Lawmaker withdraws bills after fallout from Klan comments

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, Monday pulled his name from three pieces of controversial legislation after his comments about slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and the Civil War drew national attention.

At the same time, Benton did not apologize or retract his statements and he will apparently retain his chairmanship of the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging.

“It was not my intention to create a situation whereby my comments would create a negative perception,” Benton said in a brief statement issued Monday afternoon. “Therefore, today I am withdrawing my sponsorship of HB 854, HB 855 and HR 1179 to allow the business of the House to move forward in an orderly manner.”

House Speaker David Ralston, who has been called upon to remove Benton's chairmanship, issued a simultaneous statement rebuking Benton for his remarks but allowing the five-term Republican to retain his committee position.

“I condemn commentary that would seek to reverse the progress that we have made in the last century and a half,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, 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 last week introduced House Bill 855, which would force the state to formally recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee's birthday as public holidays, and House Resolution 1179, which calls for a constitutional amendment protecting Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial.

Both of those bills have co-sponsors, but a House staffer said those members intended to pull their names from the measures, effectively killing them. House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, asked his name to be removed from them last week following Benton's remarks.

Benton's third bill, House Bill 854,would require street names changed since 1968 to revert back to their former names if their prior name had honored a veteran. Although the bill does not mention Martin Luther King, the civil rights leader was assassinated in 1968 and the bill would rename a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlanta Gordon Road, in honor of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Georgia Klan.

That bill has no co-sponsor, so Benton’s action is all that is needed to kill it.

In speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week about the bills, Benton called attempts to bring down or alter Confederate memorials “cultural terrorism” and said the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”

The Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

Benton also described legislation introduced by Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta,that would prohibit the state from formally recognizing Confederate heroes with state holidays as “no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments.”

Bryan Long, executive director of liberal activist group Better Georgia, said he is pleased Benton’s legislation will not go forward.

“He did the right thing by withdrawing these bills,” Long said. “Speaker Ralston’s statement is clear. This is not a partisan issue. This is good for Georgia.”

Liberal and Democratic groups were quick to condemn Benton when his statements become public last week. Better Georgia started a petition calling on Benton to lose his chairmanship.

But Benton’s colleagues were largely silent until Monday, when two lawmakers made public statements from the floors of the House and Senate.

Sen. Josh McKoon, R-Columbus, called Benton's comments "contemptible and wrong" and called on Benton to apologize.

McKoon referred to the Klan as “the original domestic terrorist organization.”

“There is simply no excusing the murderous terroristic campaign they waged against Americans,” he said. “It has been my experience that almost all of my colleagues do not feel same as that member.”

In the House, Rep. Dar'shun Kendrick, D-Lithonia, who took to the well to commemorate the beginning of Black History Month, shaped her comments around the controversy, beginning with the 1911 mob lynching in Lawrenceville of Charlie Hale, a black man accused of assaulting a white woman.

“I wanted to remind everybody that our American history has not always been the best,” she said. Kendrick noted Hale had been lynched outside of the Gwinnett County Courthouse, which had been rebuilt following an 1871 fire set by Klan members seeking to destroy evidence of bootlegging.