Catalyzed by a Photographer’s Op-Ed, MLK Statue for Gold Dome Nears Final Approval (UPDATE 1)
By Arit Essien, Special to The Atlanta Progressive News. Photograph courtesy of Sekondi Landry.
(APN ATLANTA — In a move that will bring the State of Georgia closer to honoring the late civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. only steps from his birth home, members of the Georgia Senate voted Wednesday, March 12, 2014, to approve an amended version of HB 1080, which proposes to erect a statue of King on the grounds of the Capitol.
HB 1080 provides authorization for a statue of King to be erected in a “prominent place” on the Capitol grounds, to be financed through private funds–with added amendment that the King family estate will be consulted prior to enacting any plans.
HB 1080 does not include specifics on the exact process for the statue; however, private funds may be raised through the State’s Capitol Arts Standards Commission, or by private donors and corporations.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta) pre-filed the bill in December 2013, months following an order from Gov. Nathan Deal to immediately relocate a racially divisive statue of the late U.S. Sen. Tom Watson statue from the Capitol grounds for “big renovations.” For decades, the statue of Watson, dubbed as a “First-Class Hater,” stood as a much-despised reminder of Watson’s championing open hatred of Black and Jews and advocacy of lynching.
While renovations have not commenced to date–reinforcing many speculations that mounting pressure actually fueled the decision–the removal paved the way for beginning dialog on a more suitable structure to fill Watson’s vacated space.
Joeff Davis, a photographer from Creative Loafing Atlanta magazine, was among petitioners for removal of the “White supremacist statue.”
In March 2013, Davis authored an Op-Ed lamenting how he first learned of the extreme racist nature of the Watson structure after attending a press conference with Rep. Brooks (tinyurl.com/q39b9ek).
His ensuing outrage and concern for the world that which his infant daughter would be raised in, compelled him in the Fall of 2012 to initiate a petition to Georgia State Legislature for its removal (http://thomaswatsonmustgo.org/).
“I wouldn’t want my daughter to research on her i-Phone and find out the guy was like a total racist,” Davis recalled, in an interview with Atlanta Progressive News.
Davis’s petition garnered 986 supporters. He credits the ultimate success of removing the Watson statue to the opportunity of it being the right time for the Legislature to do so.
Southern Christian Leadership Conference DeKalb County Chapter President Nathan Knight also entered the battle for removing Watson with concerns over its impact on children.
“I became so impassioned when my 13-year-old grandson, Sekondi Landry… asked me who Thomas Watson was. I had to explain that he was one of the most racist orators in Georgia history and that he did not belong at the Capitol,” Knight told APN.
“Ku Klux Klan from all over the country assembled at the State Capitol last year and stood right at that monument; and I think that was the most hated thing I have seen in Atlanta,” Knight said. “Removing the Confederate flag was the first great thing Georgia did; a statue of Dr. King will be the second.”
Brooks said his decision to sponsor the proposal was formed from weighing in on the proper structure to fill Watson’s space; from a synthesis of support from local leaders and overwhelming public approval; and long-standing advice from the Rev. Hosea Williams, who told him several times that it needed to be done.
“This will be the greatest honor given to Dr. King since Reagan signed the Martin Luther King Holiday into law in 1983,” Rep. Brooks told APN.
In January, the bill gained the endorsement of Gov. Deal during the annual King Holiday program at Ebenezer Baptist Church; and majority bipartisan support from the Legislature in months following.
Days after Deal’s endorsement, the SCLC convened a press conference, with local civil rights leaders including the Rev. Joseph Lowery speaking in adamant support of the measure.
According to Brooks, recommendations were made to issue slight amendment to the bill to include language regarding consulting with the King family estate, following conversations between State. Rep. Calvin Smyre (D-Columbus), who co-sponsored the bill, and the King family.
King Family representative Eric Tidwell also served notice upon Gov. Deal earlier in the week that proper authorization had not been sought of the family for the statue, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper. (HTTP://BIT.LY/1CH5ZTV).
The new proposal, which easily won approval of the Senate Wednesday, will go to the Senate Rules Committee next week, where members will decide if the bill should go before the full chamber for a floor vote.
Prospects for the bill passing next week remain high, despite a solitary concern raised by a legislative member that Capitol grounds are usually reserved for elected officials, and an ugly letter Brooks reports receiving from a neighboring state KKK Grand Dragon.
“You don’t have to be an elected official to be honored,” Brooks said, noting that MLK is the only non-President on the National Mall. “And if the Ku Klux Klan are the only ones complaining, we are doing something right.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article referred to Knight as the President of the SCLC; he is, in fact, the President of the DeKalb chapter.