Ga. lawmaker who made controversial Klan remarks named to civics panel

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, was named to a committee on civics education in Georgia. His views on the Civil War and Southern history have drawn condemnation. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, was named to a committee on civics education in Georgia. His views on the Civil War and Southern history have drawn condemnation. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

A Georgia state representative who said the Ku Klux Klan "made a lot of people straighten up" and tried to force the state to formally recognize Robert E. Lee's birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as official holidays has been named to a study committee on civics education.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, made the announcement in a press release Friday appointing Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, as one of three House Republicans tapped to study how civics education should be taught in Georgia’s public schools and issue a report for improvements by the end of the year.

Benton, who chairs the House Aging and Human Relations Committee, is a retired school teacher from Jackson County, but his unconventional takes on American history have outraged some and earned him criticism in the past. In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution amid public debate over the continued display of the Confederate battle flag, Benton claimed people misunderstood Southern history, including the role of the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan "was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order," he said, in comments published by the AJC in January 2016.

“It made a lot of people straighten up,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

The AJC asked Ralston and Benton for comment on the appointment, but House Communications Director Kaleb McMichen responded with an emailed statement instead.

“Chairman Benton is a retired teacher who holds degrees in history and middle school education,” McMichen said in the statement. “He spent 30 years in the classroom teaching subjects including Georgia history and American history.”

Civics is the study of the functions, processes and traditions of government and public life. In Georgia, civics education is part of the social studies curriculum and has the goal of teaching students the “political philosophies that shaped the development of United States constitutional government.” Students learn about the citizens’ natural and legal rights and the powers the Constitution gives to government at the state and national level.

The Civics Education Study Committee was created by House Resolution 634, which was passed by the House without debate on March 30, the final day of the legislative session. The bill, sponsored by House Republican Whip Christian Coomer, an attorney from Cartersville, charges the study committee with "furthering Georgia's students' civic literacy" by reviewing state standards and making recommendations to the state Board of Education, State School Superintendent Richard Woods and others on what children should be taught.

Like many such study committees, how it accomplishes its goal is largely up to the lawmakers assigned to it. Along with Benton, Ralston appointed Coomer and Rep. Joyce Chandler, R-Grayson, a retired school counselor.

Controversial statements

Benton’s Klan comments were part of a series of controversial statements he has made over the past two years. Reacting to criticism over the public display of the Confederate battle flag, Benton suggested the debate was a distraction from problems within the black community.

“Nobody said anything about black-on-black crime, and that’s about 98 percent of it. Nobody said anything about family life and who’s in the home and who’s not in the home. It’s always something else that is the problem,” he said.

In trying to explain his position, Benton suggested that slaveholders in the South should have been compensated for their “property.”

"The North was advocating they do away with slavery, but they offered no idea as to what the South would do with a loss of $2 billion of property, per se," Benton told Channel 2 Action News. "I understand that African Americans, for the most part, have a problem with the slavery issue, but they don't denounce their ancestors in Africa who were selling slaves."

Benton’s comments were published as he was pushing a bill that would have forbidden moving Confederate memorials. Another piece of legislation would have required the state to formally observe Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as state holidays.

Yet another bill would have caused streets renamed since the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to revert to their pre-1968 names. An effect of that bill, had it passed, would have resulted in a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlanta reverting to its earlier name of Gordon Road, in honor of Gen. John B. Gordon, a Confederate general and former governor and senator for Georgia who also was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

Muted response from GOP

Response from inside the Republican-dominated Legislature was muted, but Benton’s remarks drew blistering criticism and mocking commentary from around the nation, prompting Ralston to issue a statement mildly, but not specifically, condemning his colleague.

“I condemn commentary that would seek to reverse the progress that we have made in the last century and a half,” the speaker said. “While we are mindful of our history, the business of the General Assembly isn’t in rewriting or reinterpreting the past, but rather to focus on improving Georgia’s future.”

Benton withdrew his legislation, so as not to cause "a negative perception."

Benton again courted controversy earlier this year during the legislative session with a resolution honoring “Confederate History Month.” The resolution referred to the Civil War not by name but as a “four-year struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, and local governmental control, which they believed to be right and just.”

Benton called a press conference in March with other supporters of the bill to explain the resolution. But when he was asked if the observation of Confederate History Month should include acknowledgement of the exploitation of African-American slaves, Benton simply replied, “Next question.”

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who has tangled with Benton in the past over his House colleague’s views, said he was shocked to hear that he had been appointed to the committee, considering Benton’s pattern of “racially insensitive” remarks. Fort said he did not understand Ralston’s rationale in choosing him.

“You can’t expect better from a Tommy Benton. He is who he is,” Fort, D-Atlanta, said. “But I do expect better from the speaker.”