As night began to fall on June 18, Mawuli Davis and his wife, Jana Johnson-Davis, co-founders of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights, sat down to dinner at the Iberian Pig, a restaurant in the Decatur Square. They began to see activity, workers and equipment, surrounding the Confederate monument. In the small town of Decatur, it didn’t take long for the news to spread, such as to an Oakhurst Facebook page.
Upon receiving a call from his friend, Daxton Pettus, co-president of the DHS Black Student Union (BSU), immediately ran out the door, thrilled by the news that the monument was being removed. His parents stopped him, curtailing his sudden excitement, and decided to go watch as a family.
“I was just excited because it was the first time I fought for something, because this [movement] has been happening for three years, and saw…. our demands be met. It was a great feeling, and I hope to have more feelings like this with other movements I’m a part of,” Pettus said.
By 10:30 p.m. that night, a lively, animated crowd had gathered, a large portion of whom were Beacon Hill members, to watch this unprecedented event; the obelisk would go on to be the first Confederate monument extracted in Georgia.
By midnight, a crane had successfully taken off the top, and majority, of the monument.
Fonta High and Paul McLennan, co-chairs of the Beacon Hill Black Alliance Committee of Confederate monuments, and Sara Patenaude, a Beacon Hill historian, were among those who gathered to watch, incredulous, as the obelisk was lifted to be placed in a storage facility. All of their efforts with Beacon Hill finally produced a people’s “victory.”
“I remember when the crane started lifting, you could hear the ropes they had put around it start to creak and stretch and I said out loud ‘they’re lifting it’….Then [there was a] crack of light coming under where they were lifting the main shaft, and you could see that crack just open up and then grow,” Patenaude said. “I’m going to sound ridiculous but it was like dawn blooming, it was like a new day starting because that light was growing, that gap was growing, it was really happening right in front of my eyes.”
Workers expected the removal of the base to take several hours and continued working into the early morning of June 19, a holiday known as Juneteenth, a day celebrating the freedom announced to the last enslaved African people. This day served as the “perfect alignment” for the act, High said.
In the wake of protests nationwide and blatant racist incidents within the community, the monument became a lightning rod for cries to dismantle white supremacy. Often during the past several weeks before the removal, vandalism and signs covered the monument in the midst of the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests. This led Decatur city attorney Bryan Downs to file a complaint asking for the monument to be declared a nuisance and a threat to public safety.
“The attorney’s primary reasoning was that there are multiple mentions that people felt like that if it wasn’t taken down, someone might try to take it down,” City of Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said. “And 30 feet of granite, trying to put it down with a truck and ropes would be something dangerous for everyone involved.”
This action deliberately circumvented Georgia state law, passed in August 2019, which increased fines for moving confederate monuments, making the process more challenging and “instilling more fear in the city and the county… to take action,” High said.
“[The law] further limited where the monument could be moved and also strengthened penalties for moving it,” Garrett said. “But there is a clause that allows for protection of the monument itself. So our city attorney felt like, with the graffiti and what was happening now, there was a cause in the nuisance case in order to protect the people from getting hurt and in order to protect the monument itself.”
Mayor Garrett added that before the Georgia law strengthened, Confederate monuments had to be moved to a public location. But after the law strengthened, a loophole allowed it to go into storage if it was deemed a threat to public safety and/or a nuisance.
Though City Commissioners did not vote on the action to avoid publicizing it, the city attorney “had the blessing of the city commission” for his complaint, Garrett said.
In response to this complaint, DeKalb County Judge Seeliger declared the monument a public safety hazard and a nuisance. He ordered the county to remove it within a two week span, by June 26.
“The Confederate obelisk has become an increasingly frequent target of grafﬁti and vandalism, a ﬁgurative lightning rod for friction among citizens, and a potential catastrophe that could happen at any time if individuals attempt to forcibly remove or destroy it,” he wrote.
Beacon Hill Black Alliance, another group Hate Free Decatur and other activists worked to demand the removal. In Beacon Hill, High, McLennan and Patenaude led efforts which resulted in the removal.
“I think [the removal] was a culmination of a lot of things; it’s never just one thing,” McLennan said. “The fact that it was getting so much attention and becoming a public safety issue made the city and county concerned and gave them some legal justification. But I think a lot of the credit goes to the people in the community, who called, emailed, marched and protested. We just kept the pressure up.”
High agrees, and acknowledges the role of students in the removal.
“This work started in 2017 from high school students at Decatur High and from Black Student Union,” she said.” They were very instrumental in starting the petition back then, and the peaceful protests. And then us having protests ongoing over the last few weeks, and other activists outside of Beacon Hill having protests and rallies. All of these things coming together allowed the community to unite in solidarity with the understanding that this is still a want and a need and having city and [to allow] council officials to hear that from the people, because the people’s outcry is also what pushed them, not just the strategy from the activists, all of us working in concert with each other…We made the difference.”
Without recent protests provoked by police brutality and racial injustice, High, McLennan and Patenaude firmly believe the monument could not have been removed.
“When movements [like this happen], they can set all kinds of things in motion,” McLennan said. “And so to have mass protests in Brunswick, and Louisville, and Minneapolis, to have the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery by the police, were cases that just kept building and building and then the last one here in Atlanta at Wendys. All of that was in the context of what we were trying to do, so it absolutely made a difference.”
As part of the nation and city-wide protests in the weeks leading up to the removal, Beacon Hill facilitated protests, discussions and other work within the Decatur community demanding an end to police brutality and acknowledgement of systemic and implicit racism within the community. These protests engendered renewed demands to remove the monument, led by High and McLennan. A day before the monument was extracted, on June 17, High and McLennan hosted a rally for Beacon Hill with the sole purpose of demanding the monument be removed, and the county comply with Judge Seeliger’s ruling within the two week frame outlined.
“Their calls for the removal were important and the rallies that were [in the square were too],” Mayor Garrett said. “I mean, it’s hard to have a protest rally about racism in the shadow of a confederate monument without that being a huge focal point. And they very much continued to push us and the county, I got lots and lots of emails asking us to see what we could do, And I think it was our intention and the county’s to try to remove it without breaking the law.”
Beacon Hill leveraged opportunities in several meetings with the city over the past months to further their demands to remove the monument.
“[The City has] had a number of discussions with Beacon Hill Black Alliance,” Garrett said. “We met with Beacon Hill on the steps of the City Hall a couple of weeks ago, and they’ve certainly been our allies in trying to get the monument to get taken down and, once that two week frame was set, working to encourage the county to do it as soon as possible. And as Mawali Davis said at the press conference, ‘we don’t always agree on everything but it is our intention to work with Beacon Hill Black Alliance for Human Rights to address symbols of racism as well as acts of racism.’ We are working with them to figure out next steps.”
The Beacon Hill Committee of Confederate monuments’ goal was to pressure the City of Decatur to reach a point to acknowledge issues in maintaining the monument to the county, who ultimately had the authority to move it.
“In the legal filing that was an argument they used– that they didn’t want to have to keep cleaning up for it…. We had two conversations with the city. One was ‘do what you can.’ And the other was ‘ this monument is part of the whole problem around issues related to white supremacy in the city and [removing the monument] is one thing you can do to show that you’re really going to do something, that you’re really concerned,’ “ McLennan said.
The tragic deaths at the hands of police and resulting protests acted as a catalyst to renew demands to remove the monument, Patenaude said.
“Our first push for the confederate monument happened in 2017 because of the “Unite the Right Rally” and the fact that the monument is down now is because of the tragic deaths [by police]… A conversation was happening, the pressure was happening; Beacon Hill and Hate Free Decatur were there to be able to push it along. But it’s only in those catalyst moments that people are inflamed enough to make change,” Patenaude said.
Mayor Garrett agrees, acknowledging the circumstances lended the legal ability, with a judge’s permission, to abide by the law but remove the monument.
“Certainly the climate of what is happening now and the acute attention being drawn to years worth of inequity and racism has certainly helped move the needle. And the protests as well as the opportune time, and there was the ability to take something like a nuisance case forward and ask for an emergency hearing that made the situation very different. I absolutely think the protests and the attention drawn back to the monument and the ‘enough is enough’ demands, ‘we need to get this down now’ helped. [The City of Decatur] had concern about the safety of people and the law allows for concern for the safety of the monument as well,” she said.
White supremacy is “a system that is in every aspect of our lives but it’s hard to get our hands around,” Patenaude said. To address the broad, abstract goal of dismantling white supremacy, she believes people are looking for something concrete. The power of symbols such as the monument provide a “target.”
“We recognize from the very start that taking down the monument was not about the monument, it was about the systems and all of the things that led to the creation of the monument and that continued to protect that monument staying there,” Patenaude said. “By showing that we could break that down in concrete ways, people hope we can break them down in deeper, systemic ways.”
Three years ago, in what Patenaude deemed a catalyzing moment, Beacon Hill’s efforts to remove the Confederate monument increased when their efforts merged with work already commenced through the organization Hate Free Decatur, which activists McLennan and Patenaude helped found, and High was involved in.
Hate Free Decatur was established after the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia three years ago. Protests, though, were spearheaded by DHS students and members of Beacon Hill. “So even from the beginning we were partners,” McLennan said, speaking of the relationship between Hate Free Decatur and Beacon Hill.
When Beacon Hill couldn’t become a chapter of the NAACP, they formed Beacon Hill as a separate organization in the summer of 2018. McLennan, High and Patenaude joined.
In the last year “we became very conscious that, as a predominately white group of Hate Free Decatur, we needed to really put our money where our mouth was and follow the leadership of black people on issues that are directly affecting black lives,” Patenaude said. Hate Free Decatur folded under Beacon Hill.
Soon after, McLennan and High became co-chairs of the Confederate monument committee within Beacon Hill.
“Our objective was and is taking down symbols of white supremacy,” High said. “So it looks like us coming up with strategies and communicating with the city and the county about how to move that forward, coagulating with other activists and organizations like Hate Free Decatur.”
As demands to remove Confederate monuments grew three years ago, a “window of opportunity” opened for Decatur to remove the monument in their square, McLennan said. New Orleans, and other cities, jumped at this opportunity, and removed all their confederate statues in May 2017. Decatur didn’t.
“We passed a resolution in support of [removing the monument] and the state law at that time allowed monuments to be moved to another location as long as it was in the public eye. Because the monument was on [DeKalb County’s] property, not on City of Decatur property, they tried for two years to find a suitable location,” Mayor Garrett said. “They reached out to a number of locations, I believe they reached out to Atlanta history center, and they tried to find another location that it would still be within law to move the monument to. They were not able to do so.”
State Sen. Elena Parent (D-Decatur) introduced legislation in 2017 to allow local governments to decide whether to revere or remove Confederate monuments. More recently, in 2019, state Rep. Rennitta Shannon (D-Decatur) introduced a bill to ban Confederate monuments on state property and prohibit tax dollars from maintaining them. Both failed to make it to their chamber’s floor for voting.
“When the Sons of the Confederacy recognized that we were going to keep pushing this issue they began lobbying and got to the majority of the state legislators that are on the Republican side and convinced them to try to change the law to make it stronger. So for a while that really dampened our effort,” Patenaude said.
The bill SB 77, passed into law April 26 2019, added protection to “commemorative symbols,” which Confederate monuments fit under.
“[The window] closed, so the reason we put so much pressure on this time is we didn’t want that to happen again. We’d been through that already,” McLennan said.
Following the enactment of SB 77, DeKalb County commissioners decided to contextualize the monument.
“So they formed a committee that researched the history of the lost cause [of the Confederacy] and monuments and placed a contextualization plaque next to the monument. That was the only response at that time that they believed was allowed under the law,” Mayor Garrett said.
This plaque identified the monument as “bolstering white supremacy and faulty history.”
Patenaude, Beacon Hill historian, has dedicated efforts in exposing the “faulty history” that the plaque acknowledges the monument promotes.
During rallies, Patenaude, an affordable housing developer, with an aptitude in history, leveraged her knowledge about the civil war, public history, memorialization and monuments to engage the community in discussion about the history of the monument, and contextual history. She strongly believes that equipping people with this historical education was “key” in the removal.
“When we started this work, most of the public conversation around monuments was ‘we don’t want to take them down; we don’t want to erase history’ and as we were telling the story over and over of this monument, [we realized] that this monument was put up to change historical memory, it was literally a piece of propaganda to try to change how and why we remember the Civil War,” she said.
No matter what lens you view the Civil War with, whether that’s state rights or taxation, Patenaude argues there’s no debate; slavery was the backbone of the war. The monument disputes this.
“On it’s side the monument had this very flowery language that talks about ‘honor’ and ‘standing and fighting for the constitution’ and ‘these brave men and women’ and all of that is lies, especially the idea that these men were fighting to protect their constitution when they were in open rebellion against the constitution, against the United States… So that monument, by writing that entire piece out, completely glosses over that the civil war was fought to keep people enslaved,” she said.
The monument represents the larger issue of changing history, Patenaude said.
“The United Daughters of the Confederacy came and put things up like these monuments, they changed history textbooks, they worked in a very concerted effort to change the way we remember the Civil War,” she said. “People realize this isn’t history, that in fact having this monument up is lying to us and making us misremember what happened.”
Through Beacon Hill and his APUSH class, Pettus has become aware of this issue, which has pushed him to lead the community and youth in BSU, protests and other parts of Beacon Hill’s outreach.
“In APUSH, I’ve learned that [the United Daughters of the Confederacy] were the people who created textbooks, and put up these monuments to scare black people from voting and in places where black people would be hanged. They would use this as an example to make black people think they were inferior. So the monument, personally, to me needs to be taken down because it is a lie and doesn’t show the true history of what the Confederacy stood for, which is white supremacy and slavery,” he said.
Through historian panels, legislative panels and speaking at rallies, Patenaude has sought to “dig into the issues of why this monument was so offensive, why it was out where it was, why it was propaganda and to really connect with people that way.”
“Being a historian, I could talk about the broader context about why monuments were put up, about the 1906 race riots, the 1908 change to the Georgia constitution to stop black people from being able to vote, and then also to get down to the very specifics of this monument,” she said. “That this monument was put up in this space to try to intimidate our black community in DeKalb county.”
Due to the “offensive history” the monument promotes, Patenaude, High and McLennan believe the marker is not enough; the monument must be removed.
“[The markers are not enough] because it would be compromising with a structure and a system of hate and we don’t compromise with white supremacy. So if we’re seeing that it’s been destructive to groups of people and it has caused injury in multiple ways, white supremacy that is, because of how its rooted in our governmental system and fabric of society where groups of people have not been able to advance in terms of economically or socially thriving, or have been held back as they have been caught up in the legal system…You can’t just explain it, you have to change it, that’s why the takedown is necessary,” High said.
Patenaude agrees. She believes that in addition to the sheer physical size difference between the obelisk and the plaque, the plaque doesn’t remove the symbolic intimidation of the monument, “celebrating white supremacy in front of the center of justice.”
“To put up a plaque to say ‘well we don’t believe that anymore,’ doesn’t erase the harm that is being caused by this giant slap in the face standing there everyday,” Patenaude said. “You can’t just slap someone and then say ‘oh but I don’t want to slap you anymore’ and think that that erases the harm. So the plaque was never enough and that was our argument of why the monument needed to be moved away from the courthouse….As long as the monument is in front of the courthouse, it is still doing harm. And it’s not until you can stop the bleeding, that you can start solving the problem that led to it, and that’s why the monument could not continue to stand there, it wouldn’t matter how many plaques you put besides it or if you put another monument the same size next to it.”
Similarly, High considers the monument to be “very injurious in conscious and unconscious ways to the psyches of people who live in this community, and particularly to black community members as it was erected and placed where it was to continue to intimidate black people and have an impact of oppression on them.”
Due to the history it stands for, she believes it to “reinforce the power that white supremacy has had through various systems.”
“We know that a monument like that was erected out of hate and out of an ideology that says ‘we as white individuals are better than you’ and there’s this history of slavery, oppression, and Jim Crow and other ways in which we are seeing white supremacy manifest in oppressing black people,” High said.
The finances necessary to erect the monument and the large amount of resistance sparked by demands to remove it “speaks to how much power it holds within,” High said.
Ultimately, Patenaude believes that the judge’s order was a result of community-wide efforts, often spearheaded by Beacon Hill, to push for the removal of the monument.
“DeKalb county was perfectly content to put that little plaque up next to [the monument] and call their job done. I think the key lesson for me that came in organizing all of this was realizing that, even when you think it’s done, you have to keep trying. Because most of the county commissioners were completely happy to say we never what to hear about this monument again, but because we were so organized, because we were still pushing, when a catalyst happened again we were ready to call upon the community to come back out to call, to email, to put the pressure on that led to Decatur and DeKalb County to decide to have the lawsuit that resulted in the judge’s order.”
Since the movement lost the momentum it had three years ago, McLennan and High learned more about another long-standing monument in the Decatur square: a cannon, which was erected after the “Indian War” of 1836. This war led to the forced removal and relocation of the Indigenous group, the Muscogee Creeks, known as the Trail of Tears.
“We realized that the same people who put up the Confederate monument also raised the money for the cannon– the United Daughters of the Confederacy. So our narrative got better, to not just talk about the monument in terms of slavery, but to also talk about the cannon in terms of genocide,” McLennon said.
High says the cannon represents the need to forge “tighter alliances with indigenous people in this area, like the Muscogee Creek people.”
“We recognize how their story is intertwined with the African story,” High said. “So white settlers had to commit genocide of Indigenous people to steal their land, to then steal African people to work that land. So that’s the intersectionality of our stories… and in order to root out white supremacy and fight against it we have to look at its impact on other people of color and other groups that have been historically and are currently oppressed.”
The decision to remove the Confederate monument mirrors several other city’s decisions in the wake of protests affirming black lives. Among them are Richmond, Virginia; Jacksonville, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Indianapolis.
“Having that one monument down isn’t enough because there are so many other monuments, street names, statues, flags, you name it, symbols of white supremacy, that stand for the same thing, it’s the same ideology,” High said. “If one is a symbol of hate and doesn’t represent what you say you want to believe and who you are, then they all need to come down.”
High, McLennan and Patenaude hope that the removal will pave the way for further progress in removing Confederate monuments and other symbols of white supremacy, such as the cannon. On the same day the Confederate monument was removed, a statue of Thomas Jefferson also in Decatur square was removed.
Decatur surprised many by being the first to remove a Confederate monument in Georgia. A popular belief was that the removal of the monument in Athens was more likely to occur. In Athens, the mayor ordered the county to investigate the removal of the Confederate monument downtown. McLennon took note that this distinguishes their fight with Decatur’s.
“What was missing in our case that you could see in different cities, like Athens, is where city or county leaders just do it. It took longer for us to do it [without the leadership of local government], but in a way, I think it was better because we got more people involved in the process, we had to make [the city/county] do it. So I think we’ll see more city governments finding the courage to take steps in defiance of the state law. Because that was our position: the law is unjust, it’s denying local communities to do what they want with these things, so defy it, break an unjust law,” he said.
High pointed out that further efforts to remove a Confederate Monument in Macon and the Confederate flag in Kennesaw are underway. The question of Stone Mountain as a whole has also been raised, as the popular site is the location of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and gathering destination of other white supremacist groups still today. It is home to many confederate monuments and flags, carvings of Confederate generals and streets and buildings with names honoring Confederate generals and soldiers.
“I believe that by showing we can physically alter it, that we can alter all the other systems that are harder to see… It’s one monument, but all of these monuments together make a movement, and it takes a movement to really address the way America was built on white supremacy and how it permeates everything in America,” Patenaude said. “This is symbolic, but it is a very very important symbol.”
High brings up that pushing for changes in state law, such as the enactment of hate crime legislation, is an important aspect of Beacon Hill’s future work.
State Rep. Shelley Hutchinson (D-Snellville) is introducing a bill to ban all Confederate symbols in Georgia.
Georgia is one of four American states without hate crime legislation. This fact is under challenge; the hate crime bill, HB 426 passed both chambers of the Georgia Legislature on June 22. The bill awaits ratification, pending Gov. Brian Kemp’s signature. His Communications Director tweeted of Kemp plans to sign it.
High acknowledges that often opposition swiftly follows progress. Counteraction for HB 426, has been passed by the senate. HB 838, passed by the Senate, increases protection to the police in what is called the ‘Peace Officers Bill of Rights’ and punishment to those who commit offences against them. Republicans transitioned this legislation from their original attempt of classifying police officers as a protected class under the hate crime legislation.
“So [we need to fight] against that and make sure our voices are heard, because when you’ve had as many incidents of police brutality as we’ve seen against black and brown people, we recognize the roots of that as being white supremacy and structural racism. It’s clear that [police officers] are already a class that’s protected, but they haven’t been held accountable, it’s been a very toxic system, and you have people in police departments who are complicit, who know about the brutality but don’t confront it,” High said. “We have to work through legislation.”
Already, backlash is occurring against DeKalb County’s action to remove the monument in the Square. The Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans emailed the county to notify them of a potential legal battle in the future in the event that they remove the monument.
High worries that the possibility of opposition and legal repercussions following the removal of Confederate monuments scares other local governments from taking action.
“My hope is that [the removal of the monument] will be helpful in paving the way because we’re going to keep pushing so that all symbols of white supremacy, however they look and whatever they are, are not put up for public display,” High said. “But realistically we know there’s going to be resistance…The state law is still in effect, so there’s going to be government officials who don’t want to deal with the legal ramifications of their actions…And you’re going to have government officials, even if they are black government officials, who are going to want to comply with the system, and many have unfortunately been complicit, so there’s that battle to fight as well.”
An important element of Beacon Hill’s mission is rooting out white supremacy in the community, McLennon said. “So this is a symbol and it’s not the end it’s only a start to deal with all the institutional stuff that is much harder to see,” he said.
“[Beacon Hill’s] mission is about correcting the disparity in all these different levels like education, the criminal justice system, affordable housing, and helping to empower and advance people of African descent and thrive. So if we’re doing that and it’s one belief about the power of symbolism and how that’s an extension of white supremacy and the structural racism that exists throughout the fabric of our country, you recognize how that’s all tied in. So if we’re working to change structures and systems, why would we allow symbols of those systems when we’re trying to change to stand,” High said.
High, McLennon, Patenaude and Pettus have high hopes that this will spur on more action to address white supremacy and racial disparities in the community.
“I think this sets an example for what people can do when they organize, and that the power really does come from the grassroots. And I hope one of the lessons people get is ‘if we can do this, what else can we do?’ It took too long, it shouldn’t have taken this long, but it did, and in the process we’ve grown, we have more members now, More people are educated. We have more education to do, like about the cannon. This is great for Beacon Hill. This is great for Decatur,” McLennon said.
Mayor Garrett aspires to continue to work with Beacon Hill; she hopes “that removing that symbol will allow us to move forward in other ways that are meaningful. It’s only the first step.”
“It’s a huge victory because this not only tells people that change is possible, but that, with uniting together and banding together, whatever demands we have, in time, they will be met. To see that we have succeeded, it will fuel the fire to take down other confederate monuments to change the different issues with the code of conduct, with the City Schools of Decatur, with affordable housing. Really this is a start to one of many successes,” Pettus said.