With competing bills over Confederate monuments, Chickamauga lawmaker moves to punish vandals

Senate Rules Chairman Jeff Mullis takes to the well to defend the committee assignments Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019 in Atlanta. Female senators on both sides of the aisle blasted what they're calling sexism in committee assignments after Sen. Renee Unterman was moved from her powerful position as the chairwoman of the health committee to the lower-profile science and technology. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan touted the fact that four committees are chaired by women this year. Two women chaired committees last year. Unterman, and Democrats, are arguing that the move is cosmetic, since those committees see very few bills. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
photo A monument to the Confederate Soldiers of Walker County, Georgia stands in front of the Historic Chattooga Academy in LaFayette on August 17, 2017. The monument was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1909. Chattooga Academy served as Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg's headquarters from September 10-17, 1863. The pyramid build with cannonballs, in the background, is a National Park Service monument that marks the location of Bragg's headquarters before the Battle of Chickmauga.

As Georgia lawmakers continue to debate what to do with Confederate monuments, state Sen. Jeff Mullis has introduced a bill that increases the penalty for defacing those structures.

The bill would allow the state or local governments to fine a culprit the cost of repairing a monument, as well as any attorney fees required to bring a lawsuit against the vandal. The fine would apply to anyone who damages plaques, statues and flags that celebrate religious, political, cultural or military figures, including members of the Confederacy.

"We shouldn't try to eliminate history," said Mullis, R-Chickamauga. "If they want new monuments, they need to propose new monuments, not destroy old monuments. It's part of our state and what makes it great and the diversity we have. We should remember all parts of our history to help us continue to be a strong country."

Mullis' bill is not explicitly about Confederate monuments. But it does stand in contrast to a bill filed last week by state Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur, that would ban the use of public money or property to display Confederate monuments, except in museums.

Her bill does not apply to monuments on private property. It also would eliminate a state law that preserves the engravings of Confederate soldiers on Stone Mountain. Her bill does not call for the state to destroy those engravings.

"It's time for these symbols to come down," Shannon told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "This bill is simply about restoring the dignity of Georgia's black taxpayers. Outlawing using taxpayer money to commemorate Confederate culture means I don't have to pay to support recognized symbols of my own oppression."

State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, also has filed a bill aimed at Confederate monuments. Her bill would move control of these monuments from the state to local governments. The move would overturn a piece of 2001 legislation, which gave the state control.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Georgia has 114 Confederate monuments and statues on public property, the most in the country. This includes a monument to the Confederate Soldiers of Walker County in front of historic Chattooga Academy, dedicated in 1909. There is also a statue for Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in Dalton, dedicated in 1912.

Former Chickamauga City Manager John Culpepper said he approves of Mullis' bill because too many people vandalize these memorials. A Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia, was stained with red paint last week. Locally, somebody attacked a monument to a plantation owner 11 years ago.

In December 2007, someone pushed over a 15-foot-tall obelisk dedicated to James Gordon, breaking it into three pieces. Gordon bought about 2,500 acres in the 1833 Fractions Lottery, in which the state sold what was left of once-Cherokee land. Gordon opened a 500-acre plantation and owned about 25 slaves, Culpepper said. (He and his son-in-law also owned Lee & Gordon's mills, and the city now owns the Gordon-Lee Mansion.)

Culpepper does not believe the attack on Gordon's obelisk was motivated by his status as a slave owner. He said the vandals also tipped over unrelated tombstones that night. The police did not catch them.

"This madness has got to stop," Culpepper said. "This is not what America is about."

Todd Roeder, chief ranger of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, said Mullis' bill would not necessarily apply to vandals at the site of the Battle of Chickamauga. The park is federally owned, and federal laws already provide for fines or jail time for defacing monuments. At the same time, Roeder said, a federal prosecutor could use a state law if he or she wanted.

According to a 2014 Times Free Press story, the federal government spent about $145,000 over two years to clean up and preserve 212 monuments in the national park. People had stolen plaques, chiseled at statues and snapped off bayonets. But Roeder could not think of any recent attacks on the monuments. He said vandals are more active on Lookout Mountain, where they paint on Sunset Rock.

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.