Georgia lawmaker makes pitch for measure to mark Confederate history

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, holds a press conference to discuss his resolution to honor and recognize Confederate history in the state. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, holds a press conference to discuss his resolution to honor and recognize Confederate history in the state. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

State Rep. Tommy Benton believes the history of the Confederate army is part of Southern cultural heritage and should be recognized formally in the state.

Benton, a Republican from Jefferson, sponsored House Resolution 644 along with state Reps. Alan PowellSteve Tarvin and Jesse Petrea to commemorate the "brave" men who fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War by recognizing April as Confederate History Month and April 26 as Confederate Memorial Day. His resolution, however, makes no mention of the "Civil War," instead referring to it as the "four-year struggle for states' rights, individual freedom, and local governmental control, which they believed to be right and just."

But when asked whether the resolution, which is written to “encourage our citizens to learn about Georgia’s heritage and history and to observe the occasion with appropriate ceremonies,” includes the need to understand the role that slavery and systemic exploitation and oppression of African and African-American people played and an acknowledgement of what the war was fought about, Benton declined to answer.

“Next question,” Benton said Monday during a press conference about the resolution.

A former schoolteacher and unapologetic supporter of preserving Georgia's Confederate heritage, Benton has previously backed a measure that would protect state monuments from being moved or removed. He has also said the Ku Klux Klan, though he didn't agree with all its methods, "made a lot of people straighten up."

Benton said the intentions of his proposal, which isn’t expected to gain any traction in the final days of the legislative session, have been misunderstood and misinterpreted.

“It should never have been a controversy,” Benton said. “We’re not honoring slavery.”

After a gunman and avowed white supremacist shot and killed nine people praying in an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, S.C., many Southern states came under fire for their embrace of Confederate memorabilia and traditions.

The fourth Monday in April had for decades been known in Georgia as Confederate Memorial Day. But in 2015, Gov. Nathan Deal quietly struck that reference, as well as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's birthday, from the official state calendar and renamed each date as a "State Holiday."

Benton, joined by Scott Gilbert, the commander of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and Charles Lunsford, a spokesman for Save Southern Heritage, called critics of his resolution intolerant.

“For some reason, people who exclaim how they are for diversity are trying to wipe us out of the memory of these commemorations,” Lunsford said. “People who say we should all accept one another as equals and be friendly and accepting are not being friendly and accepting toward us.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, sponsored a bill in 2016 that would prohibit the state from formally recognizing holidays in honor of the Confederacy or its leaders.

He said, at the time, that the state shouldn't be in the business of formally "recognizing people who were slave owners or fought to protect slavery."

And Francys Johnson, the president of the Georgia chapter of the NAACP, called on Deal and other state leaders to publicly oppose the measure, saying "hate has no place in a modern society."

Deal declined to comment on Benton’s proposal, directing questions to his “good friend” instead.