As slavery apology simmers, bill touts Confederate history

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 03/15/07

A week after civil rights groups called on the General Assembly and Gov. Sonny
Perdue to apologize for slavery, a key Senate committee will consider a bill today
that would designate April as Confederate History and Heritage Month.

Sen. Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) is the main sponsor of Senate Bill 283, which
would encourage Georgians each April to honor the Confederacy, its history,
soldiers and the people who "contributed to the cause of Southern Independence."

The bill also encourages the Georgia Civil War Commission to develop a curriculum
to teach Georgia’s Confederate history in elementary and high schools, as well
as colleges and universities. It is scheduled for a hearing today.

"It’s only appropriate that we pay tribute to this important part of American
history and our state’s history," said Mullis, whose hometown was the site
of a major Civil War battle in 1863.

The effort doesn’t sit well with lawmakers who view that chapter of Southern
history as a dark one, tainted by slavery.

Sen. Kasim Reed (D-Atlanta), an African-American, said the timing of the proposal
is particularly flawed.

"I think that in light of the conversation we’ve been having about Georgia
accepting responsibility for its history as it relates to slavery, this is not
appropriate," Reed said. "If we’re not going to address that issue
in a candid way, I find it inappropriate to be passing a measure such as this."

Reed also said he is also disappointed that lawmakers have not yet approved
a proposal to hang a portrait of civil rights figure Coretta Scott King in the
state Capitol.

Edward DuBose, the state president of the NAACP, declined to comment about
Mullis’s bill Wednesday.

Rep. Al Williams (D-Midway) has said he plans to file a resolution on Monday
calling for the state to recognize the history of slavery in the state and for
reconciliation among Georgians.

The idea has gotten a cool reception from several Republican leaders of the
GOP-controlled Legislature, who questioned why they should apologize for something
they were not involved in.

The prospects for Mullis’ bill aren’t clear. Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who is president
of the Senate, said through a spokeswoman Wednesday that he had not yet read
it. House Speaker Glenn Richardson (R-Hiram) also said he had not yet seen the
bill, but added, "I believe we should study all of Georgia’s history."

Confederate History and Heritage Month is not a new idea. The state already
recognizes April 26 as Confederate Memorial Day, and each year, Georgia’s governor
can — and usually does — proclaim April as Confederate History month.
SB 283 would designate April as Confederate History and Heritage Month permanently.
Several other Southern states, such as Texas and Virginia, recognize April as
Confederate History Month in some manner.

Many Georgians feel passionately about their Confederate heritage. Supporters
of the 1956 state flag with its prominent Confederate emblem helped Gov. Sonny
Perdue defeat former Gov. Roy Barnes in 2002 and become the state’s first Republican
governor in 130 years.

Perdue later angered the "flaggers" when he signed off on a state
flag referendum that did not include the Confederate emblem.

Supporters of Mullis’ bill say it would help boost tourism. Rusty Henderson,
a Georgia Civil War Commission member, said Georgia has more Civil War sites
than any state after Virginia.

Many of the war’s famous battles were fought on Georgia soil, including Chickamauga,
Kennesaw Mountain and Atlanta. A large swath of the state was ravaged during
Gen. William T. Sherman’s march to the sea.

Henderson said the commission and the state Department of Economic Development
already are working on tourism marketing ideas to celebrate the 150th anniversary
of the Civil War in 2011 and plan to include Confederate, African-American and
American Indian history and places of interest.

John Culpepper, chairman of the Georgia Civil War Commission, said heritage
is important to many Georgians.

"When you talk about our Confederate veterans, you’re talking about our
great-great grandfathers, our grand-uncles and cousins," Culpepper said.
"They need to be honored for their service to the state of Georgia."

Gordon Jones, a military historian at the Atlanta History Center, said that
views of the Confederacy and the Civil War have changed over the years but continue
to touch a nerve.

In the past, the mainstream Southern view held that the Civil War was a noble
fight against the federal government. That perspective shifted as more historians
began to embrace an "emancipationist" view that the Civil War was
about freedom.

"The emergence of this emancipationist view has left the old Lost Cause
guys feeling like they are the minority, much like African-Americans probably
felt 80 years ago," Jones said.

"They have addressed this thing as being a persecuted minority: ‘We can’t
have our symbols anymore, they’re killing off our culture.’ It’s kind of a question
not of who is right and wrong, but who is dominant."

He summed up: "The bottom line on all of this is whoever owns the past
also owns the present."

© 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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