In interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Benton, R-Jefferson, described the Ku Klux Klan as "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 shared his belief that slavery was not the true cause of the Civil War and defended the display of the Confederate flag, saying criticism of the flag was being used as a distraction from problems inside the black community.
"Nobody said anything about black-on-black crime, and that’s about 98 percent of it. Nobody said anything about family life and who’s in the home and who’s not in the home," he said. "It’s always something else that is the problem."
Benton, a five-term member of the House GOP caucus and chairman of the House Committee on Human Relations and Aging, made similar comments to other media Thursday after the AJC story published online.
"The North was advocating they do away with slavery, but they offered no idea as to what the South would do with a loss of $2 billion of property, per se," Benton told Channel 2 Action News. “I understand that African-Americans, for the most part, have a problem with the slavery issue, but they don't denounce their ancestors in Africa who were selling slaves."
News spread quickly as outlets outside of Georgia picked up the story, prompting condemnation from Democratic and progressive groups.
"Benton is backwards, out of touch and wrong. Speaker Ralston can do something about it," Bryan Long, executive director of the progressive activist group Better Georgia, said in a robocall targeted for Ralston's Blue Ridge district.
Through his spokesman, Ralston declined to comment.
In a statement issued Thursday, Democratic Party of Georgia First Vice Chairman Nikema Williams called Benton's comments "deplorable" and questioned whether the retired middle school history teacher belongs in the House.
"Benton is either an ill-informed student of history, or he has no conscience," Williams said. "For over a century, the KKK has operated as a terrorist organization responsible for some of the most unimaginable violence in the country. In an era where communities are working together to bridge divides, Tommy Benton seems content with spewing the kind of half-witted hatred that divides. Benton should be ashamed and his party should denounce him."
Benton is pushing legislation to protect the Stone Mountain carving, require state holidays observing Robert E. Lee's birthday and Confederate Memorial Day, and require streets once named to honor veterans but have since been renamed to revert to their original names. The street bill, if passed, would result in a portion of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Atlanta reverting to Gordon Road, named after Confederate Gen. John B. Gordon, an early leader of the Klan in Georgia.
Better Georgia started an online petition calling on Ralston to remove Benton's chairmanship. By this morning, the petition had more than 850 signatures.