Georgia monuments protection bill sparks racial tension as it passes House, Senate

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)

As Georgia state Sen. Jeff Mullis' monuments protection bill cleared both chambers this week, a fight along racial lines erupted.

The legislation increases the punishment for vandalizing a monument, allowing the owner to sue for up to three times the cost of repairing the statue or marker. The bill applies to all monuments, not just those celebrating the Confederacy.

But the backdrop of the bill can be found in DeKalb County, where local lawmakers have pushed for years to remove an obelisk that celebrates Confederate soldiers as a "covenant-keeping race." Mullis' bill specifically prohibits moving monuments into museums, a solution that some Democrats have proposed as a potential compromise.

The bill passed the House on Thursday, 100-71. The Senate, which had previously passed the bill, adopted the House's version Friday, 33-17. The Southern Poverty Law Center and some branches of the NAACP condemned the legislation this week.

"This legislation is all about protecting, respecting and preserving the history of Georgia for future generations of citizens to learn from," Mullis said in a statement.

"We still don't want to pay for upkeep or anything about the Confederacy on public property," DeKalb County NAACP Branch President Teresa Hardy told the Times Free Press, in response. "I don't care what law you make. Just because you make a law doesn't mean it's right. If that were the case, we'd still be slaves."

During the House debate, some black leaders took exception to arguments by key Republicans. State Rep. Alan Powell, R-Hartwell, said there is "no greater hate crime" than destroying a monument. Powell voted against a hate crimes bill earlier this month, which would create enhanced penalties for attacks motivated by race, religion or sexual preference.

"I don't know of anything that is closer to being the genesis of hate crimes than for people to throw paint or to throw a rope around a monument to tear it down," he said. "If they're allowed to do that, what's the next step?"

State Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, defended the bill by arguing that residents should be tolerant of symbols celebrating all sides of an issue. To explain her point, she told the representatives she has a unique perspective because her family's black housekeeper helped raise her.

Cooper also argued that old symbols can teach history. She talked about visiting a cemetery that was once segregated and seeing, among a white family, a grave marker celebrating their black housekeeper.

"It's their special mammy that was dear to their family," Cooper said.

David Pilgrim, a sociology professor at Ferris State University, has written extensively on Jim Crow symbols. In one article, he wrote that the depiction of black female housekeepers as mammies "is the most well known and enduring racial caricature of African American women."

These women were often shown as obese and maternal, with wide grins and hearty laughs. They are depicted as loyal to their slave owners and, later, white bosses, Pilgrim wrote. The images' purpose was to show black workers as "contented, even happy" with white supremacy.

"Wow unbelievable," state Rep. Renitta Shannon, D-Decatur, tweeted during the debate. "Sharon Cooper is arguing in favor of #SB77 because if we don't keep up #confederate monuments we will forget our history. She also repeatedly talks about her experiences with her 'mammy' growing up, and says mammies were 'career women.'"

State Rep. Barry Fleming, R-Harlem, shared with the House an amendment he had considered proposing – though he didn't actually ask for a vote. The amendment would have required the state to put a placard at Stone Mountain, pointing out that Democrats supported slavery in the 1800s.

"I would remind you what Georgia was like when Democrats ran the state," he said. "We should keep those reminders around so we don't return to that."

Both parties have changed dramatically over 150-plus years, and black voters align much more strongly with the modern Democratic party. During the 2016 presidential primary, about 455,000 black voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates. About 22,000 voted for Republicans.

After Fleming left the well, state Rep. Vernon Jones made a statement from his seat.

"When the gentlemen mentioned earlier about, 'The Democrats were the ones who initiated the building of Stone Mountain' A lot of Republicans in this body right now are former Democrats themselves," said Jones, D-Lithonia.

"Is it not true that African Americans pay taxes?" state Rep. Donna McLeod, D-Lawrenceville, asked House Speaker David Ralston as a parliamentary question.

Mullis, R-Chickamauga, has previously told the Times Free Press he did not believe his bill was controversial. He pointed out that it specifically protects Civil Rights monuments. But at the same time, it ran in contradiction to other bills dealing with Confederate symbols this year.

Shannon presented a bill to ban all Confederate monuments on state property, which did not make it out of committee. State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, proposed a bill to give local governments say on whether they wanted to move a monument. Her bill also failed to reach her chamber's floor for a vote.

Many of the arguments Thursday centered on basic points along party lines. Republican leaders said monuments must remain in place to serve as a reminder of the state's history. Democrats countered that monuments were a celebration, not a history lesson.

"As other states move forward by actively removing Confederate symbols from public spaces, it is unacceptable that some lawmakers instead chose to promote divisiveness under the guise of 'preserving history,'" Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, said in a statement.

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