Political Insider

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Shared space, shared history: What Nathan Deal might say about an MLK statue

The honor is long overdue, and yet in this case, procrastination borders on the providential.

On Monday, in the midst of a national debate over the place of Confederate symbolism in our midst, the wraps will come off a life-sized statue of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the northeastern corner of the state Capitol in Atlanta.

There is opportunity here. The question is how Gov. Nathan Deal intends to seize it.

King was assassinated some 49 years and four months ago. Upon her death in 2006, his widow’s coffin was placed in the rotunda. But there are no records to indicate that King himself ever set foot inside the Capitol. Not that he was particularly welcome.

If you are old enough, an image from 1968 lurks in a dusty corner of your memory: State troopers lined the boundaries of the state Capitol to make sure mourners and the mule-powered wagon with King’s coffin, didn’t stop there as they walked from Ebenezer Baptist to Morehouse College.

King’s long-delayed welcome to the Capitol grounds begins and ends with a Republican governor. Nathan Deal broached the idea from the pulpit of Ebenezer on MLK Day in 2014. He corralled the final $100,000 for the project this summer, with profits from the sale of several state properties. (Not taxpayer cash, his staff points out.)

In between, there has been state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Democrat from Columbus, who has spent the last few years engaged in shuttle diplomacy, connecting with the King siblings, the sculptors (one died), and the private donors.

But it will be the governor’s show on Monday. His job will be to put meaning to the fact that, 10 days after white supremacists rioted around a threatened statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, killing a woman in the process, Georgia will install the first statue of an African-American on its Capitol grounds.

Some local chauvinism may be involved. You can expect mention of the fact that our Capitol may be the only one to sport statues of two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. (A bronze Jimmy Carter stands on the other side of the building.)

But this won’t be the place for Deal to worry out loud, as he has done before, about the perils of racially polarized politicking – that the Georgia Republican party has an obligation to reach out to non-white voters if it expects to survive in the long term.

On the other hand, you might hear the governor mention that he’s done his part to end the mass incarceration of black men through his efforts at criminal justice reform.

Yet something larger will be required of Deal if Monday is to serve as an antidote to what we see happening around us. We need a governor to tell us that a shared history is the bedrock of a functioning society. And that, with a shared history comes the obligation to share our geography. Our public spaces.

A statue to a slain civil rights leader revered worldwide is not a one and out in 2017. Sixteen years ago, after Gov. Roy Barnes pulled down a segregationist-era state flag, a Republican senator from Savannah who opposed the measure asked this question: “What assurance do we have that this new flag will represent a debt paid in full?” Eric Johnson asked.

It was the wrong question then, and it is the wrong question now. When you name yourself a family and agree to share the same acreage, the same city, or the same state, there is never a single conversation, never a single bargain. If you’re lucky, the conversations and negotiations are never-ending. If you’re luckier still, the conversations are more about addition than subtraction.

But there are two places Governor Deal is unlikely to go on Monday.

One is the 2001 bargain, made as part of the deal to bring down the ’56 flag, that bars local governments from touching the many Confederate monuments that dot this state.

Deal has indicated that he’s unwilling to touch the statute in his final legislative session. Events could force the issue. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and the City Council have appointed a seven-member advisory panel to review Confederate monuments and street names, and to make recommendations.

Even if that matter doesn’t go to court, this section of state law is eventually doomed. It has a loophole that Father Time could drive a Mack Truck through. The law says that local governments can’t “mutilate, deface, defile, abuse contemptuously, relocate, remove, conceal, or obscure” any military memorial, including those of the Confederacy.

But it doesn’t say you can’t neglect them.

The city of Kennesaw, which this week voted to ask the Legislature to allow local control of monuments, has seen a Confederate battle flag removed twice from a local memorial park this month. One could argue that the current state law doesn’t require the city to spend a dime on a third flag.

By law, the well-heeled city of Decatur may not be able to remove a Confederate soldier from his tall pillar. But it could erect a statue of an African-American family of slaves, pointing an accusing finger in the soldier’s direction.

Those are the kinds of things that can happen in the absence of local control and local conversations. And that’s why, in time, that law will change.

Neither is Governor Deal likely to mention Stone Mountain, the largest tourist attraction in the state and the site of a carved, 400-foot paean to Confederate leadership. The park is both the birthplace of the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan, and a chief recreation spot for the largely African-American neighborhood surrounding it.

But don’t be taken in by Deal’s silence on this one. Stone Mountain closely fits with the argument for a shared history and geography that the governor is likely to make on Monday, even if past efforts to broaden the mountain’s cultural footprint have been rebuffed.

No, the carving won’t be sandblasted off. When occupants live in the same house, the same shared space, they have to be careful about threatening to destroy each other’s stuff.

But the argument that the Confederate story is the only one that can be told at Stone Mountain is likely to come to an end on Monday. That’s the inevitable sequel to a statue of MLK on the grounds of the state Capitol.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.