You may have the impression that the Civil War ended sometime around 1865, after the Confederate armies stacked their weapons, the soldiers returned to their homes, and the southern states were re-admitted back into the Union.
It would be entirely reasonable to think that, but in some areas of the Georgia capitol it would also be a big mistake.
Today, more than 150 years after Robert E. Lee worked out surrender terms with U.S. Grant at Appomattox, battles continue to rage between some of our state legislators over the late unpleasantness and how it should be remembered.
In Georgia and all over the South, we’re still having squabbles over the display of the Confederate battle emblem and whether statues of Confederate generals and leaders have a rightful place in any public area.
The “general” in this latest conflict is a balding, retired history teacher, state Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson), who has often displayed his fondness for the “lost cause” of the Confederate States of America.
During his 12 years in the House, Benton has made numerous speeches about historical figures of the Civil War. “I think what they tried to do was very noble,” he told one reporter in a typical comment.
He also objected to the removal two years ago of the statue of Tom Watson, a notorious white supremacist and anti-Semite, from the front of the Capitol building.
“You can’t pick and choose what history you’re going to remember or you’ll lose a whole bunch of your past,” Benton said at the time. “Watson was a racist and anti-Semite, but he was also probably the most powerful politician in Georgia for 25 years.”
Benton’s sympathies for the Confederacy and its associated causes have never been a secret to the capitol crowd. But he now finds himself in the middle of a raging controversy for restating his well-worn opinions in several media interviews last week.
In the interviews, Benton reiterated his belief that the Ku Klux Klan “was not 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 also claimed that the Civil War “was not fought over slavery,” an assertion that is not held by most serious historians who’ve written about that conflict.
Benton’s words aggravated a legislative conflict that has been going on this session with state Sen. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta), a black Democrat.
Fort has introduced a bill that would prohibit the designation of any state holidays honoring the Confederacy. He and other black lawmakers have said it’s time the state stopped paying tribute to the Confederacy at Stone Mountain Park.
Benton introduced a bill that would require the reinstatement of Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as state holidays. He sponsored another measure that would preserve the Confederate memorials at Stone Mountain Park.
Benton compared Fort to a Muslim terrorist: “That’s no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments.”
Fort replied: “I’m not going to respond to anyone who’s an apologist for the Klan and for slavery.”
As a practical matter, neither Benton’s bills nor Fort’s bill is likely to pass or even make it to the floor for debate. But their heated exchanges got the war started again.
Nikema Williams, first vice chair of the Georgia Democratic Party, accused Benton of “spewing the kind of half-witted hatred that divides. Benton should be ashamed and his party should denounce him.”
Better Georgia, a progressive organization, called for House Speaker David Ralston to remove Benton from his post as a committee chairman. “His defense of the KKK ignores a grave and dark history of violence and racism in Georgia,” Executive Director Bryan Long said.
Ralston has tried to downplay the matter as just another disagreement of the kind you often see between legislators. When asked if there were any plans to remove Benton as a chairman or change any of his committee assignments, Ralston’s spokesman replied: “No changes.”
Similarly, I doubt there will be any changes in the level of hostilities among lawmakers. We’ve kept on fighting the Civil War for 150 years — why stop now?
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report, an Internet news service at gareport.com that reports on state government and politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.