A Republican lawmaker was once again stripped of a leadership role in the state House of Representatives, this time for minimizing the achievements of the late civil rights leader John Lewis.
“His only claim to fame was that he got conked on the head at the Edmund Pettus Bridge – and he has milked that for 50 years, or he milked it for 50 years,” Rep. Tommy Benton said Thursday while appearing as a guest on WJJC Radio in Commerce.
The north Georgia lawmaker, who is a retired public school teacher who at one point taught history and government, said he had never seen a “significant piece of legislation” with Lewis’ name on it.
Benton did not return a message left on voice mail Friday afternoon.
The Jefferson lawmaker’s comments were made during a discussion on the growing movement to replace a statue of Alexander Stephens – a Georgia native who served as the vice president of the Confederacy – with one of John Lewis in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington.
“I would suggest that before they do something like that they take a pilgrimage down to Crawfordville and visit the Alexander Stephens museum and read all the stuff that he did do,” Benton said.
Lewis, an Atlanta Democrat, died last month after a six-month battle with pancreatic cancer. Known as one of the “Big Six” leaders of the civil rights movement, Lewis was badly beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on what is known as Bloody Sunday. The violence is often credited with spurring the passage of the Voting Rights Act.
The longtime U.S. Congressman was revered as the “conscious of the Congress,” and three former presidents – including Republican George W. Bush – spoke at his funeral.
On Friday, House Speaker David Ralston, a Blue Ridge Republican, quickly stripped Benton of his chairmanship of the House Retirement Committee – a position he had only held since last year.
“The comments made by Representative Benton are offensive and disgusting,” Ralston said in a statement. “These comments do not reflect the values or the views of the House Majority Caucus. I can neither condone nor ignore such hurtful remarks.
“Congressman John Lewis spent a lifetime of public service advancing equality for all. He stood with Dr. King to fight for civil rights during dangerous times for which he paid a brutal price,” Ralston added.
Benton’s role was seen as a second chance after losing another chairmanship in 2017 for circulating among House members an article titled “The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States.” That time, he had chaired the House Human Relations and Aging Committee. And in 2016, he stirred up controversy when he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution the Ku Klux Klan made “people straighten up.”
Benton’s comments this week were part of a wide-ranging on-air discussion that also bemoaned the removal of Confederate monuments and portraits (including two of Georgians at the U.S. Capitol) and this year’s landmark hate crimes bill, which Benton voted against.
First elected in 2004, Benton faces a Democratic challenger for the first time since 2006, when he won 77% of the vote. Republicans are fighting to hang onto control of the House this November.
“Chairman stripping (again)? How about District Flipping,” House Minority Leader Bob Trammell said on Twitter Friday, plugging Benton’s Democratic opponent in the fall, Pete Fuller. “The case for a Democratic governing majority in the Georgia House gets stronger and stronger.”