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Decatur city leaders grappling with calls to remove Confederate monument

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Decatur city leaders grappling with calls to remove Confederate monument

After the Stand With Charlottesville candlelight vigil on August 13. 2017, in Decatur, Ga., attendees gather to discuss the controversial "Lost Cause" monument in Decatur Square.
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After the Stand With Charlottesville candlelight vigil on August 13. 2017, in Decatur, Ga., attendees gather to discuss the controversial “Lost Cause” monument in Decatur Square.

This story has been updated. 

Elected officials are reacting to growing calls to remove a Confederate monument on the Decatur square following white supremacist violence over a similar monument in Charlottesville, Va.

A petition advocating or its removal had nearly 1,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning. The Confederate monument in the square that was erected in 1908, and the county is responsible for its upkeep. There’s also a state law that prohibits the removal of such monuments, as the petition notes. So it’s not as simple as the city ordering the monument to be removed.

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Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said she’s getting in touch with county officials and members of the legislative delegation about it. She said she was “saddened” by the events in Charlottesville. She noted the city of Decatur already has a board, called Better Together, which focuses on diversity in the city.

“I think we have a lot of work to be done with racial healing,” Garrett said. “We’ll be looking at our Better Together board and … I hope can really have meaningful dialogue and develop a process for how we move forward on this. I do personally find the language and what that statue represents offensive. It’s not ­­just my personal opinion that matters in this.”

She said working with the county would be the first step to removing the monument and, of course, the law would need to be changed.

State Sen. Elena Parent said she had forgotten about the state law when the petitions to remove the monument first came to her attention.

“Obviously we would need to eliminate that before the locals can take action,” she said.

What are the chances the Legislature would approve those changes to state law?

“I think it would be pretty difficult, would be my guess,” she said. “Right now, I think it would be difficult to achieve with the Republican super majorities. Not to say it could never happen. It will probably happen someday. I’m not sure it would be next year.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Parent released an official statement saying she would sponsor a bill to change state law.

“Saturday’s events in Charlottesville were heartbreaking and showed the worst of humanity. As someone who grew up in Virginia and attended UVA, I was saddened to hear that such hatred, violence, and glorification of white supremacy could take place near my alma mater and in my home state,” she said. “I understand why so many citizens around the country see what happened as a ‘call to action.’ We absolutely must take a stand against racism and hate. Now is the time for constructive, peaceful discussions so we can understand the hurt and determine a positive and healing path forward. My hope is that the Senate Democratic Caucus will file a bill in the 2018 legislative session to change O.C.G.A 50-3-1 (b)(2) and allow local officials to determine if Confederate memorials should be moved. I would sponsor and push that sort of bill. I’ve also asked for some clarification about whether or not the current law allows local governments to add plaques, statues, or other information at monument sites to contextualize the true history of the Confederacy rather than simply memorializing and praising it. If possible, contextualization would provide a short-term fix until we can change the current law and allow local officials to decide.”

The conversation will not die down anytime soon. White supremacists are planning more demonstrations around the country. Some counter protesters aren’t waiting for local governments to act. Protesters pulled down a Confederate statue in Durham, N.C.

Decaturish has been working to gather reactions from other elected officials and will continue to update this story when they respond.

Brian Smith sent a text message that said, “I personally don’t condone what the Confederate obelisk stands for and don’t believe it speaks to what Decatur is and stands for. As far as removing it,  I am in favor of moving it but it is my understanding that it is owned by the county so it is their decision.”

County Commissioner Jeff Rader was out of town but also chimed in via text message.

“It seems our options are limited by state law, so we should think of how we interpret the monument and its projection of the mythological and historically inaccurate ‘Lost Cause’ theme that the Civil War wasn’t primarily about preserving slavery and the economy that depended on it,” Rader said.

Candidates running to replace District 1 City Commissioner Fred Boykin have also weighed in.

Candidate Betty Blondeau said she favors adding additional markers to place the monument in context.

“I’ve been in touch with the historical society to ask what their position is, and I didn’t get much information from them,” she said. “I think they were just kind of hoping it would go away, but I guess the Charlottesville thing has brought all of this to our attention. Somehow, I think there can be … a recognition of what that is a symbol of, but facing the facts of what it was, a recognition with an explanation of why it was put there. I think some communities have done that, not going so far as to remove it but to put it in a historical context.”

Candidate Melissa Manrow also favors contextualizing the obelisk.

“I’m not going to tell people what should be there, but I believe the Atlanta History Center has a strong program for contextualizing things like this, and I would support examining their plan,” she said.

Candidate Tim Martin said via text message, “I firmly believe that history – both good and bad – can be instructive in helping us navigate issues in the present, so I’m support of two things: minimizing the hurt in the community and maximizing our ability, in how we address the monument, to learn from what it is and how it came to be. Sunday’s turnout at the downtown vigil in support of Charlottesville reaffirms for me what I already knew to be true: if any community can collectively navigate these issues peaceably and empathetically, it’s Decatur.”

Candidate Kelly Walsh said via email she is open to the idea of removing the monument and changing state law to allow for its removal.

“I believe Decatur can follow in the footsteps of other cities, namely New Orleans and Lexington, Kentucky, and adopt the stance that we should not hide from our history but face our flaws and correct them,” she said. “I would support movement toward changing the state law so that counties and/or municipalities could make the decision to remove a monument that its citizens find to be a symbol of divisiveness, prejudice and hate. A monument like this could be removed and contextualized elsewhere and I would expect historians and academics to find the best way to do that. Decatur has spent a great deal of time having community conversations that culminated with our Better Together comprehensive plan and there is no doubt our residents want Decatur to be a city that values equality, inclusivity, and empathy above all. If this monument is a barrier to us achieving those ideals then we should remove it.”

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