Congress has pushed through legislation in veto-proof votes to rename military facilities now honoring Confederate figures.
The National Defense Authorization Act won approval this week in both the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate. Lawmakers approved the measure even after President Donald Trump said he would veto any proposal that included a requirement that military bases be renamed.
Still, the provision remains in both versions of the bill and would result in new names for Georgia’s Fort Benning and Fort Gordon, as well as eight other facilities across the country.
“It’s encouraging to see that our elected officials are finally starting to address the systemic structures that uphold antiblack racism and white supremacy,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said in a statement after Tuesday’s House vote.
The Senate approved its version of the bill that outlines funding for all branches of the military and national security policies on Thursday.
Both Georgia senators cast votes with the majority. In the House, six out of nine Georgia Republicans and one Democrat voted against the bill.
Most said they opposed other measures unrelated to renaming bases, but U.S. Rep. Doug Collins said that language was among the reasons he did not support the bill.
“Congressman Collins believes that erasing our nation’s history by renaming military bases, monuments and statues is a slippery slope, and we have to draw the line somewhere,” a spokeswoman for the Gainesville representative said.
Now that both bills have been approved, leaders from each chamber will have to negotiate a final agreement to send to the president for approval. It would be unusual for the base renaming language to be removed since both sides have already agreed to it.
The House bill provides a one-year deadline for the name changes to be made; the Senate version says three.
Last month, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said they were “open” to discussing renaming 10 military installations that honor Confederate figures. However, as the NDAA bills exist now, it would be required.
Trump said earlier this month on Twitter that his administration “will not even consider the renaming of these Magnificent and Fabled Military Installations.”
“Our history as the Greatest Nation in the World will not be tampered with,” the president said.
Fort Benning, which sits just outside Columbus, was named after Henry Benning at the request of the Columbus Rotary Club, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia. Nicknamed “Old Rock” for his steadfastness in battle, the Confederate general became an associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. He was an ardent secessionist before the war, warning that if slavery were abolished, there would be “black governors, black legislatures, black juries, black everything.”
Columbus Mayor B.H. “Skip” Henderson III said he has received just one email supporting changing the base’s name.
“At the end of the day,” said Henderson, whose father was stationed at Fort Benning, “while we might be sad to see some identifier that is so important to a lot of individuals in terms of a geographic point for them, we understand that there are some concerns with public facilities being named for Confederate generals.”
Located in Augusta, Fort Gordon is named after John Gordon, who for a time commanded half of Robert E. Lee’s army. Wounded five times at the Battle of Antietam, Gordon went on to represent Georgia in the U.S. Senate before serving as the state’s governor. He also owned slaves, fought Reconstruction and was generally recognized as the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia.
Like Henderson, Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis has not weighed in on the issue with the Pentagon. But he is sensitive about the concerns surrounding the issue.
“The military has always been a leader in addressing the issues of race and racism,” said Davis, whose father-in-law was stationed at Fort Gordon. “This is another step forward in terms of being able to have a thoughtful discussion about long-standing issues that sometimes don’t get talked about. I look forward to being a part of a broader discussion about any potential names and or name changes.”
Spokespeople for both military installations said they support the U.S. Army’s decision “to be a part of this national conversation.”
The eight other bases named after Confederate officers are: Fort Bragg in North Carolina; Forts A.P. Hill, Lee and Pickett in Virginia; Fort Polk and Camp Beauregard in Louisiana; Fort Hood in Texas; and Fort Rucker in Alabama.
The Rev. James Woodall, the Georgia NAACP’s state president and a U.S. Army veteran, supports changing the names of Forts Benning and Gordon but said Congress needs to focus on getting people access to health care, COVID-19 testing and economic support amid the pandemic.
“We have people who are afraid of losing their unemployment insurance. We have people who still don’t have access to (COVID-19) testing or test results,” Woodall said. “And it seems as though the appetite in Congress is to do nothing more than acts of symbolic solidarity. People are literally dying, and all they are talking about is the naming and the renaming of military installations.”
Martin O’Toole, a spokesman for the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, opposes renaming the bases in Georgia, saying they are named for “outstanding Confederate military leaders.” Fort Gordon, he said, is not named for “whatever Gordon may or may not have done in the Klan.”
“It is named for his military record,” O’Toole said. “The same applies to Benning.”
Proponents of changing the names, he added, are “delegitimizing history.”