November 10, 2020
by Nicolas Raulin, doctoral student at EHESS at the Centre d’Études Nords-Américaine (CENA) and teaching assistant at the Department of Sociology at the Université de Nantes since Fall 2020.
June 18, 2020: after weeks of protests from the militants of the Black Lives Matter movement right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, the obelisk dedicated to the memory of the confederate army of DeKalb County in Georgia is removed from DeKalb History Center square under the applause of the crowd. DeKalb County houses part of Atlanta, a city known since the 1970s as the "New Black Mecca" of the United States. Through the years, this aura was displaced toward DeKalb County residential district, in the southeast section, specifically where the memorial was.
This could have just been another confederate monument removal among the hundreds taken down in public places since May 2020. As everyone knows, it is George Floyd's murder in the hands of white police officers on May 25, 2020 that shocked the left wing of the country, galvanized crowds and revitalized the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests against police violence quickly led to other demands, especially getting rid of historic monuments commemorating the confederate army and its heroes. What is surprising in the Georgia case and the obelisk located in the town of Decaur is that a state law from 2001 outright forbids the alteration, removal or covering up of historic monuments, and specifically confederate memorials. This law was voted in to compensate for giving up the confederate flag as a representation of Georgia. It guaranteed the protection of what was left of the confederate heritage in public places: its historical monuments.
For the protesters gathered for several weeks at the foot of the obelisk, a double ban had to be defied: large gatherings during a pandemic and the protection of confederate memorials in DeKalb County.
How was the law circumvented? It was Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger who ordered the removal of the monument by using a law from the official code of Georgia authorizing the removal of any public or private nuisance, feeling that the protests and the recurring acts of vandalism toward the monument was threatening public safety. Though this news was quite favorably welcomed by the Black Lives Matter militants and the local press, it was not appreciated by the Sons of Confederate Veterans group that works on the preservation of history and confederate remembrance and plans to start legal action so the monument can regain its place. These tensions illustrate quite well DeKalb County's evolution over the last sixty years.
As a matter of fact, up to the 1960s, DeKalb County was known as the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan: on the southeast side of the County at Stone Mountain, a cross was burned at the top of the granite mountain giving the town its name, displaying a return to the forefront of the terrorist group. It is on the side of this same mountain that the "South Mount Rushmore" was finalized in 1970, a sculpture of confederate generals carved into the stone. Twenty years later, DeKalb's reputation had significantly changed: the County was known to house one of the most prosperous Black communities of the United States. Local papers such as the Atlanta Journal Constitution and The Champion boasted of its merits and Black National magazines such as Ebony promoted migrating to Stone Mountain. How did the County change so radically over a few decades? Between those two periods, laws created by the civil rights movement disrupted the South's social and political climate, especially Atlanta's metro area.
Indeed, in DeKalb County the Black population has become predominant, going from 8.6% in 1950 to 54.3% in 2010. On the southeast side of the County, Black residents represent over 90% of the population in 2018. The growth of the Black population in a historically white county is the result of the County's southeast residential development in the 1980s and the departure of white residents toward more remote neighborhoods, especially in the north and the east. This two-fold phenomena resulted in attracting a local Black middle class, but also one not from the South. Furthermore, both the demographic evolution and the civic rights legislation giving voting rights to African Americans allowed the County's residents to pick Black representatives: congressmen and congresswomen, mayors, members of the County's council and senators, until the first Black representative took the top spot of the County's executive office in 2000 in the person of Vernon Jones. It should be noted that the County's Black residents fought to make sure the electoral boundaries represented the growth of the Black population and allowed them to vote for their representatives.
But it is around the issue of remembrance that an important change has been observed in the 1990s. While well into the 1970s local groups attached to the preservation of the past spearheaded the construction of the monument dedicated to the memory of the confederate army at Stone Mountain, it is on the County's Black history that different actors focused on two decades later. For example, the DeKalb Convention and Visiting Bureau hired the services of the historian Herm "Skip" Mason in 1996 to do research on the Black history of the County, which led him to create a guided tour of the town of Decatur based on local Black history and publish a book titled African-American Life in DeKalb County, 1823-1970. The DeKalb History Center (in front of which was the confederate obelisk in question) also undertook to integrate the history of the Black residents of the County in its archive collections. The 2020-2021 exhibit entitled "Deep Roots in DeKalb: The Flat Rock Story of Resilience" is thus interested in the oldest Black community of the County. Furthermore, since 2008, the archive center also organizes a day during Black History Month that is focused on the County's Black history: in 2020, the day gathered artists and researchers who talked about jazz in the South of the US and DeKalb residents were invited to the event. To round everything off, the museum will soon be offering an exhibit on the protest that led to the removal of the statue with the protesters' signs that were kept for the occasion.
From the KKK's general quarters to one of the most properous Black neighborhoods in the United States, DeKalb County has enormously changed over the last sixty years. These political, demographic and social changes have translated to a shift in the relationship to the past, especially confederate remembrance. The decision to remove a historical monument while the law forbids it is the strongest proof of the upheavals Georgia has gone through since the civil rights movement. During the Covid-19 pandemic and during complete restrictions of movement and gatherings, these protests show the urgency in denouncing racial inequalities, whether at the material or the symbolic level.
To learn more on the confederate monuments of DeKalb County, listen to episode 3 of Nicolas Champeaux' "Free Stupid White Male" podcast proposed during the France Culture documentary series.
Nicolas Raulin is a doctoral student at EHESS at the Centre d’Études Nords-Américaine (CENA). He is working on the "New Great Migration" of African Americans to the South of the United States since the 1970s. After working as an adjunct professor for two years at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3, he received a 10 month Fulbright research award to do an ethnography in Atlanta, Georgia. He has been teaching in the Sociology Department of the Université de Nantes since Fall 2020.