Last week, David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge), Speaker of the Georgia House, was interviewed on WABE by Denis O’Hayer. “In just a month, Georgia lawmakers return to the state capitol,” O’Hayer said by way of introduction, “and they have a lot of issues in front of them.”
He asked Ralston if allegations of sexual harassment might surface in the state government and how the legislature might address that issue. Then, O’Hayer moved to another topic – Confederate monuments. “The state already has a law … that bars local governments from removing or concealing Confederate monuments or memorials,” he said, noting that the law was part of the compromise in 2001 that finally got the Confederate battle flag off Georgia’s state flag. “Is it time to revisit that, especially in light of what happened in places like Charlottesville?”
This is a timely question, and one that the General Assembly will face in the new year. Senator Elena Parent (D-Atlanta) and Representative Mary Margaret Oliver (D-Decatur) have pre-filed a bill that would allow local governments to decide whether to remove Confederate monuments in their communities.
Ralston’s response to O’Hayer’s question: “If we are a state, then we share the same history, and the history of Georgia is the same whether you live in Blue Ridge or whether you live in Bainbridge or whether you live in Decatur. And so to allow that history to be controlled, as it were, depending on the jurisdiction you’re in strikes me as being divisive in and of itself.”
Ahh, history. Whose history? And who controls it?
The General Assembly was concerned about the state’s history when it met back in January 1956. Nine months earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ordered public schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” At the beginning of the legislative session – the first since the Brown implementation decision – Governor Marvin Griffin said that “the tragic decision of the United States Supreme Court poses a threat to the unparalleled harmony and growth that we have attained here in the South for both races under the framework of established customs.”
So there’s Georgia’s history – decades of “unparalleled harmony” between the races, especially impressive in light of the “established customs” of Jim Crow legislation, disfranchisement, peonage, and lynchings.
Marvin Moate, the Speaker of the Georgia House, also addressed Georgia history: “Not since the days of the carpetbagger and the days of Reconstruction have problems more vital to the welfare of our people confronted the General Assembly.”
One of the first actions of the General Assembly in 1956 was to pass a bill authorizing the governor to close any public school that was forced to integrate. Then, by a vote of 179-1 in the House and 39-0 in the Senate, the General Assembly passed a resolution declaring the Brown decision “null, void and of no force or effect” within the state.
And then, the legislature created a new state flag, one that prominently featured the Confederate battle flag. Representative Groover Denmark, the governor’s floor leader, said that the flag change “would leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Georgia will not forget the teachings of Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and … that we in Georgia intend to uphold what we stood for, will stand for, and will fight for.” The new flag, Groover said, will have “deep meaning in the hearts of all true Southerners.”
There’s history again, brought up to promote what became one of the state’s most divisive symbols.
The Atlanta Daily World, an African American newspaper, asked “what is meant … in the term ‘all good Southerners.’” There’s more than a bit of irony in Representative Ralston’s statement that it would be divisive to take control of Georgia’s history away from the state legislature.
And there’s more than a bit of frustration in the fact that we were able to rid ourselves of that offensive and divisive flag only by allowing the state to take away our control of every other “publicly owned monument, plaque, marker, or memorial which is dedicated to, honors, or recounts the military service of … the Confederate States of America.”
Our history is too important to be controlled by the state – whether it’s Donald Trump’s America or David Ralston’s Georgia.