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The Uncertain Fate of Atlanta's Confederate Statues

January 12, 2018

Larry Platt shakily approached the podium at city hall on Monday night. As he approached, he removed his time-worn leather jacket to reveal an orange vest reading “NAACP member” in bold black letters. Bedecked with medals, rings, and buttons honoring former President Barack Obama and Congressman John Lewis, Platt jingled as he took the stand. He adjusted his hat reading “Vietnam Veteran” and spoke:

 

“I am sick and tired of all these Confederate monuments. I’m gonna fight as hard as I can to get these statues down. I ain’t gonna be scared.”

 

Ever since a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville left one dead and over a dozen injured, cities across the nation have been coming to terms with Confederate monuments in their public spaces. While cities from Durham to Los Angeles have already removed some monuments from public spaces, the city of Atlanta—a city that prides itself on diversity and innovation—has still yet to remove monuments from public view.

 

Two groups, the Confederate Monuments Advisory Committee and Hate Free Decatur, set to change that.

 

Civil rights veteran Larry Platt—famous for his song “Pants on the Ground” on American Idol—spoke at the third and last meeting of the Confederate Monuments Advisory Committee at city hall last Monday. The committee, created through legislation in light of the tragedy in Charlottesville, has been tasked by Mayor Kasim Reed and City Council with developing recommendations for moving forward with city-owned Confederate-related monuments and street names.

 

The committee consists of a panel of historians, preservation consultants, and business and civil rights leaders from Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, to Derreck Kayongo, CEO of the Center of Civil and Human Rights. Since the founding of the committee in September, the panel has compiled a review of monuments and street names within the city of Atlanta to be removed or changed through proper contextualization.

 

“When you talk about taking [Confederate monuments] down, you’re not obliterating history—what you’re talking about is Jim Crow history, which is an artifact of the Civil War,” said Sheffield Hale. “That’s the distinction: it’s an artifact in itself, not a representation of history.”

 

Among the list of around five monuments and over 32 street names tied to the Confederacy, the committee recommended the Peace Monument in Piedmont Park to be removed from public view. The monument, which stands tall at the center of Piedmont Park, is one of the most prominent Confederate monuments in the city. It depicts an angel holding back a Confederate soldier with her left hand while grasping an olive branch with the other.

 

“How can a peace monument be problematic? How does that happen?” said Sheffield Hale during their Monday meeting. “Well, it happens due to the omission. It happens because the North and South decided to reconcile with the omission of African Americans.”

 

The Peace Monument in Piedmont Park was erected in 1911, which historians note as around the same time the “Lost Cause” Confederate monuments were being constructed.

 

Historian Cynthia Mills, in her book Monuments to the Lost Cause, states that the “Lost Cause” was the name given to a body of writings that put forth a sentimental narrative that the Civil War was fought for states’ rights and not slavery. Curated in the late nineteenth century by a group called the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the “Lost Cause” movement was a successful plot to revise history through a series of programs including textbook and school curriculum campaigns.

 

During the time period which the Peace Monument was being erected, not only was the “Lost Cause” narrative being put into place via school curriculums and monuments, it was also a time in which states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise and re-segregate African Americans. Around this time, monuments were intentionally placed to intimidate African American communities.

 

However, due to the “Lost Cause” narrative being implemented in public schools for decades, activists and historians have found difficulty redefining these monuments to the general public as a symbols of oppression. However, one group in Decatur, Georgia is already changing minds.

 

“When we have these conversations with people about when the monument went up and why it was put there and not somewhere else, people’s minds change,” said Sara Patenaude, a head organizer for Hate Free Decatur. “They go from saying ‘it’s supporting the troops’ and ‘I don’t want to erase history’ to ‘let’s remove it.’”

 

Hate Free Decatur is an organization founded after a local vigil for Heather Heyer and those who had sustained injuries in Charlottesville. The organization was founded with the mission to mobilize DeKalb County residents to remove the “Lost Cause” monument in Decatur Square and ultimately fight oppression and racism in their communities.

 

Since its founding in August, the organization has held panels with the community about the history and context of Confederate monuments as well as holding a rally in Decatur Square that drew nearly 300 protestors in early September.

 

“To be honest, I never thought anything would happen to the monument,” said Patenaude, “but when we started having these conversations about this monument, people started coming out of the woodwork.”

 

On October 24, after pressure by Hate Free Decatur and members of the community, the DeKalb County Commission voted 6 to 1 to approve Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson’s resolution calling for the county legal team to render an opinion on the legality of removing the monument from Decatur Square, and creating a plan for the monument relocation.

 

Currently, the Georgia state law dictates that it is unlawful for any state or local government to remove a monument from public display. If the resolution is approved by the county commission, it would allow for any elected body in the state of Georgia to have the ability to pass a resolution of removal, re-contextualization, or change to city-owned Confederate monuments.

 

With the formation of the Confederate Monument Advisory Committee and Hate Free Decatur, communities in Georgia have begun to take ownership of their history. However, with taking ownership of one’s history comes the recognition of its faults as well.

 

“One of the most important things about this, not just for Georgia but for the United States, is also the most difficult. Taking down these monuments requires white people—especially white Southerners—to admit we were wrong. It takes people to admit we were wrong in putting up these monuments, supporting the Confederacy, and tying so much of southern identity to the Confederacy. To do that is really hard and difficult to ask,” said Patenaude.

 

In the coming week, the Confederate Monument Advisory Committee will turn in their recommendations on the monuments to Mayor Kasim Reed and City Council, and the DeKalb County Commission will announce their decision and process of what to do with the Confederate monument in Decatur Square.

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