Activists: State should end all Confederate memorials

'What exactly are we celebrating?'

From Confederate Memorial Day to streets named for Ku Klux Klan founders, the state of Georgia should pull the plug on its official support of Confederacy celebrations, say two Valdosta activists in a recent open letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and the entire General Assembly.

Such "Southern heritage" memorials are simply taxpayer-funded pseudo-history that celebrates white supremacy, they say. And state leaders so far aren't biting.

The letter is the brainchild of Mark Patrick George, a Valdosta State University sociologist who runs a project studying a local lynching spree of the early 1900s, and the Rev. Floyd Rose of the Lowndes/Valdosta chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

"We contact you today to respectfully call for an end to the state of Georgia's endorsement, promotion and support of all Confederate holidays, events, and its management of historic sites and monuments related to the Confederacy. We also call for an immediate change to all state roads and highways currently named for Confederate leaders," says the letter, sent on June 23.

George says they are acting on their own, though they have started reaching out to civil rights groups. They want to spark discussion of racial issues and raise awareness that the "heritage, not hate" mythos is factually wrong. The idea came from a documentary film that George, who grew up in South Georgia, is making about Civil War re-enactors, many of whom, he says, falsely believe the Confederacy was not primarily motivated by slavery and racism.

"What exactly are we celebrating?" George asks. The ultimate answer, he says, is leaders and soldiers "who said God declared white people should be in charge of black people ... Where are the thoughts and feelings of African-Americans who are citizens of this state? Black people are paying for, in many ways, their own degradation."

In a state that recently ditched the Confederate battle flag from its flag and moved a statue of white supremacist Thomas Watson off the Gold Dome grounds, it's time to go all the way, George says. But if he could change just one thing, it would be ending the annual "Confederate History Month" proclamation and the related Confederate Memorial Day holiday. The 2014 proclamation mentions the Confederacy's "great leaders" and Sherman's March to the Sea but doesn't use the word "slavery."

Deal and his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Atlanta, did not respond to CL's questions. But Andrew Hunt, the Libertarian candidate, says he agrees with the letter. "Taxpayer money should not be used for such false recognition that is insulting to such a large number of Georgian citizens," Hunt says.

State Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, agrees, saying he thinks the sentiment is "spot-on, and their letter's correct." Prof. James Cobb, an acclaimed historian of the U.S. South at the University of Georgia, favors pulling the plug, too. "I agree wholeheartedly that neither state-sponsored commemorations of the Confederacy or monuments thereto on state property are appropriate, largely for the reasons they state," Cobb says.

However, Cobb would not support destroying private displays or removing Confederate items from public museums "any more than I would favor the exclusion of comparable reminders of the Civil Rights Movement. They are both part of our past and if we forget or ignore either of them, we deny the history that made us who we are," he says.

The letter suggests transferring Confederate monuments to any willing private owners. And George says he has no problem with authentic historical displays. The goal, he says, is to talk about real history, not the "pure Hollywood" pseudo-history peddled by the "propaganda machine" of such groups as the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the organization that receives some funds from last year's Confederate flag license plate. The Sons' Georgia chapter did not respond to CL's questions.

The letter includes transcriptions of various pro-slavery Confederate documents, including the entire text of Georgia's declaration of secession from the Union.

"There's no discussion of states' rights, no discussion of tariffs or taxes. The discussion centers on slavery," George notes. "What scares me is elected officials who don't know their history, but are blindly defending memorials they don't understand."

The letter also notes that such celebrations make Georgia look nuts to the outside world, and suggests the federal government consider withdrawing funds from states that promote white supremacy heroes.

But one week after sending the letter to the governor and hundreds of other officials, no one had responded.

"I don't think people know what to do with it," George says. "I think this is a real risky conversation for Georgia to have."

He doesn't expect the state to drop its celebrations overnight, but believes the reform can prevail over time as its sparks consciousness-raising debate. After all, he points out, ending slavery itself "once sounded like a ludicrous proposition ... and yet it happened."