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As activists demand immediate action on Confederate monument, City Commission treads carefully

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As activists demand immediate action on Confederate monument, City Commission treads carefully

An inscription on the Confederate monument in Decatur. Photo by Erik Voss
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An inscription on the Confederate monument in Decatur. Photo by Erik Voss

Activists, backed by a petition with more than 2,000 signatures, on Monday asked the Decatur City Commission to take immediate action to hasten the removal of a Confederate monument on the Square.

Commissioners said they appreciated the discussion and said more discussion is needed. But anyone looking to the commission to support immediate removal of the monument walked away disappointed. The commissioners said they were against the things the monument stood for, the celebration of a rosy interpretation of a war that was fought primarily to save the institution of slavery,  but stopped short of calling for it to be removed.

Mayor Patti Garrett, who is white, and Commissioner Tony Powers, who is black, said they would represent the city in conversations with the county and state officials about the monument’s future. Currently there is a state law against the removal of such monuments.

“What happens with that monument going forward, we will decide together, because if it had been together [when it was constructed], that monument may not have been there,” Powers said. “I don’t want to change history. I don’t want to edit history. It made me who I am. It made each and every one of you who you are. Own it, accept it and we deal with it together and it’s the only way we truly make change.”

“The statue does not belong to the city of Decatur, but we want to have those important conversations with our county representatives as to what the process and next steps would be,” Mayor Garrett said.

The monument was constructed by the old courthouse in 1908,  two years after the Atlanta race riot that resulted in the death of 25 African Americans. Historians who have weighed in on the matter in letters to Decaturish agree that its context was more about the reinforcement of black subjugation than about remembering veterans.

The future of the monument has been debated since a recent violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va that resulted in the deaths of three people.

There were several speakers in support of the monument, backed by their own petition with more than 1,000 signatures, but the discussion was dominated by those who would prefer to see it removed. The commission doesn’t have final authority over the monument. The DeKalb County Commission does, and commissioners will likely hear comments about the memorial at their Tuesday morning meeting.

During the City Commission meeting, speakers on both sides gave passionate arguments for and against the monument.

Several speakers urged elected officials to work within the law to remove the monument.

“We can try and legislate to change the laws that burden the public space with its presence, or we can work around the law,” Elizabeth Gilchrist said.

Chris Billingsley, a retired Decatur High teacher and longtime defender of such monuments, said that there are other monuments in the city that might not reflect today’s values. He said there’s a plaque in the old courthouse square that honors men killed during World War I but separates the names by race. He also said there’s a plaque at the Decatur High stadium saying the men fighting in World War II were killed “in defense of Christian civilization.”

“That might make some people uncomfortable,” Billingsley said. “That doesn’t mean that we need to change them. We should learn from them. That’s the important thing we need to do.”

Public comments continued for an hour and commissioners said they appreciated everyone who spoke.

Commissioner Brian Smith said he visited the monument with his kids the day before and took note of the other people who stopped to read the words on the monument which talks about a “covenant keeping race.”

“There’s no room for hate in Decatur and I can’t echo that sentiment more,” Smith said. “I think this monument read in context does not stand for anything Decatur stands for now. The state law is a little bit antiquated and I think it’s unfortunate.”

Commissioner Fred Boykin said he is a “history buff” and the prospect of removing the monument made him “skittish … about taking down history because I think history is with us warts and all and it depends on what you do with it.”

“There are things I’ve done in my past I’m not proud of,” Boykin said. “Certainly at my age in life there are things I wish I had the opportunity to again. You can’t change the past. You just have to live with it.”

Editor’s note: This story was reported by viewing a live video stream of the Aug. 21 City Commission meeting. 

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