Confederate monuments: A chance to reassess the past with perspective of today
By David Pendered
Calls to remove Confederate memorials in Atlanta coincide with a June 12 court order for the removal of the Confederate obelisk in Decatur. A similar debate – in 1870 – kept such a monument out of Five Points and in placed, instead, in Oakland Cemetery.
The revived attention to Confederate memorials in Atlanta has renewed interest in the 10 recommendations issued in a 2017 report by the Advisory Committee on City of Atlanta Street Names and Monuments Associated with the Confederacy. Mayor Kasim Reed and the Atlanta City Council established the committee after the deadly confrontations in Charlottesville, Va. over the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy’s top general.
The primary outcome of the committee’s report was the renaming, in November 2018, of Confederate and East Confederate avenues to United Avenue. The committee was co-chaired by Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, and Derrick Kayongo, CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Last week, DeKalb County was ordered to remove the Confederate obelisk from the grounds of the courthouse no later than 11:59 p.m., June 26. DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger issued the order June 12 in response to a motion filed by Decatur. The city contended the monument had become a public nuisance, as defined by state law. Decatur’s top elected officials were cited in a June 12 statement:
Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett:
- “We appreciate DeKalb County’s efforts in recent years to attempt to relocate the monument and we share the County’s frustration that no one was willing to accept the monument. We are at a point now where we cannot delay. This symbol of hate and oppression has created a real and present danger to our community and it must be moved for the protection of the public.”
Decatur Mayor pro tem Tony Powers:
- “This monument is a lightning rod for all of the emotions that have surfaced after the racially-motivated events at the national level and the racist incidents right here in our community. We have a lot of work to do as a community, but we must take this step to protect the safety of the Decatur community.”
Seeliger observed in his order that public safety at the site – including the removal process – shall be secured by the county sheriff’s and police departments, which are to support the city’s police department:
- “WHEREFORE, in order to abate what has become a public nuisance, to protect life and safety, and to protect the Obelisk, I hereby ORDER DeKalb County to immediately’ relocate the Obelisk to a secure location for storage until further Order of the Court. Though the Obelisk will be stored out of public View, abatement as required by this Order is not for the purpose of preventing public display of the Obelisk, but instead is an appropriate measure to abate a public nuisance and protect the Obelisk.
- “Be it further ORDERED that the Sheriff of DeKalb County and the DeKalb County Police Department are directed to provide support to the Decatur Police Department as needed in order to preserve public safety on the Decatur Square until the Obelisk is removed.”
In 1870 in Atlanta, the debate similar to the one in Decatur involved the Confederate obelisk in Atlanta’s city-owned Oakland Cemetery. The wife of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon lost her bid to have the obelisk placed in a high profile place, such as Five Points. Mrs. Gordon resigned in protest as president of the group that funded the memorial, the Atlanta Ladies Memorial Assoc., according to the committee’s 2017 report.
Of note, Gordon is honored with a statue on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. Current protests have renewed long-standing discussions over its fate. The Georgia General Assembly and Gov. Brian Kemp approved additional protections for such monuments in legislation that became law in 2019.
The obelisks in Decatur and Atlanta have different lineage that the Atlanta committee has used to distinguish Confederate memorials.
The obelisk in Decatur was erected in 1908, in the heart of the Jim Crow movement (1890-1930s). Monuments erected in this era, according to the committee report, “misconstrues the cause of the Civil War by denying slavery as the principal cause of the war. Instead, the Lost Cause portrays the Civil War as a struggle caused by Northern aggression and a Southern desire to defend their homeland and states’ rights.”
These types of memorials were located in high traffic areas where their message reached the broadest audience possible, which the report named as, “public squares, courthouses, and institutions of higher education.”
The obelisk in Oakland Cemetery was erected in 1873, in what the report calls the Post Civil War Era (1866-1889). Many such monuments were raised by women’s groups as they established cemeteries, and were installed, “principally to mourn the dead.” The women’s groups relocated remains of Confederate fallen at a time, the report says, that: “Union soldiers were moved by the federal government to national cemeteries for re-interment, Confederate soldiers were not. Instead, ladies memorial associations in the South developed Confederate cemeteries.”
Memorials in this era were located in cemeteries and that’s what happened with the statue at Oakland Cemetery – despite arguments to put it in Atlanta’s most significant intersection, according to the report:
- “After some debate, the Confederate section of Oakland Cemetery was decided as the most appropriate location for the monument, leading to the resignation of Mrs. John B. Gordon as president of ALMA. Mrs. Gordon favored a more prominent location for the monument, such as Five Points. The cornerstone of the monument was laid shortly after her resignation in 1870, and the monument was completed in 1874.”
The committee’s final report was delivered Nov. 20, 2017, the final days of Reed’s administration and the term of Ceasar Mitchell as president of the Atlanta City Council. The committee was comprised of 11 members; six were appointed by the mayor and five by the council. Members represented community groups, business leaders and historians, according to the report.