In a brief statement, Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, said he has pulled his name from three pieces of controversial legislation after his comments about slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and the Civil War drew national attention.
At the same time, Benton did not apologize or retract his statements and he will apparently retain his chairmanship of the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging.
“It was not my intention to create a situation whereby my comments would create a negative perception,” Benton said in a brief statement issued Monday afternoon. “Therefore, today I am withdrawing my sponsorship of HB 854, HB 855 and HR 1179 to allow the business of the House to move forward in an orderly manner.”
House Speaker David Ralston, who had been called upon to remove Benton’s chairmanship, issued a simultaneous statement rebuking Benton for his remarks but allowing the five-term Republican to retain his committee position.
“I condemn commentary that would seek to reverse the progress that we have made in the last century and a half,” Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, said. “While we are mindful of our history, the business of the General Assembly isn’t in rewriting or reinterpreting the past, but rather to focus on improving Georgia’s future.”
Benton introduced the bills last week. House Bill 855 would force the state to formally recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday as public holidays. House Resolution 1179 calls for a constitutional amendment protecting Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial.
Both of those bills have co-sponsors, but a House staffer said those members intended to pull their names from the measures, effectively killing them. House Ethics Chairman Joe Wilkinson, R-Sandy Springs, asked his name to be removed from the last week following Benton’s remarks.
House Bill 854 would require street names changed since 1968 to revert back to their former names if their prior name had honored a veteran. Although the bill does not mention Martin Luther King, the civil right leader was assassinated in 1968 and the bill would rename a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlanta Gordon Road, in honor of Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Georgia Klan.
That bill has no co-sponsor, so Benton’s action is all that is needed to kill it.
In speaking to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week about the bills, Benton called attempts to bring down or alter Confederate memorials “cultural terrorism” and said the Ku Klux Klan “made a lot of people straighten up.”
The Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”