Top Ga. lawmaker criticized for Klan comments

A state lawmaker’s take on Civil War history and rise of the Ku Klux Klan has been met with condemnation from Democrats and calls for House Speaker David Ralston to discipline him.

State Rep. Tommy Benton's comments, reported on Thursday, came in exclusive interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in which he railed against threats to Southern heritage he described as "cultural terrorism." Benton said calls to remove Confederate flags and monuments are made by people who misunderstand Southern history, including the role of the Ku Klux Klan, which was reborn as a national organization in 1915 in a ceremony atop Stone Mountain.

The Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said.

“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 called state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, a "fanatic" for sponsoring legislation that would prohibit the state from formally observing holidays "celebrating the Confederate States of America."

“That’s no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments,” he said. “I feel very strongly about this. I think it has gone far enough. There is some idea out there that certain parts of history out there don’t matter anymore and that’s a bunch of bunk.”

Benton said Fort's bill was part of the inspiration for two proposals he introduced this week: one to prohibit any alteration of the Stone Mountain carving and another to re-install Robert E. Lee's birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as official state holidays.

Fort declined to respond directly to Benton’s characterization of his bill as terrorism.

“For him to degenerate into that kind of name calling is beneath a response from me,” Fort, D-Atlanta, said. “That kind of hyperbole does not allow for anything approaching a debate. It’s unfortunate that he would use that language.”

Fort defended his bill, saying the state shouldn’t be in the business of formally “recognizing people who were slave owners or fought to protect slavery.”

The debate over the meaning of Confederate symbols heated up following last summer’s mass shooting of African-American members of a church in Charleston, S.C., by avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof. Roof posted pictures of himself with Confederate flags on social media prior to the shootings, helping to reignite a debate over the public display of such symbols.

In an interview last summer with the AJC, Benton said he saw the concern over the flag as a distraction from problems within the black community.

“That flag didn’t shoot anybody and when I was growing up I had a couple of those flags. In fact I still have a couple of them. It doesn’t make me a racist,” he said. “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.”

Benton, a retired middle school history teacher, said he equates Confederate leaders with the American revolutionaries of the 18th century — fighting a tyrannical government for political independence.

“The war was not fought over slavery,” he said. Those who disagree “can believe what they want to,” he said.

While Benton comments about the Klan and the controversy over the Confederate flag were made last year, he reaffirmed them this week in discussing his thinking behind two pieces of legislation he is sponsoring.

Bryan Long, executive director of liberal group Better Georgia, blasted Benton for what he called “backwards, out-of-touch views on the KKK and slavery” and said he was unfit to serve in the House.

“His defense of the KKK ignores a grave and dark history of violence and racism in Georgia,” Long said in a statement. “House Speaker David Ralston must immediately denounce Rep. Benton’s statements and make sure the representative’s neo-Confederate, revisionist history bills never receive a hearing.”

Long also called on Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, to remove Benton as chairman of the House Human Relations and Aging Committee. In a statement released Thursday, Ralston was circumspect.

“In the heat of legislative sessions, it is not uncommon for hyperbole to enter into disagreements and discussions,” he said. “I always encourage members, in both chambers and in both parties, to ratchet down the language whenever possible.”

James Cobb, professor emeritus of history at the University of Georgia and a former president of the Southern Historical Association, said Benton position that the Civil War was not caused by slavery is not one held by most historians.

“There just is an overwhelming body of evidence to suggest otherwise,” he said.

For example, Georgia politician and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens said slavery was the "cornerstone" of the Confederacy, Cobb said. After the war, Stephens and other southern statesmen would argue that the fight was for state's rights, while working to reestablish political white supremacy across the South through segregation, he said.

“There was even an academic school (of thought) at one time that held that it was economic reasons that brought about the war,” Cobb said. “There is certainly a heritage to that line of argument, but it is a line of argument that has been thoroughly and repeatedly refuted by historians. As Rep Benton says, people are going to believe what they are going to believe.”

Benton has also introduced a bill that would require streets in Georgia that once honored veterans but have since been renamed to return to their original name. If it were to pass, the would result in a portion of Martin Luther King 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 was a leader in the Ku Klux Klan.

The bill does not mention King, but it does set 1968 — the year of King’s assassination — as the time period from which renamings would be reversed.

While Ralston did not signal that Benton would be suffer any consequences for his remarks, he did signal that the six-term House member’s bills are not a high priority.

“With only 40 legislative days to conduct the people’s business, we have to take things in accordance with the priorities we have outlined which this year include public education, health care and our state budget,” he said. “As always, there will be some measures left on the table when we have to adjourn.