When the funeral cortege of Martin Luther King Jr. passed near the Georgia state Capitol in 1968, the state’s segregationist governor, Lester Maddox, refused to acknowledge the event in any way. He did not close the schools in observance, and he made sure the flags on the Capitol building were not lowered to half-staff.
I was a senior in high school then, a few weeks away from graduation, but I remember that I felt a deep sense of disgust at the actions of our white racist governor.
I never thought the state of Georgia could be more disgraced than it was when the General Assembly voted Maddox into the governor’s office. Maddox’s response to King’s assassination showed I was wrong.
Forty-nine years later, as a much older journalist, I am grateful I could be there on the Capitol grounds to observe a much different scene last week.
A statue of King was unveiled next to the Capitol building that was once controlled by white supremacists like Maddox. On a cool, gray morning, with the wind whipping back and forth, King finally came home.
Martin Dawe has sculpted an 8-foot bronze statue of King based on a photograph that shows King leaving a courthouse in Montgomery, Ala., during the 1956 bus boycotts. With an overcoat draped over the left arm, the statue of King seems poised to stride into history.
Ironically, his statue was erected at that moment in American history when the country is torn over whether we should take down monuments honoring the Confederate generals and soldiers who fought to preserve slavery.
“This day is no accident,” said King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King. “It had to happen on this day, at this time, with everything happening in this nation.”
“This statue provides a sense of hope to a nation that is in turmoil once again,” she said.
Even with King’s likeness on display, there are still plenty of monuments to racism and white supremacy at the Capitol.
A few hundred feet from the King statue is a statue of John B. Gordon, a Confederate general, a former governor and one of the founders of the Ku Klux Klan.
Not too far from Gordon you will see a statue of Richard B. Russell, a racist who spent his entire senatorial career fighting against the passage of anti-lynching laws and civil rights legislation.
Russell once said this in a campaign speech: “As one who was born and reared in the atmosphere of the Old South, with six generations of my forebears now resting beneath Southern soil, I am willing to go as far and make as great a sacrifice to preserve and insure white supremacy in the social, economic and political life of our state as any man who lives within her borders.”
There is also a statue of Eugene Talmadge, a virulent racist whose actions as governor caused the University of Georgia to lose its accreditation.
Those inconvenient facts didn’t matter to those who spoke at the King ceremony.
Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed noted the long time that King’s supporters had to wait before state officials finally agreed to place his statue at the Capitol.
King used to say that the word “wait” usually meant “never,” Reed recounted, but with the statue in place, “that never has become now.”
“This day took much too long to get here,” agreed House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. “We cannot reclaim or relive those days, but we can learn from and enjoy them.”
State Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, who helped broker the complex arrangements that resulted in the statue being cast, noted that King’s monument was being unveiled on the 54th anniversary of his “I have a dream” speech in 1963 at the March on Washington.
“Today is a defining moment in our state’s history,” Smyre said. “Let’s not squander, but take advantage of that moment.”
The new statue faces east, which means that it will “see the dawn of every new day in Georgia,” as Ralston put it. It also stands in the shadow of the gold dome and overlooks these landmarks: the neighborhood where King was born and raised, a major intersection of Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Liberty Plaza.
“There is God in that,” Reed observed.
Tom Crawford is editor of The Georgia Report.