State lawmaker’s Klan comments rebuked by colleagues, critics

Some of state Rep. Tommy Benton’s Republican colleagues Friday sought to distance themselves from his controversial comments about the Ku Klux Klan and slavery, while Democratic activists called on House Speaker David Ralston to strip him of his chairmanship.

“I certainly cannot associate myself with those comments,” said House Ethics Committee Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, who asked Friday to have his name withdrawn from two pieces of legislation he co-sponsored with Benton, R-Jefferson.

In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Benton described the Ku Klux Klan as “not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

“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.”

Benton also shared his belief that slavery was not the true cause of the Civil War and defended the display of the Confederate battle flag, saying that criticism of it was being used as a distraction from problems inside 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,” he said. “It’s always something else that is the problem.”

Benton, a five-term lawmaker and chairman of the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging, made similar comments to other media Thursday after the AJC story published online.

“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.”

News spread quickly as outlets outside of Georgia picked up the story, prompting condemnation from Democratic and progressive groups.

“Benton is backwards, out of touch and wrong. Speaker Ralston can do something about it,” Bryan Long, executive director of the liberal activist group Better Georgia, said in a robocall targeted at Ralston’s Blue Ridge district.

Through his spokesman, Ralston declined to comment.

Democratic Party of Georgia First Vice Chairman Nikema Williams called Benton’s comments “deplorable” and questioned whether the retired middle school history teacher belongs in the House.

“Benton is either an ill-informed student of history, or he has no conscience,” Williams said. “For over a century, the KKK has operated as a terrorist organization responsible for some of the most unimaginable violence in the country. In an era where communities are working together to bridge divides, Tommy Benton seems content with spewing the kind of half-witted hatred that divides. Benton should be ashamed and his party should denounce him.”

Better Georgia started an online petition calling on Ralston to remove Benton’s chairmanship. By Friday afternoon, the petition had more than 1,200 signatures.

The AJC published Benton’s comments in a story about legislation he is sponsoring to protect the Stone Mountain carving, require state holidays observing Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day, and to require streets once named to honor veterans that have since been renamed to revert to their original names. The street bill, if passed, would result in a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlanta reverting to Gordon Road, named after Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Klan in Georgia.

Wilkinson was a co-sponsor of House Bill 855, which seeks the official recognition of the Confederate-themed holidays, and House Resolution 1179, which proposes to amend the state constitution to protect Stone Mountain’s massive carving of Confederate leaders.

Wilkinson, who also co-sponsored a bill two years ago to erect a statue of Martin Luther King on the Capitol grounds, said he thought Benton’s bills were “well intentioned” and signed on to them in hopes they would spark discussion.

“With all my heart I thought this was to be an intellectually honest discussion,” he said. “Is this still relevant? Do Georgians want this?”

He said his opinion changed when news of Benton’s comments spread through the Capitol Thursday. “I have no choice but to remove my name,” he said.

Benton has no co-sponsors on House Bill 854, which would require names of streets changed since 1968 to revert to their prior name if they had been named for a veteran.

HB 854 does not mention King by name, but the civil rights leader was assassinated April 4, 1968.

Rep. Mike Cheokas, R-Americus, repudiated Benton’s remarks, but said he would not pull his name from the Confederate holiday bill or the Stone Mountain referendum.

“A lot of the people in my district are sensitive to … how can I say this? Well, their ancestors served in the Confederacy,” he said.

But Cheokas’ district includes Plains, the hometown of President Jimmy Carter, and he said the former president’s history of working for the human rights of all people “is burned into my identity.” So, he said, he is appalled by Benton’s comments.

“I have constituents that have family members that participated in marches in the civil rights era,” he said. “That’s part of our history and a proud part of our history, but equally so I have constituents whose great-grandparents served in the confederacy. That’s part of our history as well.”

Rep. Steve Tarvin, R-Chickamauga, a co-sponsor of the Stone Mountain resolution, said he was unaware of Benton’s comments. Other co-sponsors of Benton’s legislation — all Republicans — did not return calls and email seeking comment.

Ralston signalled Thursday that Benton’s bills are unlikely to get consideration. “As always, there will be some measures left on the table when we have to adjourn,” he said.

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