After a well-attended meeting at the library last week, a group that’s been discussing what to do with Athens’ Confederate memorial in the wake of the violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, VA has reached a consensus: Move it to Oconee Hill Cemetery. Whether that’s possible remains to be seen.
About a dozen members of the Athens Anti-Discrimination movement came to the Athens-Clarke County Commission meeting Oct. 3 to lobby for moving the Broad Street memorial. “The obelisk honors the dead for dying, therefore a more suitable place would be the cemetery where they rest, not on a park in a middle of the street making a statement not shared by the majority of citizens,” co-founder Knowa Johnson said.
While some people view the monument as a rather innocuous tribute to the Confederate dead, University of Georgia history professor Scott Nelson tied it to the Lost Cause and the Ku Klux Klan. The monument was finished in 1872; four years earlier, Athens politicians Benjamin Hill and Howell Cobb gave a series of speeches attacking African Americans’ newly won right to vote. Those speeches led to the formation of the KKK in Georgia to intimidate African Americans and their white allies. The language on the monument—spearheaded by Cobb’s sister, Laura Cobb Rutherford—is similar to Cobb and Hill’s talk of “blood” and “angels,” and it served as a rallying point for all three iterations of the KKK, according to Nelson. Rutherford’s daughter, Mildred “Miss Millie” Rutherford, would go on to become a prominent educator, running the Lucy Cobb Institute (in the building that now houses UGA’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government), and perhaps Georgia’s foremost defender of the Lost Cause mythology. As Russell Edwards later pointed out, the median where the monument now sits—it’s been moved at least twice before—is called Rutherford Park, and the Klan burned crosses there as late as the 1950s.
Longtime civil rights leader Charlie Maddox urged caution, though. “I marched on one side of that monument [in the 1960s] and the Klan marched on the other side, and that statue didn’t bother us,” he said.
While the historical record regarding the monument’s relationship to white supremacy is becoming more and more clear, Johnson also made a public safety argument in favor of moving it—truck drivers often swing wide to avoid it, endangering other drivers and pedestrians. There’s a preservation argument, too: Road vibrations have damaged it over the years, requiring repairs in 2014.
Those could be exceptions to a state law prohibiting the alteration or removal of a monument on state property, such as Highway 78, aka Broad Street. County Attorney Bill Berryman is already looking into the issue, according to Commissioner Melissa Link. And Commissioner Harry Sims said he will ask Athens’ state legislators to enact “whatever type of legislation we might need to remove the Confederate monument.”
Regardless, for the city to move the monument to Oconee Hill Cemetery, the gravesite’s board of trustees would have to agree to accept it, according to Berryman.
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