Bookman: Confederate monuments in high-profile places are an insult

October 17, 2019 8:33 am

Our columnist Jay Bookman writes that Georgia’s confederate monuments, like this one outside the Appling County courthouse, were not merely erected to honor those who fought and killed to preserve slavery. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

For well over a century, a tall stone obelisk has stood unchallenged as a monument to white supremacy in the city square in Decatur, Georgia. But no longer.

The monument – erected in 1908 – still stands where it has always stood. The letters “C.S.A,” for Confederate States of America, are still carved in its base, and a 232-word inscription still attempts to justify secession and the Civil War as acts that were driven by lofty principle.

That inscription celebrates those who fought for the Confederacy as “a covenant-keeping race who held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the republic.”

“These men held that the states made the union, that the Constitution is the evidence of the covenant, that the people of the State are subject to no power except as they have agreed, that free convention binds the parties to it, that there is sanctity in oaths and obligations in contracts, and in defense of these principles they mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor,” it continues.

While the obelisk contains no mention of slavery, those whom the obelisk attempts to honor were more honest in their purpose. Georgia’s declaration of secession in 1861 makes clear that its primary purpose was the protection of  “African slavery;” the words “slave” or “slavery” appear 35 times in that document. In other words, the words on the obelisk are a whitewash, an attempt to pretty up one of the ugliest purposes to which mankind has ever gone to war.

Our columnist writes that “lost cause” statues like this one in front of Jenkins County’s historic courthouse these were a way to assert white dominance. John McCosh/Georgia Recorder

But the Decatur obelisk, like the statues at the Appling and Jenkins county courthouses, and many, many similar monuments around Georgia and the South, had another purpose as well. In 1908, the year the obelisk was erected, the Georgia Legislature adopted literacy tests as a means to deny the vote to black people; it also adopted a law allowing only white Georgians to vote in Democratic Party primaries, then the dominant power in the state. Every remnant of federal-imposed equality for black Americans was being removed, beginning with the right to vote.

Two years earlier, in 1906, a riot by white men in neighboring Atlanta had killed at least 25 black people, and by some counts as many as 100. The victims were shot, beaten, stabbed and hung from lamp posts, all in an effort to put a rising black community back in its place. A short seven years after the obelisk was commemorated, the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in a midnight ceremony at the top of Stone Mountain, roughly 10 miles to the east of Decatur.

In short, these were not merely monuments to those who had fought and killed to preserve slavery. They were celebrating the reassertion of white dominance. They were a way of telling the world that white Southerners may have lost the war, but in peace they had conquered.

For many Georgia communities, including Decatur and Atlanta, the continued presence of white-supremacy monuments in high-profile places is an insult, but it is an insult they have to accept. In 2001, the Georgia Legislature passed a law forbidding local communities from removing such monuments.

Like the monuments themselves, that law was passed as a reminder of who remains in charge in this state, of who gets to decide such things, and more importantly who does not.

In 2019, Georgia Republicans passed a law increasing punishments for defacing, removing or “abusing contemptuously” such monuments. Because Decatur and other local governments had considered putting such monuments into museums, the new law explicitly forbids that option. The initial version of that law, introduced by Sen. Jeff Mullis, a Chickamauga Republican, would also have banned any attempt to “interpret” such monuments for a modern audience.

In Decatur, a new historical marker provides contextual interpretation of the “lost cause” obelisk outside the DeKalb County Courthouse. Jay Bookman/Georgia Recorder

In Decatur, a new historical marker provides just such an interpretation of the obelisk, and illustrates why Mullis wanted the practice banned. It reads in part:

 “Located in a prominent place, its presence bolstered white supremacy and faulty history, suggesting that the cause for the Civil War rested on Southern honor and states rights rhetoric. Instead of its real catalyst, African American slavery. This monument and similar ones also were created to intimidate African Americans and limit their full participation in the social and political life of their community.”

That’s the truth, no matter how hard some people today try to hide or disguise it.

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Jay Bookman
Jay Bookman

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards. He has been awarded the National Headliner Award and the Walker Stone Award for outstanding editorial writing, and is the only two-time winner of the Pulliam Fellowship granted by the Society of Professional Journalists. He is also the author of "Caught in the Current," published by St. Martin's Press.