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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