor and legislative leaders have rejected calls by Stacey Abrams, a former state House Democratic leader who is running for governor, to change the law and erase the carving from the state-owned site.

But they appear more receptive to overhauling the law to allow local communities to decide whether the monuments should remain on their grounds, as state Rep. Stacey Evans, another Democratic candidate for governor, and other lawmakers have advocated. 

“I think they will do a pretty in-depth look into whether or not we should continue to restrict local jurisdictions — counties and cities — in terms of what they may want to consider in their areas,” Deal said.

State Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat who brokered the agreement to put King's statue on the statehouse grounds, said he's working with lawmakers and civil rights groups to hash out an agreement before the start of the legislative session.

They are likely to weigh the advice of former Gov. Roy Barnes, who led the fight to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag and recently called for a nuanced approach to Georgia’s remaining Rebel symbols.

He urged the renaming of Confederate Avenue, which runs in front of the Georgia State Patrol’s headquarters, because it sends the message that state police power is linked to “slavery and suppression.” But other Confederate memorials left standing should be “a teaching point on how good-intentioned people become so blind in their views that blood is shed.”

Among the proposals up for debate is one that would create a new commission to conduct a "bipartisan, systematic and transparent study" of the state's historic monuments and hold statewide hearings with historians, local politicians and advocates to make recommendations.

"I don't support the knee-jerk reaction of taking down monuments, of erasing Stone Mountain. I'm supporting a very calm approach to develop an inclusive solution," said the measure's sponsor, state Rep. Vernon Jones, a former DeKalb County chief executive.

“Let’s talk to one another and let people express how they feel — and take this out of the hands of those who would make it a political football.”

‘Complete the story’

The governor and the Legislature will also get the final say on the fate of the Stephens statue on Capitol Hill.

It’s one of 100 sculptures, two for each state, displayed in the U.S. Capitol as part of the National Statuary Hall Collection, which honors deceased residents “illustrious for historic renown or for distinguished civic or military services.”

A state commission in Georgia chose to honor Stephens with a statue in 1902, and it took 25 years to raise the money and build the memorial. It’s now displayed prominently in Statuary Hall, a grand, marble-clad chamber steps from the House floor.

Some of Stephens' closest living descendants sent an open letter to Deal and the Georgia General Assembly last week asking them to remove the statue.

The process to remove and replace Stephens is a complicated one. Georgia lawmakers would likely have to first vote to remove the statue, appropriate funds to take it down, then pass legislation to pick a replacement and fund its design, construction and placement.

Several of Georgia’s Republican members of Congress indicated they would defer to the state’s decision, including U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who said he’ll “let learned people who are committed to doing the right thing the right way be the people to make the decision.”

Several members of the state’s Democratic delegation sounded a skeptical note. U.S. Rep. David Scott of Atlanta said Confederate statues shouldn’t be scrapped, just joined by new sculptures addressing slavery and the root causes of the Civil War.

“Let’s use this as an opportunity to complete the story,” said Scott, a centrist-leaning Democrat. “Tell the black man’s struggle, how he overcame. We can’t do that if we obliterate the Confederacy or the Civil War as if it didn’t exist. It’s a part of our history.”


Any attempt to revisit Confederate memorials is likely to provoke a fierce fight, as Spencer’s exchange with LaDawn Jones indicated. He said in a text message that his words were not meant as a threat, but instead a “warning to her of how people can behave about this issue.”

“She is from Atlanta — and the rest of Georgia sees this issue very differently,” said Spencer, who was first elected in 2010 to represent the southeast Georgia district. “Just trying to keep her safe if she decided to come down and raise hell about the memorial in the backyards of folks who will see this as an unwelcome aggression from the left.”

Jones said in an interview that Spencer sat next to her for four years in the Georgia House and that they developed a friendly, if sometimes testy, relationship. She said she didn’t take it as a “serious threat” given their relationship, but that she was concerned by his reaction.

“Because if that’s representative of what people in South Georgia think,” she said, “then yikes.”

Vernon Jones, who proposed the commission to study the monuments, said he’s confident Georgia lawmakers can hash out a compromise, and he plans to highlight his personal story as a black leader whose family had an affinity for Confederate leaders. His father was named after Rebel Gen. Robert E. Lee, and several of his siblings have Lee in their names.

“The war is over, and we’re still healing. But we are making progress,” Jones said. “And Georgia is going to take the lead on how we handle this.”

Staff writers Rhonda Cook and Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.