Rep. Tommy Benton of Jefferson has again waded into controversy over the Civil War and how it should be remembered in the state, according to a Thursday story in the AJC.
Benton introduced legislation (HR 644) this week to rename the state’s April 26 holiday as “Confederate Memorial Day.”
It’s similar to a bill that he introduced last year as well.
The fourth Monday in April was long known as that designation, but it was changed in 2015 by Gov. Nathan Deal in response to the massacre of black church goers in Charleston SC by a white supremacist.
Benton’s bill, which is unlikely to see any legislative movement, doesn’t mention the Civil War and only refers to it as “a four-year struggle for state’s rights, individual freedom, and local government control…”
It also says that “Georgia has long cherished her Confederate history and the people who made sacrifices on her behalf…”
The legislation then veers off into a salute to Dr. John Stith Pemberton who developed Coca-Cola and who was also a solider in the Civil War.
Benton reportedly told an Atlanta radio station that the election of Donald Trump as president and his disdain for political correctness was the inspiration for his legislation.
“We just elected a president that said he was tired of political correctness,” Benton told WABE. “And so that was the reason that we were looking to introduce this resolution. We think our heritage is just as important as everybody else’s.”
NOT THE FIRST TIME
This isn’t the first time Benton, a former history teacher in Jackson County, has been at the center of controversy about the Civil War, the KKK and Southern history.
Last year, Benton made headlines when he appeared to defend the KKK by saying the Klan “wasn’t so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order. It made a lot of people straighten up. I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”
Benton has long believed that Confederate cultural icons are under attack and he’s taken previous actions to protect what he believes is the memory of the Confederate South.
Benton’s concerns aren’t without some justification. Icons of the Civil War have come under increasing scrutiny in the South in recent years.
In Georgia, the Confederate carving on Stone Mountain, Confederate symbols on auto license plates, portraits and statues of Confederate heroes in and around the statehouse and the Confederate Battle Flag emblem have all come under fire from some groups who believe they honor men whose racist past doesn’t deserve recognition in today’s world.
In 2013, the state moved the statue of Tom Watson off the statehouse grounds. Watson was a populist leader in the state, but as he got older, he adopted openly anti-black and anti-Jewish positions. His statue was moved to a park across from the Capitol.
In 2001, the state removed the Battle Flag from the state flag because of the racist symbolism it held for some people.
Benton calls attacks on efforts to remove these symbols “cultural terrorism” and likens the efforts to ISIS’ destruction of museums in Syria and Iraq.
Last year, Benton introduced three bills related to the issue. In addition to a bill to rename Confederate Memorial Day and to formally recognize Robert E. Lee’s birthday in January, Benton also put in legislation to protect the Confederate Memorial carvings on Stone Mountain.
In a third bill last year, he attempted to find a backdoor way to rename MLK Boulevard in Atlanta to its original designation, Gordon Road which was named for a Georgia Governor and senator who had been a Civil War hero and leader of the state’s KKK.
None of the bills passed the legislature.
LONG DEFENDER OF THE SOUTH
Benton has long been a defender of the Confederate history and memory, holding opinions that some have long ago discarded.
Benton has argued that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery and said the debate over the Confederate Battle Flag is misplaced.
In a 2015 AJC interview, he argued the Battle Flag wasn’t responsible for problems in the black community, problems he attributed to black-on-black crime and the breakdown of black families.
He told WABE last week that the media had exaggerated Dylan Roof’s connection to the Battle Flag. Roof is the shooter convicted of nine murders in the Charleston black church shootings.
“This idea of every time something bad happens and wanting to blame it on a flag, or the idea of slavery, it’s just not right,” Benton said to WABE.
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