Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
One state legislator says the Ku Klux Klan helped people “straighten up.”
A number of memorials were built throughout the 20th century to pay tribute to leaders of an army that wanted to continue the enslavement of black people. We’re only just now getting around to bringing some of those memorials down, some 150 years after slavery was abolished. But in Georgia and Louisiana, they’re not coming down without a fight.
In Georgia, State Representative Tommy Benton recently proposed a new amendment to the state’s constitution to preserve a Confederate memorial carved into Stone Mountain, near Atlanta. The acre-and-a-half-sized sculpture features the Confederate army generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson along with Confederate president Jefferson Davis, straddling horses and holding their hats to their chests in a show of loyalty.
There have long been petitions to take the memorial down, and those demands have escalated since Dylann Roof shot and killed nine African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina, church last summer. So Benton is hoping to kill off any more talk of removing the memorial with his latest legislative proposal, which reads:
The State of Georgia shall preserve the natural areas situated within the Stone Mountain Park area, shall provide access to Stone Mountain for Georgia's citizens, and shall maintain an appropriate and suitable memorial for the Confederacy at and on Stone Mountain. In addition, the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.
The memorial is a product of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who began planning and fundraising for its creation in 1916. This was a year after the release of the director D.W. Griffith's Civil War epic The Birth of a Nation, a movie that emboldened supporters of the mostly stomped-out Ku Klux Klan to re-form—and to burn a cross on Stone Mountain. Some of the memorial’s sculptors were also Klan members. Unbothered by this, Benton told reporters that the Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”
Tearing down the memorial, said Benton to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, would be “no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments.” He also insisted to the paper that the Civil War, “was not fought over slavery.”
That would come as news to the Georgia Historical Society, which is unequivocal about the state’s 1861 secession: “Georgia's declaration of causes made it clear: The defense of slavery was the primary cause for dissolving the Union.” Benton’s assertion would also be amusing to Joseph E. Brown, Georgia’s governor at the time of its secession, who was blunt about why the South was ready to rip it up with the North.
The memorial is considered the largest bas-relief stone carving in the world. It sits adjacent to the city of Stone Mountain, which is 75 percent African-American, and Atlanta, which has one of the largest black populations in the country.
Meanwhile, a little deeper South in Louisiana, there are four Confederate memorials that appear to be coming down for good. Earlier this week, a federal judge rejected a lawsuit filed by four organizations hoping to stop New Orleans from bringing down four city memorials honoring Confederate leaders and events. (The above map, from Take Em Down NOLA, pinpoints the memorials’ locations.) The city council voted last month to remove statues of Lee, Davis, and the rebel flag designer General P.G. T. Beauregard, plus one commemorating “The Battle of Liberty Place,” an 1874 attack on police initiated by the Klan-esque White League in defiance of racial integration orders.
New Orleans plans to store the memorials in a warehouse once they’re taken down, but their defenders have charged that the city has no money or authority to do so. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in private and philanthropic donations have poured in to pay for the removals. There are still some bumps in the removal plan, however: The company the city retained to uproot the statues has decided not to get involved after its owner’s Lamborghini was mysteriously set ablaze and his family began receiving death threats.
The measures taken by those looking to preserve Confederate shrines are evidence of just how securely white supremacy is tied to the ground, especially in the South. The cities living with these hateful symbols no longer resemble the cities that conceived them, and their residents largely don’t share those values. That change deserves to be reflected in their public squares.