The Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up,” Georgia State Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) said last week in an interview with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Further, the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” according to Benton.
Benton, who is also a strong supporter of Confederate flags, holidays and heritage, said that while he does not necessarily agree with the ways the KKK carried out its beliefs, “It’s just the way things were.”
But to describe the Klan’s vigilantism as “just the way things were” is, to say the least, putting it lightly when looking back at what the Klan did to help “people straighten up” as Benton so eloquently stated.
The KKK is described as “the most infamous — and oldest — of American hate groups” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). And the group’s activities far surpassed those of enforcing law and order: “Lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes and other violent attacks on those challenging white supremacy became a hallmark of the Klan,” the SPLC describes.
In addition to defending the KKK, Benton also lends his support to various Confederate issues. He spoke out against Senate Bill 294, which was co-sponsored by Rep. Vincent Fort (D-Atlanta) and “prohibit[s] the recognition of public and legal holidays honoring, recognizing, observing, or celebrating the Confederate States of America, its history, or the military or political leaders thereof the Civil War.”
Benton said that Fort’s bill is “no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments.”
Fort said Benton’s comparison between his bill and the activities of ISIS is “beneath a response from me” and that his language “does not allow for anything approaching a debate.”
Debates surrounding various Confederate symbols and heritage and their place in America came to light this past June following the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., where nine Black parishioners were murdered. Pictures later surfaced of the killer, Dylann Roof (who admitted he wanted to start a “race war”), posing with Confederate flags and memorabilia. The shooting and subsequent discovery of this information led to the removal of the Confederate flags from the state Capitol grounds in both Alabama and South Carolina.
Retail companies also jumped on board, with Walmart (one of DiversityInc’s 25 Noteworthy Companies), Sears, eBay and Amazon all banning Confederate-themed merchandise from their stores.
In response to Fort’s bill Benton co-sponsored two bills of his own — one of them being House Bill 1179, which reads: “The State of Georgia shall preserve the natural areas situated within the Stone Mountain Park area, shall provide access to Stone Mountain for Georgia’s citizens, and shall maintain an appropriate and suitable memorial for the Confederacy at and on Stone Mountain.” Stone Mountain depicts various Confederate leaders, including Lee, and is also the site where the KKK commemorated its 1915 rebirth.
Benton also co-sponsored House Bill 855, which seeks to formally recognize General Robert E. Lee’s birthday and Confederate Memorial Day as holidays in Georgia. Last year, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed a deal to “remove” these two holidays from Georgia’s state calendar in 2016. But the dates the holidays were observed on were each reflected as a “state holiday,” and both the state Capitol and government offices will be closed on these days.
The agreement didn’t impress Fort, who said at the time, “With a wink and a nod they are saying ‘we are removing the name but you know it’s a day that we can celebrate people who supported treason and slavery.'”
In Fort’s opinion, the formal recognition of people who fought in defense of slavery, which Fort called “a crime against humanity,” isn’t appropriate on the state level.
“If someone wants to privately honor the Confederacy with their own memorial or flags, that’s fine,” he said. “But I don’t believe taxpayer funds should be used to commemorate people who stole the freedom of other human beings.”