ATLANTA – A Confederate soldier has stood atop his marbled perch on the old courthouse lawn in Downtown Valdosta for more than a century.
Etched into the stone beneath his boots are these words: “The Principles For Which They Fought Live Eternally.”
It’s the kind of sentiment that adorns dozens of similar memorials all throughout Georgia, where there are believed to be at least 140 Confederate monuments. Most of the monuments debuted between the 1890s and the 1920s, although a new one was erected in just the last couple years.
The tributes, which are often prominently and publicly placed, are now the target of a fresh wave of scrutiny after violence erupted in Charlottesville, Va., over the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. Baltimore removed its monuments days later, and other cities have since taken steps to do the same.
“As far as the monuments are concerned, they are a constant reminder of slavery,” said Angela Penn, president of the Valdosta-Lowndes County NAACP.
The same goes, she said, for roads named after Confederate leaders.
“Getting rid of the monuments for me would just be a step in healing our communities,” she added. “Put it in a museum. They lost. The Confederates lost. What is the point? You didn’t win, and you lost the right to own people.”
There’s no mention of slavery on the Lowndes County monument, which was built in 1911 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It is a common omission, said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.
The majority of Georgia’s Confederate monuments reflect what Hale described as a “Lost Cause” narrative, which emerged as Southerners grappled with the meaning of the Civil War, and the results of their defeat, in the decades that followed.
Monuments in this vein – many of which emerged during segregation – largely focus on the valor of the soldiers and their sacrifices made while fighting for a decentralized Southern republic built on the ideals of the founding fathers, Hale said.
There is truth in these inscriptions, Hale said, but they also tend to overlook two key outcomes of the war: reunification of the country and the freedom of 3.5 million people.
“Forty percent of the Southern population were freed, and that’s what these monuments explicitly do not talk about,” Hale said. “Sometimes they talk about reunification, but they always leave the African-American piece of it out.”
So after a white gunman killed nine black parishioners at a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 in an attempt to start a race war, the Atlanta History Center stepped into an already fraught conversation about whether these Confederate symbols have a place in today’s society.
It is Hale’s opinion that they do. Hale said every community must decide for itself, but he believes that – with additional historical context – the monuments can become artifacts of the Jim Crow era that serve as important educational tools.
That means telling a more complete story about the monuments. The center has started a project to help communities begin a local dialogue about this type of contextualization. Each monument, Hale said, has its own story.
“Don’t assume you know the history,” he said. “Do the research in your town. What did they say? What was it about? What was going on? That’s what we’re looking for.”
Adding such signage may be the only option here in Georgia.
State law forbids the relocation or concealing of Confederate monuments that are publicly owned or kept on public property. The prohibition was part of a 2001 compromise struck over a move to replace the state flag, which once prominently featured the Confederate battle flag.
But state law has not stopped some communities, including Macon, Columbus and Decatur, from questioning whether the Confederate symbols should continue to sit so prominently in the public sphere.
In Atlanta, an outraged group took matters into their own hands. They stormed Piedmont Park and vandalized what appeared to be a Confederate monument but what was really a peace monument commemorating the South’s reconciliation with the North.
Stone Mountain has also found itself back in the center of controversy after Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor, said the carving of Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson should be removed from the bulbous monadnock.
Back in Lowndes County, no one has officially approached the county about moving its statue, said Bill Slaughter, who chairs the county commission.
Slaughter said the monument is meant to memorialize the soldiers who died as a result of the Civil War. It was not a show of support for the war or the causes that brought about the conflict, he said.
There is also a monument to soldiers of “all wars” on the historic courthouse grounds, including Jewish, Korea-Vietnam and Spanish-American War veterans, as well as a 9/11 memorial. The more elaborate Confederate monument, though, towers over them.
“It is a sad state we are in when a community perceives a monument erected in recognition of those who fought a war, because they were called to service or felt it their duty to serve, as a symbol of hate,” Slaughter said.
“The problem is, some people have been using Confederate symbols to base their hate speech on,” he added. “It’s really unfair to those who fought and died for what they thought was right.”
State Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, a Virginia native who went to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, said the recent events in her home state have caused many people to view the monuments through a different lens.
A counter protester in Charlottesville was killed and others were injured when an Ohio man, who was there to protest the removal of the Lee statue, drove his car into a crowd. Two state police officers were also killed when their helicopter crashed while monitoring the protests. White nationalists organized the original rally.
“Now, more folks see how potent these symbols are to these incredibly dangerous hate groups,” Parent said.
“And that does force you to consider whether the context in which you viewed them is actually correct and whether, on the other hand, they really do stand for something that maybe the average person didn’t necessarily think they did,” she added.
In Parent’s district, the events in Charlottesville have fueled a community push to move a large monument that sits in front of the old courthouse on Decatur’s busy square.
Built in 1908 by county residents, the shaft is covered in words paying homage to the soldiers who perished and their cause. One phrase, which is often cited by proponents of removal, refers to the soldiers as a “covenant keeping race who held fast to the faith as it was given by the fathers of the Republic.”
Parent said state law should be changed to let each community in Georgia decide whether to leave their monuments as is or find what they consider a more fitting location. That will likely be a tough sell next session for a Republican-controlled Legislature in an election year.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, another candidate for governor and a Republican, said Friday he is opposed to changing the law, which he said protects historical monuments and sites in Georgia.
“Our history cannot and should not be erased,” he said in a statement. “We must remember and honor the good; we must learn from the bad and ugly so that we don’t repeat it.
“Instead of subtracting from our history, we should add to it – just as we’re doing this month with the dedication of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. statue at the state Capitol,” he added, referring to a new statue that will be added to the state Capitol lawn late this month.
Adding signage, Parent said, could be a potential short-term solution, but even that is controversial. It is also unclear whether anyone but the state can provide the “interpretation” that the law allows.
The Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which is still actively building monuments, is opposed to adding signage – unless their group or others who have built the monuments have a hand in writing the text.
“We’re not going to let a third party do it because we know what will be said,” said Scott Gilbert, commander of the group. “It will be said, ‘The war was over slavery. Period.’”
Slavery is a significant part of the story, Gilbert said. But the factors that drove fellow countrymen to fight one another more than 150 years ago are complex, he said.
“We do not hide from it,” he said, referring to the issue of slavery.
But that’s not what is often conveyed in the monuments that have been unveiled during the last century and are now at the center of a heated national debate, said Stan Deaton, a historian with the Georgia Historical Society.
“All of these monuments represent, on some level, the old South enshrined in stone – a very nostalgic, romanticized view of what the Civil War was,” Deaton said.
That’s not how the monuments began. The first ones – mournful tributes to the dead – started appearing in cemeteries shortly after the war ended in 1865. They were much different than the “big man on horseback”-style statues that started to emerge last century, Deaton said.
“It’s not just about some neutral way of mourning the dead of the Confederacy,” Deaton said of many of the monuments erected last century. “We’ve kind of morphed away from that.”
Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for The Valdosta Daily Times and CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporters Terry Richards and John Stephen contributed to this report.