Georgia lawmaker punished for Civil War mailer

State Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, has never been shy about sharing his provocative opinions on the Civil War, race relations and even the Ku Klux Klan.

But a mailer sent from his office to House members challenging slavery as a root cause of the Civil War apparently was the final straw.

House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, Friday stripped Benton of his leadership position as chairman of the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging. The speaker also kicked Benton off a study committee on civics education in Georgia’s public schools. Ralston had appointed him to the committee earlier this month.

House spokesman Kaleb McMichen said Ralston was among those who received the envelop from Benton with an article titled “The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States.”

When asked if Ralston disagreed with Benton’s distribution of the article, McMichen said, “The actions he has taken reflect his sentiments on this matter.”

Ralston “is focused on the future, not the past,” he said.

Benton has courted controversy over the past two years with comments about the Civil War, race relations and the Ku Klux Klan. In an interview with the AJC published in January 2016, Benton said the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

“It made a lot of people straighten up,” he said. “I’m not saying what they did was right. It’s just the way things were.”

Benton also suggested that criticism of the Confederate flag was a distraction from “black-on-black crime” and he sponsored bills to force the state to recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday and to prohibit the moving of Confederate monuments.

This year, he called a news conference in March to defend his bill establishing “Confederate History Month.” That bill described the Civil War as a “four-year struggle for states’ rights, individual freedom, and local governmental control.”

Although he called the news conference, Benton refused to answer questions about the role slavery played in the war.

Despite Benton’s controversial stands, Ralston had refrained from directly chastising him by name, but Benton’s legislation went nowhere, and he had been pressured to withdraw some of the bills introduced in 2016. Otherwise Benton, who was overwhelming reelected in November by his northeast Georgia district, has suffered no penalty for his positions.

Earlier this month, the speaker named Benton to the civics study committee, defending the choice because Benton is a retired middle school teacher.

The article Benton distributed is written by Gene Kizer, Jr., an amateur historian and real estate agent from South Carolina, and it largely is drawn from his self-published book presenting the “irrefutable argument” that slavery was not the cause of the war. The article posits that states’ rights and “the impending economic annihilation of the North” by Southern secession caused the war.

Kenneth Noe, Draughton Professor of Southern History at Auburn University, called the argument “utter nonsense.” He said books like Kizer’s are part of an “underground Civil War bibliography” that appeals to neo-Confederates.

“Real historians disdain it, but for a certain group of readers, it is the gospel they crave,” he said.

Noe said the doctrine of states’ rights was an issue in the South “but only as it pertained to specific constitutional rights of slave owners and slave-owning states.”

“The secession declarations of 1861 and speeches such as those made in the Georgia Secession Debates of November 1860 make it abundantly clear that secession was about protecting slavery from Washington and the Republicans,” he said. “Or to put it differently, states’ rights was the how, but slavery was the why.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has seen a mailer sent to another House member, which includes the printed inscription “Thought this might be of interest to you” above Benton’s signature.

It is not clear if Benton used his taxpayer-funded office account to mail the article to House members or which House members received it. McMichen referred those questions to Benton, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Austell, did not receive a copy of the article, but he said it’s not surprising at all that Benton would share it.

“He has not been shy about his views on history,” Wilkerson said. “To me, he seems like a fine person, but he has a skewed view of our history. I think it’s a dangerous view of history.”

Wilkerson said he does wonder why Ralston took so long to respond to Benton’s repeated provocations. He said naming Benton to a civics education committee was “a slap to all Georgians.”

A pair of press releases issued Friday make no mention of Benton’s controversial behavior. Instead they simply announce the personnel changes on the House committees.

Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, will take over as chair of Human Relations and Aging. House Education Committee Chairman Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, will serve in Benton’s place on the civics study committee.

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