Dalton residents and activists are calling for the removal or relocation of a statue of a Confederate general that has been downtown for more than a century, and the change has the support of several Dalton City Council members.
Hundreds of people marched Monday in Dalton as protests swept the nation and world following the death of George Floyd, an African American man killed under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Rashun Mack is a Dalton native and the Northwest Georgia leader for a new activist organization called the Southern Advocacy Group. Mack organized Dalton's first protest on June 1.
Mack said it was important for him to start the movement in his hometown because he knows there needs to be change.
"I've witnessed oppression in Whitfield County," Mack said. "There is a racial problem here whether people want to admit it or not."
Four other Dalton natives and residents - William "Drew" Greeson, 19, Eros Hernandez, 19, Nicholas Perez, 21 and Omar Rodriguez, 19 - were inspired by the city's first protest but didn't want it to be a one-and-done event.
"This is not a moment, it's a movement. We wanted to build off of the first protest," Greeson said. "We wanted to get together to talk about what changes we wanted to see."
The group came up with a substantial list of demands that included increasing funding for social service agencies and public education, diverting funds from jails to rehabilitation efforts, implementing the "8 Can't Wait" list of police reforms that has gained national traction since Floyd's death and most importantly terminating Whitfield County's relationship with federal immigration enforcement officers.
Another issue on the list was removing or relocating the statue of Confederate Gen. Joseph E. Johnston that is at the intersection of Hamilton and Crawford streets.
"The statue, even though it seems like it's the most controversial, is the least of our worries," Greeson said.
The standing of Confederate historical figures has arisen anew among the nationwide protests. Lawmakers in Tennessee just this week voted to keep Nathan Bedford Forrest Day, to honor a Confederate general and early Ku Klux Klan leader.
The statue in Dalton was first erected in 1912 and is still owned by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
During the Civil War, Johnston commanded Confederate troops at First Manassas, defended the Confederate capital of Richmond during the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 and participated in the Vicksburg and Atlanta Campaigns in 1863 and 1864.
Johnston and the Confederate Army fought in the areas around Dalton and eventually withdrew and retreated toward Atlanta. On Dec. 27, 1863, in Dalton, Johnston was appointed to command the Army of Tennessee by Confederate president Jefferson Davis.
Dalton City Council members Tyree Goodlett and Annalee Harlan attended the protest Monday to talk with the young men who had organized it.
Goodlett is the first African American council member ever elected in Dalton.
"Their eyes are open, and they are awake," Harlan said. "They are focused on the impact (these protests) have on Dalton. They see the statue as a symbol that is unwelcoming."
Council members Derek Waugh and Gary Crews said they would be more than open to hearing from activists who want the statue relocated.
"I see legitimate arguments on both sides of it," Waugh said.
"Perhaps it's time to place the statue and house it somewhere else so people can interpret and contextualize the history of it," Harlan said. "That's how people learn. I want to hear more."
Harlan, Waugh and Crews all said they want to hear more from both sides but emphasized the council has very little power to make a change.
A bill passed the Georgia legislature last year, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Mullis, that makes it more difficult to remove or relocate Confederate markers.
And any relocation or change to the Dalton statue would have to first be approved by the Daughters of the Confederacy.
There has been significant backlash both online and in person toward the young organizers.
A Facebook group called "DON'T LET JOE GO!" that was created in the last 24 hours already has over 5,000 members. One post in the group, made by someone identified as Gary Chapman, says "We will not allow this daca kid to move JOE!"
The organizers said the comment was directed at Rodriguez, who is not a beneficiary of the deferred action for childhood arrivals program, or DACA, which gives leniency to child immigrants brought to the U.S. by their parents without authorization.
"We're experiencing backlash from our demands and some of them have been extreme," Perez said. "We're worried about the safety of Omar. They're being openly racist on Facebook, and we want to make it clear that we don't condone any violence of any kind. There's no reason for that amount of hate."
Perez and Hernandez said they have experienced injustices that they are fighting against.
"People think we're naive, but we've grown up knowing people who have made change in their communities," Perez said.
"This is not a political problem, this is very clearly a human rights issue," Hernandez said.
The organizers said accusations that they are from out of town are also "completely false" and incite violence.
A petition to have the statue relocated has over 3,000 signatures.
A separate petition to keep the statue where it is also has 3,400 signatures as of Thursday morning.
Harlan said talk is underway between several entities about the next steps moving forward.
Contact Patrick Filbin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.