Georgia Today: Decatur Reconciles With Past As Confederate Monument Comes Down
The long fight to remove a Confederate monument in Decatur, Georgia, came to an end this month. The 30-foot-tall structure that stood in the city's square since 1908 was taken down. Meanwhile, there is a push to put up a marker near where the Confederate monument once stood. This marker would honor a long, overlooked piece of Civil Rights history
"The significance of seeing a marker coming up and then also a racist monument going down, it is a very important step to healing the wounds of what racism is in this country," Decatur High School student and activist Genesis Reddicks told GPB's Steve Fennessy.
In this episode of Georgia Today, decaturish.com editor Dan Whisenhunt walks through the Confederate monument's history, and he explains how efforts to take it down reached a boiling point after the death of George Floyd. The judge who ordered the monument removed replaced another judge who sent Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to prison in 1960 over a traffic stop. Decatur High School student and activist Genesis Reddicks takes us back to that period, and she discusses why she wants that moment memorialized near where the Confederate monument once stood.
Dan Whisenhunt: The monument being removed is a great symbolic victory, but that's - you know, it didn't end racism.
Genesis Reddicks: The significance of seeing a marker coming up and then also a racist monument going down, it is a very important step to healing the wounds of what racism is in this country.
Steve Fennessy: From GPB, this is Georgia Today. It's June 26, 2020. I'm Steve Fennessy. Across the South, communities are reckoning with the Confederate monuments in their backyards. As one monument in Decatur comes down, a marker honoring a long-overlooked piece of civil rights history prepares to go up.
This week, we hear from Decaturish founder and editor Dan Whisenhunt and local activist and rising Decatur High School student Genesis Reddicks. Dan started by telling me how the Confederate monument came to be in the first place.
Whisenhunt: But the monument itself was not erected until 1908 And it was two years after the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906, where white citizens killed dozens of Black citizens. And the estimates of that are - was maybe as high as 100 dead and they injured many more.
And, the obelisk was supposed to be dedicated in 1907. But during the inscription at the Butler Marble and Granite Company in Marietta, a cable snapped and the statue shattered. So it added a couple of extra months at the time.
Fennessy: So they built it and then they broke it.
Whisenhunt: Yeah, they built it and broke it, which is kind of a preview of what ultimately happened to it. The monument, was 30 feet tall and was sponsored by the Agnes Leigh chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who raised about $2,000 from local donors. And in early March of 1908, the Atlanta papers were heralding the arrival of this new memorial.
Fennessy: Who are some of the people involved in this committee to build it?
Whisenhunt: Confederate Gen. Clement A. Evans said.
Fennessy: Oh, so there was - there was a general who is still alive 40 years after?
Whisenhunt: Who was (unintelligible) arguing him up on behalf of the South's veterans had three or four other monument dedications to attend around the state as well. It was kind of a trend - The Lost Cause, sort of trend, which coincided with oppressing and suppressing Black people.
Fennessy: So that monument, you know, was there for over 100 years in the middle of Decatur Square. Genesis, I was - I'm curious what your memories or impressions of that thing being a Decatur resident are.
Reddicks: I mean, I just looked at it as just a regular statue. It wasn't until my freshman year, what - that was when I learned that it was actually a Confederate monument and it was pretty racist.
At that point, I realized it was a big slap in the face, especially because - as a Black student that attends Decatur - I was, I was kind of disappointed that we want to create this place where we're known, we're known for being loving and accepting and having a lot of diversity. But then we have this monument that's just disrespecting every Black person that walks by it, you know.
I realize that Decatur wasn't this, you know, bubble that was so amazing and nice and was always diverse - like there was always diversity, but that there was a racist past and there is still racism present, obviously. And I had to come to learn that, you know, we shouldn't be able to accept that in our community.
Fennessy: Let's talk about that racist past a bit.
Fennessy: 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr is driving a woman home that he and his wife had hosted for dinner.
Reddicks: I believe her name was Lillian Smith. She's an author. She wrote "Strange Fruit." And he was driving her to her - to Emory Hospital for her cancer treatment.
Fennessy: And this is in 1960.
Reddicks: And this was in DeKalb County, was outside of Decatur. But he was pulled over. And officially, the reason why he was pulled over and ultimately arrested was because of, he had expired Georgia identification. At the time he was moving from - he was moving back from Alabama to, back to Georgia. And he showed up before court in which he was given probation. And that meant he couldn't violate any laws or he would get prison time.
And yeah, but obviously, this was a huge problem for King, obviously. Because - I mean, one of his main form of activism was civil disobedience. And so he would be breaking laws.
Around that same time, the Atlanta Student Movement, which had just begun to, like, form - the Atlanta Student Movement, was actively organizing sit-ins and other demonstrations in order to combat racism in their communities in Atlanta.
Several months after he was pulled over, King was actually - he had participated at a sit-in at Rich's. It was a department store in Atlanta. Obviously, the sit-in resulted in all of the participants being arrested, including King.
King spoke with WSB-TV about, after his arrest. He commented on desegregation in Atlanta.
Martin Luther King: And we feel that if, if the progress is to be meaningful progress, it must include the Deep South, including Atlanta. And I'm sure that with the reasonable climate in Atlanta, it is possible to desegregate lunch counters without any real difficulty. And the transition could be a very smooth one.
Reddicks: So while dozens of protesters were actually released, Judge Oscar Mitchell - Judge Mitchell had ordered came to remain in jail.
Fennessy: Judge Oscar Mitchell was the DeKalb judge who initially had fined Dr. King $25 for having that expired tag. What more can you tell us about him?
Reddicks: So Judge Oscar Mitchell was the standing judge for the DeKalb.
Clarence Seeliger: He was a racist, first of all. And he didn't mind saying so.
Fennessy: That's Clarence Seeliger, the judge who ultimately unseated Judge Mitchell back in 1980. Genesis, Seeliger was interviewed by your classmates during your research on King's arrest. What did he have to say?
Reddicks: So judge Clarence Seeliger was interviewed by one of our team members, Holly Gordon, who is a Decatur student, and Judge Seeliger didn't mince his words when describing his predecessor, Oscar Mitchell.
Seeliger: But if they didn't have an attorney, he could be very abusive toward African Americans who appeared in this court. And the kinds of cases he would receive would be things like driving under the influence, simple battery, simple assault, maybe small cases of theft - that kind of thing. They're all misdemeanors. Maximum penalty he could render would be a year in jail, or 12 months in jail, or a thousand dollar fine. And that's the kind of cases he had. He was an absolute dictator in the courtroom.
Fennessy: OK, so Dr. King is now before Judge Mitchell for violating the probation from the traffic infraction.
Reddicks: When King had appeared before him - having broken his probation - we have a first account story from Charles Black. Charles Black co-founded the Atlanta Student Movement, while a student at - while being a student at Morehouse College. He actually knew Dr. King and was in the courtroom in Decatur when he was sentenced.
Charles Black: When he violated his parole, he was immediately sent, in the dead of night, to Reidsville Prison, in the back of a paddy wagon with a loose German Shepherd dog in there. And King was said - according to saying later that was the most afraid he had ever been. So he got locked up. This was in the midst of a presidential election campaign. Kennedy and Nixon.
John Kennedy: I do not run for the office of the president saying that, if I'm elected, life will be easy. I think, to be an American citizen in the 1960s, will be a difficult and hazardous occupation.
Reddicks: The Kennedys had to decided that they were going to intervene and call the governor to negotiate the release of King.
Fennessy: So Genesis, when the Kennedys intervened, King was released from prison after having spent just about a day there.
Reddicks: Here's Dr. King speaking on October 1960 with WSB TV shortly after his release.
King: Well, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Sen. Kennedy and his family for this. I don't know the details of it, but naturally, I'm very happy to know of Sen. Kennedy's concern and all that he did to make this possible. I might say that there are no political implications here. I'm sure that the senator did it because of his real concern and his humanitarian bent.
Reddicks: Then after the Kennedys have negotiated to release King from prison, King decided that he was going to put his support with Kennedy, which ultimately shifted the Black vote towards the Democrat.
Fennessy: That endorsement was huge.
Fennessy: That the election of 1960, Kennedy versus Nixon was insanely close.
Fennessy: And every vote really mattered.
Fennessy: So the fact that Dr. King was now endorsing basically John F. Kennedy - it since, it sounds like, as a, as a - somewhat as a result of his intervention in and keeping him out of jail help swing the election in some way.
Reddicks: Yeah, well, we definitely believe that was the reason that King decided that he was going to support the Kennedys at the time.
Fennessy: So fast forward 20 years. It's 1980. George Mitchell is now unseated by Clarence Seeliger, who's still on the bench today. So, Genesis, tell us why Judge Seeliger is so important in this story.
Reddicks: So Judge Seeliger is the current judge of the DeKalb County, I would say. And he actually unseated Judge Oscar Mitchell.
Fennessy: Judge Oscar Mitchell, the one who sentenced Dr. King.
Reddicks: Right, and...
Fennessy: Back in 1960.
Reddicks: Yes and was the racist. And Seeliger brought major change. Like he was like the direct opponent of Mitchell. He made sure to completely reform the court systems. He had integrated the court system. He remove the Confederate flag from the courtroom.
Fennessy: Wait, there was a Confederate flag in the courtroom?
Reddicks: Yes. Judge Seeliger told one of my classmates, while interviewing him, that Oscar Mitchell had a Confederate flag in his courtroom.
Seeliger: Judge Mitchell used to have the flag and he'd keep it in his own courtroom. But on days - I understand when the days of Robbert E. Lee's birthday or the Confederate Memorial Day, he would draped the flag over the entrance to his courtroom, kind of like that - over it. And that's how he used the flag.
Reddicks: Seeliger was like, absolutely not. We're taking that out.
Seeliger: And I made the statement to, and in the courtroom said "the Confederate flag used to be a flag of honor, but now it represents an attitude toward race and therefore should never be in any courtroom. I'll ask my bailiff to remove it." And so the bailiff, who is the first African-American employee of the state court, picked up the flag and took it out of the courtroom. And we went on with it.
Reddicks: Even now, he's still continuing to fight the good fight and making sure that there's no bias in the systems, especially when it comes to Black Americans and the issues that affect us.
Fennessy: Just ahead, how the city of Decatur finally reconciled with its past. This is Georgia Today.
This is Georgia today. We're hearing from Dan Whisenhunt, founder and editor of Decaturish.com, an online news outlet covering the city of Decatur and Genesis Reddicks, a rising-senior at Decatur High School.
Dan, for years, municipalities like the city of Decatur have been hamstrung, trying to get rid of Confederate monuments.
We have the George Floyd protests several weeks ago.
Protesters: Say his name. George Floyd. Say his name. George Floyd. Say his name. George Floyd.
Fennessy: Monuments across the South are becoming more and more a flashpoint, and attention - more and more attention is being paid to them. What was going on in the city of Decatur and in DeKalb County in terms of, you know, what are we gonna do about this?
Whisenhunt: Well, I think it was generally true nationally that these protests happened. You know, there weren't a whole lot of organized ones at first. The Beacon Hill Black Alliance had planned one for one Sunday, but that also happened right around the time there were some pretty unruly protests in Atlanta and there were confrontations between the cops and protesters.
And at the time, the Beacon Hill Black Alliance is led by civil rights attorney Mawuli Davis, opted to postpone that because he was worried about people showing up to incite violence. A few days later, Mawuli Davis and his group held one on the square.
And I actually - I actually took my son to that one, I wanted him to see it. He's five year old.
Activist: Brothers, sister, allies, thank you for coming today to show that in Decatur, in Atlanta, Black Lives Matter. Thank you all.
Fennessy: Were they calling for the removal of the monument?
Whisenhunt: Yes, thats...
Fennessy: Was that one of demand?
Whisenhunt: Yes, that never stopped. You know, I mean, that that's been going on for three years. It just was at a low simmer and it kind of cracked it up to a boil when the George Floyd killing happened and the protests happen.
Fennessy: And you wrote an editorial about the monument, what did it say?
Whisenhunt: Something to the effect of, "please get this piece of crap out of the square. It's a danger. It's dangerous to their citizens because somebody is going to try to remove it one day and they're going to hurt themselves." And, you know, my other point was, "If the state wants to fight this battle right now, let them." I mean, it's a ridiculously unpopular position to take.
Fennessy: Dan, in the city of Decatur's effort to remove the Confederate monument from the center of town, city attorney Bryan Downs came up with a kind of novel approach to getting rid of it - not through the legislature, but rather through the courts.
Whisenhunt: So under state law, it's my understanding that a nuisance complaint can be taken up without official sanction by the city commission. And that's key because if the city commission had held a vote and said, "we're going to order you to remove this monument," you know, it would of given people who might have opposed it a heads up that they were doing it.
And normally, I'm not in favor of government being sneaky, but in this case, I'll let that slide.
Whisenhunt: Because they did it for the right reason.
Fennessy: So they when they were circumventing what we would normally think would be the protocol, which is have a public debate.
Whisenhunt: Well, I would say they were circumventing it. They were just using the law to their advantage.
Fennessy: Ok. Fair.
Whisenhunt: There was no requirement for them to go to the city commission.
Whisenhunt: Now, the city commission was all for it. You know, they were definitely supportive of it. But I think the city preferred to handle - I mean, hell, I didn't even know about what Bryan had done until the judge, Seeliger, issued the order to remove it. You know, that was the first I'd heard of it. And normally I'm the one getting calls about that sort of thing.
Fennessy: So Bryan Downs - Bryan Downs is city attorney - files this motion in DeKalb County Superior Court on June 10. And it ends up in the court of Judge Clarence Seeliger.
Reporter: Judge Clarence Seeliger says the years long controversy over this Lost Cause monument in Decatur has made it a lightning rod, a public safety catastrophe waiting to happen. So he ordered it removed and put into storage by June 26. But other Civil War's...
Fennessy: Well, walk me through this. How did you find out when the monument was actually coming down? Because it kind of happened under cover of darkness, right?
Whisenhunt: I saw chatter about it on the Facebooks. And I called my intern, Alex Brown. And Alex rode to the square within seconds on a flat tire on her bicycle.
Alex Brown: They have crane loops around the belts that they tied to the monument. And, honestly, I think it this is about to be it.
Whisenhunt: We were there to watch it go down.
Fennessy: Was there anyone protesting its removal?
Whisenhunt: Nope. No appetite for that anymore.
Fennessy: Well, now you say that - you say that, but, you know, there's - in the days leading up to it, someone filmed someone taking down all of the signs that were surrounding the monument.
Protester: There's no law against me taking this off. It's a state monument. You cannot deface a state monument, that's state law.
Whisenhunt: People are cowards. That's - that's their fundamental nature. That's what animates them. They - you don't see these counter protesters showing up in force because they're fundamentally cowards and they're only going to show up when there's nobody there to oppose them.
Fennessy: Genesis. How did you feel about the monument coming down?
Reddicks: Well, for me, I was like "finally." Like, I'm just happy that we're at this point where they're actually listening to us, we're no longer tolerating monuments of hatred - because that's what they are. And so, to see it go down, I felt was actually a good step in a good direction. It was something that actually would represent what Decatur wants to stand for. And so, yeah, definitely was very monumental to see.
Fennessy: So Genesis, we talked earlier about the 1960 arrest of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Decatur. In the days leading up to the Confederate monument coming down this month, you made your case before the Decatur City Commission about the need for a marker - not far from where the monument stood - to tell the story of King's arrest.
Councilperson: And we have a representative of the Commemorating King Group today, Genesis Reddicks. Welcome to the meeting.
Reddicks, at meeting: Hello. Well, thank you so much. I would like to just thank the city commission for allowing me to have this time to share the work of so many students to, for this project. So I'm going to share my screen.
Reddicks: Basically, we were asking for Decatur to sign their support - sign on their support for the, for the marker to be placed at the corner of McDonough and Trinity, which is actually just across the street from City Hall. And we needed to match a total of $2500 and pledge that we were going to maintain the marker so that the Georgia Historical Society could see that the city's backing it, that activist groups are back, backing it - and obviously, the students who worked on the whole project are also backing it. And so, yeah, basically we were, we're looking for their support.
Patti Garrett: This is the resolution and supporting application to the Georgia Historical Society for a historical marker commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Fennessy: During the commission meeting, Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett read the resolution out loud.
Garrett: And whereas the Commemorating King team has researched and documented the events surrounding a traffic citation issued to Dr. King in DeKalb County and his subsequent detention...
Reddicks: And we were looking for them to authorize a place for it and say that we want this marker.
Reddicks: We're going to handle it and manage it. And we're welcome to it basically.
Reddicks: I feel like that was good enough for us and good enough for the Georgia Historical Society to see.
Fennessy: So the commission agreed?
Reddicks: Yes, they were completely on board. It was completely unanimous.
Councilperson: Tony Powers, votes I.
Chair: And the chair votes I, and the resolution is adopted. Thank you.
Fennessy: When are we going to see a marker?
Reddicks: So we want to see it come up in the fall of 2021. That's the goal. Right now, it's being processed by the Georgia Historical Society. We had just sent in all of our sponsor's signatures and their pledge to say that they will fund and manage it.
Fennessy: So that amount, I find interesting. $2500. Right. Dan, wasn't the - wasn't the amount, one of the amounts that went into the construction of the Confederate monument in Decatur Square $2000 dollars or something.
Whisenhunt: Yeah, I think that's right. Which I mean, in 1908 was - that was a lot of money.
Fennessy: Right. Yeah.
Reddicks: I spoke with civil rights activist Dr. Roslyn Pope, as the co-founder of the Atlanta Student Movement and also one of the writers of "An Appeal for Human Rights." It was very important that we got her opinion on the marker coming up. She said that she supported the idea of the marker when King was given that traffic ticket and ultimately arrested and sentenced.
Roslyn Pope: The recognition of something momentous that happened right here should inspire people to say, "Well, we don't want this anymore. We don't want this to happen again." You know, I think that would be an excellent, excellent move to make. Yeah.
Reddicks: She also kind of coined in, talking to me directly about how, as young people, it's important that we involve ourselves in activism and fighting for what's right.
Pope: We need the young people to back us up. Where - you know, we're getting on.
Reddicks: And she said it's always going to be young people who are pushing them, the movement forward.
Pope: We can't just rest on our laurels and say, "well, you know, look, they did this for that and the other." There's so much still to be done. I'm glad that you're one of those.
Reddicks: Thank you so much. That means a lot.
Fennessy: So, Genesis, I see that your dad is in the control room. Why don't we bring him in here and see what he thinks about all the work you've been doing? Yeah. What's it what's your name, sir?
Otis Reddicks: Otis Reddicks.
Fennessy: Otis. Hi. I'm Steve. Thanks for coming in. There's some headphones there. Opps.
Otis Reddicks: OK.
Fennessy: I'm curious to hear from both of you about what it means to have a marker that's going to go up, you know, not long after this monument to the Confederacy has come down. What does that say about where you live in the time in which you're living?
Otis Reddicks: To be honest, I'm, I'm happy because, you know, over the years, Black people have been fighting, you know, fighting for equality. And there's a lot of symbolism, a lot of things around, you know, like the Confederate flags and different monument, that it, it affected us. You know, and we have to - just like you go to certain school and they have certain name, a Confederate generals, and you are forced to go there - so I'm just happy that she's involved, happy to see change is coming in and hope, you know, it's just one step in a long journey.
Otis Reddicks: But I'm just happy about it. I'm happy that she decided to do this. You know, there's something that we have always concerned about, just the opportunities for Black folks and, you know, just racism - and just a better world. I just think it's the right step. I think it's getting better. We have a long way to go. But this...
Fennessy: And how long have you lived in Decatur?
Otis Reddicks: Well, I've been there for, how long now? I'm - you could tell originally, I'm not from here. I'm from Jamaica. But I've been there, what, about 20 years.
Otis Reddicks: About 20 years.
Fennessy: Is it different now than what it was?
Otis Reddicks: I think, I think improvement is coming along. I mean, with all the events that going on now, I think there are things are raising that have always been there. But people are seeing them now. But I still do have to say it's a lot of improvement.
Fennessy: Mm hmm. Genesis, anything you want to add?
Reddicks: I think the significance of seeing a marker coming up and then also a racist monument going down kind of is just so significant to our times. I'm hoping that this will show up in history books or be a lesson taught at least in the Decatur community. And I think, like my dad said, it is a very important step to healing the wounds of what racism is in this country. We need more things to go.
Fennessy: We've got a long way to go.
Reddicks: We have a long way to go.
Fennessy: My thanks to Genesis Reddicks, a rising-senior to Decatur High School and her dad, Otis, and Dan Whisenhunt, founder and editor of Decaturish.com. Across the South, Confederate monuments are starting to come down. But in response, President Donald Trump has promised to issue an executive order that would protect them from destruction and dismantling.
For more on the debate over Confederate monuments, go to GPBnews.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. This is Georgia Today. A production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Our producer is Sean Powers. See you next time.
Transcript by Eva Rothenberg