Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
My great-great-great-grandfather, a Civil War general and reputed Klan leader, sits atop an equestrian statue in front of the Georgia State Capitol. Some local lawmakers think it’s time for him to come down.
Colonel John Brown Gordon was extraordinarily lucky to survive the Battle of Antietam. On September 17 in 1862 near Sharpsburg, Maryland—still the bloodiest date in U.S. history—Gordon was wounded not once or twice, but five times. Bullets punctured his right leg twice, his arm, and his shoulder. Weak from blood loss, the Confederate officer continued to lead his men until a fifth bullet hit him in the cheek.
The colonel pitched forward, face first into his hat, and bled into the dirt road that became known as Bloody Lane because of the thousands of casualties that occurred there that day. He only avoided drowning in his own blood, Gordon later said, because a “thoughtful Yankee” had previously put another bullet hole in his hat, which allowed the blood to drain.
But Gordon recovered and rose to the rank of general, fighting in battle after battle until he led half of Robert E. Lee’s troops. He was presiding over them in the surrender to Union forces at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia on April 9, 1865. After the war, Gordon settled in Atlanta and entered politics, serving two terms as a Georgia senator and one as governor. He is also reputed to have led the state’s chapter of the Ku Klux Klan.
When Gordon died in 1904, tens of thousands came to pay respects at Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery. “A more gallant, generous, and fearless gentleman and soldier has not been seen by our country,” President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed.
Three years later, a statue of Gordon was erected on the grounds of the state capitol in Atlanta. The general, in Confederate regalia, stares sternly from atop a horse, the gold dome of the building rising up behind him. In this inanimate form Gordon now participates in another battle—the national struggle over what should be done with Confederate monuments, particularly those, like Gordon’s, created decades after the war, during the Jim Crow era.
Gordon had two daughters and three sons; his second-oldest son is my great-great grandfather. I recently went to Atlanta to see this statue, which is among the many Confederate memorials that activists and some legislators are seeking to remove from their places of honor in the city. I wanted to try to better understand my predecessor’s role in our nation’s history—to experience, on an individual level, what the U.S. as a whole is undergoing as it tries, and mostly fails, to confront and atone for the horrors of slavery and the oppression of a people, then and now.
The persistence of the Lost Cause
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are more than 700 Confederate monuments in the U.S., with nearly 300 in Georgia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Collectively, they serve as the physical embodiment of the “Lost Cause” narrative, in which the South’s determination to safeguard slavery is filtered out, and the conflict is instead framed as struggle over states’ rights in the face of a belligerent Union. In this narrative, Robert E. Lee and his fellow generals were gallant gentleman-warriors, and slaves were loyal to their benevolent masters and content with their lot.
These tropes have proved durable; they remain popular in American cinema, from films of the early 20th century like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to more recent fare such as 2003’s Gods and Generals and 2013’s Copperhead. And they continue to be repeated in public discourse.
I grew up in the Midwest of the 1980s; the Lost Cause was hardly prominent in our family’s lives. But whenever John Gordon did come up, we talked about the soldier and statesman Roosevelt described—the officer who cheated death in the war, was beloved by his men, and went on to be a national leader. The KKK connection was not mentioned.
My grandfather, his great-grandson, showed me Gordon’s Confederate flag, clumsily stitched after it reputedly ripped on the battlefield, and at 14, my grandparents took me to Fort Gordon in Georgia, which is named after him. We were treated to fanfare and a catered meal, and local reporters took a picture of my grandfather and me standing next to Gordon’s uniform, preserved in a glass case.
Thinking of that photo now makes me cringe. In the past few years, I’ve usually seen that flag and other Confederate emblems deployed in the service of a white supremacist agenda. Dylann Roof, who in 2015 shot nine black parishioners to death in a Charleston, South Carolina, church, also posed in photos with the Confederate flag. The Civil-War-era banners were also prominent in the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a public park. One protester is accused of killing a local woman, Heather Heyer, when he rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.
The role of Confederate symbols in these crimes helped expose the historical revisionism of the Lost Cause narrative, and prompted a surge in civic debates over the flag and monuments. Activists and lawmakers in cities from Baltimore to New Orleans have succeeded in efforts to take down statues of Lee, “Stonewall” Jackson, and Jefferson Davis. Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh told The Guardian, “It’s what the statues themselves represent…Why should people have to feel that kind of pain every day?”
But many Southern cities, such as Atlanta, are hampered by state laws mandating that Confederate monuments cannot be “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion,” as well as by state lawmakers who oppose their removal. Two Georgia Democrats are trying to change this legislation, so that communities can remove monuments if they vote to do so.
The push for local control
On the day I arrived in Decatur, east of downtown Atlanta, the sun was shining brightly on the 30-foot obelisk that juts into the sky outside the old city courthouse. One side of the 1908 monument read: “Erected by the men and women and children of Dekalb County to the memory of the soldiers and sailors of the Confederacy, of whose virtues in peace and in war we are witnesses to the end that justice may be done and the truth perish not.”
Decatur is a progressive city these days—Hillary Clinton took 69 percent of the vote in 2016—and many of its residents are calling for the obelisk’s removal. That the monument was erected more than 40 years after the Civil War is key to their fight: The obelisk was not a marker of mourning for those who died in the conflict, but instead an emblem of Lost Cause revisionism—and a reminder to all who passed it that white supremacy continued to dominate officialdom.
Most Confederate monuments come from this period, the era of Jim Crow, in which segregation and disenfranchisement laws enforced a system of racial apartheid. LaDawn Jones, a former Georgia state representative who has protested Confederate monuments, said that they were a sign to the community that the South should be remembered in a glorious way, and will rise again. “They are still divisive, and keep us fighting the Civil War generations later,” she said.
The Dekalb County Commission has determined that the county owns the Decatur courthouse obelisk and can move it to another public place—a stance that it may end up defending in court. The commissioner is currently accepting proposals from individuals or organizations interested in relocating the monument. Regardless of the outcome, the push from residents encouraged the two Georgia legislators representing Decatur—Representative Mary Margaret Oliver and Senator Elena Parent—to craft potential new policy.
I met Oliver, a lawyer, at her office in downtown Decatur, across the street from the obelisk. She and Parent introduced two bills to the Georgia State Legislature in November 2017 that call for a new approach to public monuments—namely to cede the decision to keep or remove them to cities and counties. In the case of General Gordon’s statue, those in Atlanta or its county, Fulton, would decide on its fate via a vote. “Having an honest local discussion about these monuments could be very beneficial,” Oliver told me. “I would like this bill to facilitate that.”
Oliver was also inspired by her experience—or lack thereof—with Confederate monuments. As an attorney, she had passed the Decatur courthouse obelisk at least a thousand times, she said, but never looked at it before residents brought it to her attention. In September 2017, the Decatur City Commission voted to move the monument a week after 300 people marched and rallied in protest of it, including local chapters of the NAACP.
“That’s a reflection of me as a white person, only thinking about what business I needed to conduct in the building,” she said. “But it’s obvious to me and to most people that look at this issue fairly that Confederate monuments honoring the Lost Cause have a different impact on black citizens.”
Oliver’s and Parent’s bills were not heard during the last legislative session, which ended March 29. Oliver said the Republican leadership didn’t want to address the issue, and it’s also an election year, making controversial bills even less likely to be taken up.
David Ralston, the Republican Speaker of the Georgia House, opposes Oliver’s proposed changes. “My concern about changing the governance of monuments and memorials in public spaces stems from how it might impact our collective future,” he told me in an email. “By allowing for the selective editing of our history, we may open the door to even greater divisions among us as a people.”
Other Georgia leaders have been less tactful in their resistance. In January 2016, Republican Representative Tommy Benton introduced a bill to protect Stone Mountain, the Atlanta area’s Mount Rushmore-like carved relief of Lee, Jackson, and Davis that served as the stage for the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915. He said that the KKK was not racist, but was simply a way to keep law and order. “It made a lot of people straighten up,” he said. Benton added that efforts to thwart the veneration of Confederate leaders is “no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments.”
The Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans did not respond to my request for comment, but the organization has announced that its members will fight any efforts to remove monuments, and hired a lobbying firm to represent it at the capitol.
Oliver predicts an increased focus on Confederate monuments in Georgia as the state gears up for its gubernatorial election this fall. Democratic frontrunner Stacey Abrams, for instance, has said that such monuments belong in museums, and that Stone Mountain’s carvings should be removed. Michael Thurmond, CEO of Dekalb County and the first African American to serve on the state’s Stone Mountain Memorial Association, has plans to provide more context at the monument so that it doesn’t “sanitize history.”
“I’m not one to believe that all Confederate monuments should be removed,” Thurmond told me. “But the history around the monuments should be properly and accurately taught; this can provide insight for current and future generations.”
LaDawn Jones spoke similarly of Stone Mountain: “Since it’s there, let’s use it for education,” she said. “The accompanying museum needs to offer more information about the role of Native Americans, African Americans, and women in the Civil War. Let’s tell the whole story—the right story.”
The problem with contextualization
Sheffield Hale, president of the Atlanta History Center, joins Thurmond and Jones in support of contextualization, writing of how monuments erected during Jim Crow can benefit from signage educating readers about who placed them there, and why.
Hale told me of how Fanny Gordon, John Gordon’s wife, campaigned to place an obelisk honoring “our Confederate dead” in downtown Atlanta in 1869. She was outvoted, and the memorial went in Oakland Cemetery. “The placement of the monument in a cemetery rather than a public intersection indicated that it was seen as more about death than about the Lost Cause,” said Hale.
Such a monument still needs contextualization, he added, though it is less problematic than a Lost Cause statue, such as the one of Fanny’s husband: “An equestrian statue erected during Jim Crow is not about loss,” he said. “It’s about power.” (Hale noted that he also doesn’t reject removing or relocating Jim Crow monuments.)
Like Oliver and Parent, Hale also believes that local communities should decide how to move forward. “Not all monuments are the same,” he said. “That’s why each community needs to research its monuments and resolve what to do with them.”
On-site contextualization can be a solution in some cases, because placing Confederate monuments in museums is not practical, despite the fact that many have called for it as a solution. “It’s a nice idea, but these statues are extremely large and often won’t fit in museums,” he said. “And there’s not a lot of people standing in line wanting to put them in their museums, either.”
Politicians and other public leaders tend to gravitate toward contextualization as a compromise solution. “Heritage” groups get to keep their monuments, while those opposed to them are also recognized. It also opens the door a crack to future removal, Hale said: The state, by allowing contextualization, is admitting that the memorials are a problem, and could later allow the statues to be taken away entirely. “That remains to be seen, but few people have gone to the trouble to contextualize and see what happens,” he said. “It’s something that can be done now within the current law, and it’s not a zero-sum solution—which I don’t think is healthy.”
There are a few examples of contextualization efforts added to Confederate monuments, and they have shown mixed results. The University of Mississippi placed a number of plaques next to Confederate statues on campus to acknowledge, for example, how the person depicted dismantled Reconstruction and negatively impacted African-American lives. That seemed to please no one. The Mississippi chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans sued the university for the move; African-American students at the university told the New York Times they wonder why the statues are still there: “[It’s] mind-baffling,” said Jaquann King, a marketing major. “Why is that needed? You have students here who are offended by it.”
In an interview on Georgia public radio, Mississippi State University professor Sarah Marshall, an expert on the Civil War and historical memory, cited another case in which the University of Louisville, Kentucky, surrounded a Confederate monument with panels that described the role of African Americans in the Civil War and the struggle for civil rights.
“It didn’t satisfy the public, it didn’t satisfy the students … so they continued to put pressure on the city and the university,” she said. The Confederate monument was eventually moved. “There might be possibilities in terms of historical interpretation … but in terms of public sentiment, [contextualization] doesn’t always work.”
Those who desire to keep Confederate monuments often invoke the argument of erasure—that removing them will prevent future generations from knowing about the Civil War (as they understand it). I’m someone who ostensibly has something to lose in this process; that’s my family heritage sitting up on that horse. But when I consider the prospect of John Gordon leaving the lawn of the Georgia capitol, I’m struck by how such a change is less an erasure and more a correction. Removing this heroic image of the general can help restore the truth behind the cause he defended—a truth that has been glossed over for far too long, thanks to the work done by symbols and monuments just like this.
John Gordon was a white supremacist who fought for the continued oppression of African Americans, and who then used his position to terrorize and violently repress them after the war; he should not be glorified through an equestrian statue located where politicians make the laws that govern the people of Georgia. As Gordon’s great-great-great granddaughter, I support this monument’s demise.