By Gary W. Washington, Esq.
In Olde Towne Conyers, just off Maine Street, and between Court and Milstead Avenue, rests the Rockdale County Courthouse—the building to which people must come, in hopes of receiving equal justice for all under the law. In front of and high above the Courthouse, hangs the American flag with its colors; red, white, and blue, symbolizing valor, innocence, and justice.
Hidden in plain view of the many people passing by on Main Street, hidden in plain view of the merchants and businesses, hidden in plain view of the thousands of people summoned to the Rockdale County Courthouse each year—all seeking equal justice under the law, hidden in plain view for more than 100 years, since 1913, and yet barely noticed, stands a towering Confederate monument.
The monument commemorates a select people, their cause, and the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil. At the top of the more than 20 feet monument, stands a statue of a tight jawed, stone-faced Confederate soldier with both of his hands clasping a six-foot rifled musket. Below the soldier are the initials, “CSA,” standing for the Confederate States of America.
Closer to the ground on the monument, at eye level, are two crisscrossed Confederate flags. Inscribed immediately above the two flags are the numbers 1861-1865—the years in which our great nation was divided with itself in war.
The Confederate flag slanted to the right of the monument is known as the rebel flag. That flag has a large blue “X” containing 13 white stars representing the confederate states plus Kentucky and Missouri. The rebel flag was never an official flag but later was popularized by Senator Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats use of the flag in response to the civil rights movement. The second flag slants to the monument’s left and is a modification of its immediate predecessor flag. The earlier flag—which is sometimes referred to as the “white man’s flag” but officially named the “Stainless Banner,” was the Confederate flag from 1863 to 1865—contains the rebel flag in the upper left corner with most of the flag all white. One newspaper editor explained the symbolism of the dominant white section of the flag saying, “As people we are fighting to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior or colored race; a white flag would thus be emblematic of our cause.” Later, just before the end of the Civil War, the Stainless Banner was modified because some were concerned that the flag could mistakenly be perceived as a flag of surrender: when hanging limp in no wind, the rebel flag in the upper left corner could easily stay hidden, so that the flag could mistakenly appear to be the white flag of surrender. As a result, the flag was altered to include a red bar along the right sight of the flag.
The third flag, with the red bar on the right, is called the Bloodstained Banner, and is the left leaning flag on the courthouse Confederate monument.
A dedication inscribed on the front of the monument says, “to the confederate veterans of Rockdale County.” This tribute to the confederate veterans of Rockdale County is a conundrum: Rockdale County was created by an Act of the Legislature on October 18, 1870—more than five years after the end of the war. Thus, Rockdale County was not in existence during the Civil War and, therefore, could not have had Civil War veterans who were native to Rockdale.
It is plausible that the monument is a tribute to the Civil War veterans from a geopolitical region in existence before the war years and who lived in Rockdale County after it was established in 1870. An inscription on the left side of the monument may support this theory. It reads: “Erected by the Conyers Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, 1913.” The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was organized in 1894. Included among the purposes of the UDC are the commemoration of Confederate States Army and the funding of the erection of memorials to the soldiers. Conyers was established in 1854, seven years before the Civil War. According to a 2013 Citizen News article referencing a member of the Rockdale County Historical Society, it took 48 years from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to raise money for the monument. It may be then that the Conyers Chapter (named after a City which was established before the Civil War) of the UDC dedicated a monument to veterans from a County not in existence during the Civil War, because they did not raise the funds for the monument until 1913, 48 years after the war ended. [More on the United Daughters of the Confederacy later]
That Rockdale monument—with all of its Confederate symbols and which was erected by women whose lineage is tied to a city established before the Civil war—evokes generational memories of a time during which Black Lives mattered as property and were only counted as three-fifths of a person for direct taxation and representation in the House of Representatives. That Confederate monument harkens to a time when Negroes had no legally protected rights. Dred Scott knew about that time from firsthand experience.
In Dred Scott v. Sanford, 60 U.S. 393, decided in March of 1857, United Supreme Court addressed the issue regarding the legal status of the Negro. In a seven-to-two decision that split along regional lines, the seven justices from the slave holding states ruled against Dred Scott and declared that Negroes were not entitled to any federal constitutional protections and that they could never become citizens. Chief Justice Robert Taney, a former slave owner delivered the Court’s opinion:
They [Negroes] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order; and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be rendered to slavery for his benefit.
Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and therefore not entitled as such to sue in the courts. He was brought and sold and treated as an article of merchandise and traffic.
Four years after the Dred Scott decision, in February of 1861, six states, including Georgia, declared themselves independent. On March 11, 1861, the Confederate States adopted the Constitution of the Confederate States of America. Article I of the Confederate States Constitution (1) provided for the taxation on three-fifths of all slaves, (2) regulated the “ importation of negroes of the African race,” and the transportation of slaves, and (3) protected the right to own slaves as property. The Civil war began on April 12, 1861 and ended four years later when Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1965.
In the three years immediately following the Civil War, 1865-1868, two amendments were added to the United States Constitution which changed the legal status of Negroes and their access to the courts. The first of these amendments, the Thirteenth Amendment, abolished slavery. The Second, the Fourteenth Amendment, overturned the Dred Scott decision by making African Americans citizens and by guaranteeing equal protection of the laws for all persons.
Today, 150 years after the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment, the guarantee of equal protection of the law for all, is not a certainty for all—particularly for people of color and poor persons. The protests across America in the past few weeks, and imminent Rockdale County protests, show that as a country we are still very deeply divided; it is just that there has been no formal declaration of war, yet. There is a constant crescendo of “I Can’t Breathe” followed by the gasp of Black men taking their last breath. The protest signs of the 1960s saying, “I am a man,” have been updated to read, “Black Lives matter.” The hymn, “We Shall Overcome,” has been replaced by the chant, “All lives won’t matter, until Black Lives matter, too.”
Now as much as ever, it is important that not only must courts be bastions of equal treatment for all under the law, they must also portray the appearance of the same. As stated by Justice Paul Stevens in Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000), “it is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law.” Imagine, for example, what it would be like for someone, anyone, to walk into a courthouse expecting a fair trial for a crime of which they have been accused, but as they walk in, they pass a hangman’s noose out front and on the courthouse grounds. Despite the assurances of their lawyer and even the judge, they would likely have doubts regarding the fairness of the proceedings about to take place inside the courthouse. Similarly, an African American litigant or an African American attorney, while entering the courthouse and passing a monument that celebrates the confederacy and confederate soldiers, might not trust that the judicial process inside will be administered with equal justice for all under the law.
In addition to adversely impacting the image of the courthouse as a building dedicated to the equal administration of justice, the Confederate monument has an adverse impact on some of the people entering and leaving the courthouse. It is offensive to some members of the public who respect the courthouse as a building that is purposed for the administration of equal justice for all. Beyond being offensive, the placement of the Confederate monument in front of the Rockdale County Courthouse is emotionally sad and psychologically painful for many African American litigants, attorneys and court personnel who see the monument daily while entering the building. One U.S. Army Veteran who was interviewed for this essay said that seeing the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse triggered his PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) caused by the racism he experienced while serving in the military.
Putting aside the hot button topics of racism, slavery and the civil war, it is possible to find common ground for a coalition of a cross section of Rockdale citizens who want to advance the reputation of the courthouse as a building exclusively dedicated to equal justice for all. It must be acknowledged, however, that putting aside such emotionally charged and divisive subjects is not easy. It is like saying to Mrs. Lincoln, “so, aside from the assassination, how did you like the play.” Nevertheless, if this Country’s history and heritage of slavery are removed from the discussion, there may be two arguments warranting the removal of the monument upon which there is common ground for agreement.
First, the Confederate monument should be removed because the placement of the monument in front of the courthouse and next to the American flag is an act of defiance, and is disrespectful to the United States of America–whether intentional or not. The Confederate monument in front of the courthouse depicts a soldier who fought against the United States. The initials CSA, standing for Confederate States of America, are printed on the monument, instead of USA standing for the United States of America. 1861-1865, the years during which our Country was divided with itself in war, is also printed on the monument, instead of 1865-1868, the years in which the Country was reunited and adopted the 14th Amendment guaranteeing equal protection for all under the law. Two flags, one the unofficial rebel flag, and the other, an official Confederate flag, are engraved on the monument, instead of the United States flag.
Now, back to the United Daughters of the Confederacy to show the intent behind the monument and its placement in front of the courthouse. Mildred L. Rutherford was the historian general for the United Daughters of the Confederacy. In 1923 she wrote the following essay entitled, “The War was not a Civil War:”
Ours was not a Civil War, so let us correct that wrong first. The United States was a Republic of Sovereign States. We were not a Nation until after the surrender, and even now the States have not surrendered their rights. A civil war must be in one State between two parties in that State. If we acknowledge that ours was a Civil War, we acknowledge we were a Nation, or one State in 1861 and not a Republic of Sovereign States, and therefore had no right to secede. This is what the North would like us to acknowledge.
It was not a War of Secession as some would have us to call it. The Southern States seceded with no thought of war. They simply wished to have a government where their rights reserved by the Constitution, should be respected. The war was caused by the North attempting to coerce us back into the Union, contrary to the Constitution, and for no reason save that the Sates of the South demanded their rights….
The Confederate monument, viewed within the context of Rutherford’s essay, is a form of protest which normally would be public free speech and protected under the First Amendment. However, it is quite another matter when the monument is placed on government property. Then, it is not public free speech; it is government sponsored speech paid for with taxpayer money.
The placement of the Confederate monument in front of the courthouse, in plain sight, is, metaphorically speaking, like poking a finger in the eye of the United States of America. If taking a knee during the performance of the National Anthem at a sporting event is offensive, then keeping a Confederate monument on courthouse ground and next to the United States flag—a monument celebrating confederate soldiers who engaged in war against the United States—is also offensive, particularly to those persons who proudly celebrate the United States of America on the 4th of July.
The second argument for removal of the confederate monument is narrower than the argument for removal of Confederate monuments from public grounds in general. The second argument is tailored to the unique legal purpose and ideals associated with a courthouse, i.e., a place in which the guarantees and protections of United States Constitution are upheld. The Constitution of the Confederate States which protects the right to own slaves is an anathema to the United States Constitution with its prohibition of slavery and guarantee of equal protection for all under the law. Therefore, a confederate monument should not in any way be associated with the Rockdale County Courthouse.
The decision to remove the Confederate monument from the courthouse grounds, and the decision regarding what to do with the monument after its removal are two separate decisions. The later should not be cause for the delay of the former. Rockdale should follow the example set by Judge Clarence Seegler, who on June 12, 2020, issued a court order directing that the Confederate monument in the Decatur Square should be immediately relocated.
The steady crescendo of “I Can’t Breathe” has triggered an awareness to the significance of the Confederate monument on the courthouse grounds. There is an urgency. The time is now. Although hidden in plain view for more than 100 years, the Confederate monument on the Rockdale County Courthouse grounds should be removed immediately. The decision where to relocate it and who should pay for its relocation, can be made later.
My name is Gary Washington and I wrote this essay because as an attorney and officer of the court, I am duty bound to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America.