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FEATURE: In Georgia, Confederate monuments on any public land can not be removed

PHOTO:  The Confederate Monument in Forsyth Park in Savannah's Historic District, completed in the 1870's to honor the war dead of the city.

By Lou Phelps, Coastal Empire News

August 16, 2017 – UPDATED:  It’s a national topic, growing in scale by the hour after the events in Charlottesville, VA this past weekend:  should monuments be removed that honor the Confederacy and its military effort which many believe honors a lifestyle that included the institution of slavery. 

In Georgia, such monuments and plaques cannot be removed if they are on State property, or any public property. Georgia code was updated in 2016, with a revision that expanded the Georgia laws addressing removing or defacing an Confederate monument. The law would cover any monuments in Savannah parks and squares. 

The Georgia code was initially updated in 2001, when the Georgia flag was altered - a long and often bitter political battle.  Language was written in the bill that prevented altering Confederate monuments on State property, and included protections that Stone Mountain could not be altered or blocked from view.

Back in 2013, a group of Republican's in the Georgia House of Representatives, tried to change the Georgia Code to expand protections of Confederate monuments.  That year, House bill 91 was filed, designed to safeguard statues, plaques and other markers recognizing Revolutionary War or Confederate heroes "from modern objections," it stated,"on all publicly-owned property. 

The bill mentioned the Civil War Confederate Army monument in Stone Mountain, specifically, though that monument was already protected by current Georgia law. That monument takes the form of a carving of three figures who led the Confederate States of America failed military effort:  Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis.

According to the Georgia’s Legislature’s website, the bill was aimed at additional protections for government statues, monuments, plaques, banners, and other commemorative symbols.But the bill died in the State Properties Committee of the House, and never came to a floor vote.  There was also no companion bill filed that year in the Senate.

The bill was designed to amend Code Section 50-3-1 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to the description of the state flag, defacing public monuments, and obstruction of Stone Mountain, to provide for what supporters saw would be additional protections for government statues, monuments, plaques, banners, and other commemorative symbols on land that was not a State property. 

The House Committee on State Properties offered substitute language, but it never got out of  committee. The language of HB 91 defined 'Monument' as a monument, plaque, statue, marker, flag, banner, structure, name, display, or memorial constructed and located with the intent of being permanently displayed and perpetually maintained that is dedicated to a historical entity, event or series of events, nation, or government and which honors or recounts the military service or other service of any past or present military personnel or citizen of this state, the United States of America or the several states thereof, or the Confederate States of America or the several states thereof." 

But, according to House Majority Leader Matt Hatchett of Dublin, the code was updated in 2016, expanding protections for monuments to all public monuments versus only those on State property. 

Georgia Code § 50-3-1

For many years, Georgia has had code law that addresses the defacing of public monuments and obstruction of Stone Mountain.  The latter issue came back into the forefront this week after Democratic candidate for Governor, State Rep. Stacey Abrams, called for removing the three carvings on Stone Mountain of generals of the Confederate Army.

The code goes on to state, “No publicly owned monument or memorial erected, constructed, created, or maintained on the public property of this state or its agencies, departments, authorities, or instrumentalities in honor of the military service of any past or present military personnel of this state, the United States of America or the several states thereof, or the Confederate States of America or the several states thereof shall be relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion; provided, however, that appropriate measures for the preservation, protection, and interpretation of such monuments or memorials shall not be prohibited,” which addresses such monuments on State land. 

The code also addresses monuments that are privately owned:  “It shall be unlawful for any person, firm, corporation, or other entity acting without authority to mutilate, deface, defile, abuse contemptuously, relocate, remove, conceal, or obscure any privately owned monument, plaque, marker, or memorial which is dedicated to, honors, or recounts the military service of any past or present military personnel of this state, the United States of America or the several states thereof, or the Confederate States of America or the several states thereof. Any person or entity who suffers injury or damages as a result of a violation of this paragraph may bring an action individually or in a representative capacity against the person or persons committing such violations to seek injunctive relief and to recover general and exemplary damages sustained as a result of such person's or persons' unlawful actions.”

And regarding Stone Mountain, Georgia Code states, “Any other provision of law notwithstanding, the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.

2017 Efforts to Honor Confederacy

The 2013 HB 91 was sponsored by State Rep. Tommy Benton of Jefferson, GA.  This year, Benton was appointed to the House committee that is studying “how the state should train its young citizens” and “is charged with ‘furthering Georgia’s students’ civic literacy’ by reviewing state standards and making recommendations to the state Board of Education.”

In 2016, the AJC reported that Benton said that the KKK “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order” that also “made a lot of people straighten up.”

In this year’s session, Benton sponsored legislation to recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s birthday as state holidays, which Gov. Deal opposed and used his clout to keep the legislation from coming to a vote. That bill was co-sponsored by Chatham County Republican State. Rep. Jesse Petrea. 

The Confederate Monument in Savannah's Forsyth Park

The Confederate Monument in Forsyth Park in Savannah wasd completed in the spring of 1879. On the top is a lone figure.  According to the City of Savannah, a “proud yet beaten soldier stands atop this monument, it is truly a memorial to the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who gave their lives for the lost cause of the Confederate States.   A heroic size bronze statue in realistic style stands in battle worn garments, at parade rest, with his gun.”

“From about 1866 to 1872, women of the former Confederate states formed memorial associations in order to take responsibility for the decent and permanent interment of slain Confederate soldiers in cemeteries, where possible, and institutionalized annual memorial services, which consisted of decorating the graves with flowers. Associated with this was the erecting of monuments to the Confederate dead, often sited in a public square or park. One of the unique attributes of this particular monument is that is quite possibly the oldest and earliest Confederate monuments,” the City’s website on monuments explains. 

Editor's Note:  Coastal Empire News is continuing to research this issue, and any current efforts to amend the Georgia Code, and will update the story when appropriate.

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