Buffington: Rep. Benton, holdout of ‘The Lost Cause’

Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) has been getting a lot of ink this year, but perhaps not the kind he anticipated.

During the state General Assembly session, he attempted to revive the defunct Confederate Memorial Day only to face a backlash firestorm.

This month, he was booted off his committee leadership positions in the state House after he mailed a controversial magazine article to his Republican colleagues which argued slavery wasn’t the cause of the Civil War.

That came soon after Benton had requested officials to not put his name on a plaque designed to go with a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that will be erected on the state capitol grounds in August.

And those aren’t the only times Benton has been in the press over his views about the Civil War, slavery and the South. He spoke kindly about the KKK last year, defended the symbolism of the Confederate Battle Flag, was one of only three votes against the MLK statue in 2015, and was opposed to removing segregationist Tom Watson’s statue from the state capitol grounds in 2013.

Many, especially those not from the South, may wonder how Benton could believe the things he does.

The answer is simple: Benton echoes the atmosphere of his youth.

In an interview published last week, he reiterated his belief that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War because that was what he was taught in school as a child. (Benton graduated Commerce High School in 1968.)

Benton is a few years my senior, but we are more or less of the same generation. We heard the same kinds of language and were surrounded with the same kinds of cultural influences growing up in the South.

Which is to say, Benton’s views about the Civil War, slavery and MLK may be in the political fringes today, but they were the dominant views he heard growing up in the 1950s and 1960s in the rural South.

Southern revisionists’ views of what led to the Civil War became popular in the years after the conflict ended. In an effort to regain some sense of dignity in the face of defeat, Southern cultural and political leaders latched on to the idea of “The Lost Cause” to explain the war.

The ideals of the Lost Cause had several intertwined themes: That the prewar “Old South” was a land of gentility and civility; that slavery wasn’t the cause of the war — the South was only protecting its rights as states to be left alone; that the war was really caused by greedy Northern invaders who wanted to exploit the South (hence the idea of the War of Northern Aggression); that Confederate soldiers were the most gallant and brave men of all wars; that the leaders of the Confederacy, such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, were honorable and were to be viewed as demigods; that any Northern version of the war could not be believed or trusted; and that despite the war’s outcome and the end of slavery, whites were superior to blacks.

These ideas quickly took root among white Southerners who were looking for a way to salvage honor from defeat. It was in that atmosphere most of the Civil War monuments in towns across the South were erected (roughly 1880-1920) as a way to make a visual statement about the Lost Cause in the public square.

It was also that era when the KKK was revitalized, lynchings of blacks were at their peak and Jim Crow Laws were enacted, all designed to advance the core Southern belief of white superiority.

These ideas of the Lost Cause also found their way into school textbooks. As Southern states began to better organize public schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the history of the Civil War became a key part of the curriculum.

That was in large part due to a woman from Athens, Mildred Lewis Rutherford, who wrote books and gave speeches celebrating the Lost Cause. From her position with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she lobbied for the “correct” version of the Civil War in Southern textbooks — the correct version being the mythology tied to the Lost Cause. For decades to come, Southern textbooks presented that sanitized and idealized version of the Civil War, slavery and the Antebellum South. Any other view was expunged.

One passage from an Alabama textbook in 1971 claims that “slavery was the earliest form of social security in the United States,” and that “the slave received the best medical care which the times could offer.” It also claimed that the real cause of the war wasn’t slavery, but rather the abolitionist movement. “The abolition crusade with its consequences was the number one cause for Alabama’s getting into the war… the South felt its rights in the Union were threatened.”

Those were the kinds of ideas Southerners were taught in public schools for over 100 years. It was little more than propaganda, but it became an accepted part of Southern culture.

But there was more going on than just textbooks for Benton and our generation. We were born in the Jim Crow South and we came of age during the Civil Rights movement, a movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr.

That fight dominated the news in the South. At the time, a majority of white Southerners opposed allowing blacks the vote, to integrate public schools, or to even use the same bathrooms as whites.

As the key leader of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. was especially hated by many whites who accused him of being a “communist” and a “rabble rouser.” That was despite his call for peaceful change. You know the rest of the story. Times changed. Blacks were given the vote and schools were integrated.

That old view of the Civil War as a “Lost Cause” faded. And segregation, once the dominant social theology of white Southerners, fell into disrepute. Still, there are those who cling to the old myths. They continue to deny that slavery was the underlying issue of the war. They continue to harbor resentment toward black leaders like Martin Luther King, who helped dismantle the Jim Crow South and overturn the idea of white superiority. And they embrace a warped sense of victimhood, claiming their “heritage” is under assault.

I can’t read Tommy Benton’s mind, but I know where he came from and I know just how powerful those old cultural and social influences are here in the rural South. I was surrounded with them as a child, too. Benton has a right to his personal opinions about the Civil War and Martin Luther King, however misguided they might be by today’s standards.

But he does not have the right to exploit his elected position as a soapbox to pursue a personal crusade. In doing that, he’s lost his legislative standing, is shunned by his political colleagues and has embarrassed his community in the eyes of the state and its business leaders. All for what? What has he won? What good has his tilting at old windmills done for his constituents?

Wouldn’t efforts to help his community get decent broadband service, or more money for educational needs, be a better use of his political position? Benton’s ongoing battle to refight the Civil War is a lost cause. It’s no longer 1864, or 1964.

This is July 4th week, a time when we celebrate ONE nation for all our citizens. The Confederacy is long dead.

Rep. Benton should work to build a future for all Georgians regardless of the color of their skin. Obsessing over the myths of the Lost Cause, or about MLK’s statue standing outside the state capitol, won’t take us there.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected]

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