The Even Uglier Truth Behind Athens Confederate Monument

The Even Uglier Truth Behind Athens Confederate Monument

On Sunday, May 31, 2020 protestors gathered at a Black Lives Matter protest around the so-called Athens Monument, a monument to the Confederate dead that has been a flashpoint in Athens, Georgia for decades. The protest was organized by city commissioner Mariah Parker, and the protest included the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement, Athens for Everyone and other local organizations. Among the issues raised were continued police violence in the city. They pointed out that six people in Athens had been shot by police in 2019.

At around midnight that Sunday, shortly after National Guardsmen left the scene, the Athens city police used teargas to disperse the crowd, then fired rubber bullets at protesters who were standing near the canisters, allegedly to prevent them from throwing them back. Graffiti later scratched on the monument–including ACAB, short for All Cops Are Bastards–suggest that the monument was part of the problem.

What is this monument? Finished and dedicated in June of 1872, the Athens monument was one of the first monuments to the Confederate dead, but it was much more than that. Knowa Johnson of the Athens Anti Discrimination movement had asked me to attend a radio show in 2017 to discuss the monument. Doing my due diligence I read some background material about the monument. Then I read some more. Because the Athens Monument was not just a monument to the Confederate dead, it was also a monument to the Klan. It was commissioned during Congressional Reconstruction, when the South was divided into military districts. The US Congress required that African-Americans be allowed to vote in state elections, a move that former Confederates Benjamin Hill and Howell Cobb attacked.

In a series of public speeches in July of 1868 called the Bush arbor speeches, Benjamin Hill and Howell Cobb forcefully criticized the newly-written Georgia constitution which required that black people be allowed to vote. These fiery speeches used the language of blood and soil, much like those we heard in Charlottesville in 2017. Hill and Cobb argued that Georgia’s Assembly was a “band of foreigners” and that men should take up arms against black voters. More to the point, these Bush arbor speeches marked the first public appearance of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan. In Athens, Atlanta, and throughout the upcountry it led to secret orders being formed that harassed and intimidated black voters. Klansmen declared that they were the ghosts of the Confederate dead, who still wore the burial shrouds of fallen soldiers – that’s the reason for the white robes. The Klan said they were, quoting Hebrews 12:23, “the spirits of just men made perfect.” They killed Black politicians and scared away white ones. Klansmen argued that Black men and women would be so frightened to see these ghosts of the Confederacy that they would not push to either vote in elections or try to attend classes at the University of Georgia in Athens, which, according to contemporary newspaper reports, Black men and women apparently tried to do in the same year.[1]

In the same year, in 1868, Benjamin Hill, Howell Cobb, and Cobb’s sister Margaret Rutherford gathered to organize a memorial to the Confederate dead in downtown Athens. Margaret Rutherford became the front person for this effort through an organization she called the Ladies Memorial Association. The monument would use the same language as Cobb, Hill and other originators of the Klan in Georgia. One can read from the monument “these heroes, ours in the unity of blood…struggled for the rights of states.” On the other side it says “Bright angels come and guard our sleeping heroes.” Who were the angels come to guard these sleeping heroes?: The Klan, whose leaders Ben Hill and Howell Cobb were the principal supporters of the Athens monument.

Confederate Veteran Alexander S. Erwin made the connection between Klan and monument clear in a speech he gave when the monument was finished in July of 1872. He urged that his contemporaries should take the ghosts of the Confederacy seriously. “It is said by some that spirits of the dead come back to the earth” Erwin joked at the beginning of the dedication, and he was, he continued, “not prepared to deny” this. He made it clear that the monument had a political message against black voting, saying, “no defeat, no misfortune, no tyrant, no President, no Congress, no fanatical party, no mad majority…can ever dim the luster of their names.” Further he argued that the South would rise again “in spite of oppression the most tyrannical and malignant; in spite of robbery the most flagrant and atrocious…in spite of the treachery and betrayal of once trusted friends and cherished children” [a reference to the previously enslaved] “they [former slave masters] have exhibited a recuperative energy and power unparalleled in history…true to the memories of their dead heroes.”[2]

I learned all this in 2017 when Knowah Johnson asked me to talk about the history of the monument. He then asked me to tell the Athens city council about it, and I did so at the time allotted for public comment. Mostly the city council ignored me, as they did the many other citizens there who raised questions about the monument. Local newspapers covered the meeting however, and circulated some of the observations I and others made in 2017. Not much happened until students at UGA made a movie about the monument and asked me and others to describe the monument’s ugly place in the history of the city of Athens.[3]

The Athens monument, just like the Nazi monuments in Berlin that were taken down in the 1950s and the Soviet monuments in Eastern Europe taken down in the 2000s were supposedly monuments to the dead but were in fact monuments to politics, to who rules now and who must bow down before those in power. By July of 1872 white Athenians of the planter class had driven black voters away by fraud and intimidation. Reconstruction was over, the Klan was disbanded, the monument was up. And it has stayed up ever since.

By 1872, when the monument was finished, it was designed as a beacon to recognize the Confederacy but also a gathering post for Klansmen, the self-proclaimed angels and ghosts of the Confederacy, who had restored power to the planter class in Georgia. The second Klan, when it emerged in the 1920s, used this beacon as a gathering point before they went off to attack and murder black men and women. In the 1960s it was also a beacon and gathering point for attacks on black men and women who argued for voting rights and public accommodations and access to the University of Georgia campus.

The film that UGA students made did make a difference after the protests started. The city council (I have heard) watched the film shortly after the shooting event in Athens and decided to remove the monument to Oconee Cemetery, though a week after the protest it has yet to be moved.

Should the town’s monument to white supremacy remain in the city center or be moved to Oconee Cemetery where it will be safe from vandalism? Right now it stands as an insult to Athens’ real heroes, the Black and white men who fought for the Union against the rebellion to protect slavery, the Black men and women who tried to join the class of 1868 on the grounds of UGA, only to be driven away by police and dogs. The monument also insults the heroes, Black and white, men and women, who fought against the Klan as the Klan gathered under its shadow in the their first, second, and third incarnations. Perhaps now it can go away.

[1] Scott Reynolds Nelson, Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 1999).

[2] [Athens] Southern Banner, 14 June 1872.

[3] https://vimeo.com/345193995 Accessed 17 June 2020.

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