Georgia lawmaker under fire for scathing remarks about John Lewis

August 14, 2020
1 min read
Georgia lawmaker under fire for scathing remarks about John Lewis

A Northeast Georgia state lawmaker was stripped of his Georgia House committee chairmanship Friday for belittling the late Congressman John Lewis’ legacy in a radio interview.

It’s the second time Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, has lost a leadership position in the General Assembly since June 2017, when he distributed an article promoting the idea that slavery did not cause the American Civil War.

Speaking with WJJC radio on Friday, Benton dismissed growing support in Congress to replace the Alexander Stephens statue in Washington, D.C., with a monument honoring Lewis, stating he had “never read of a significant piece of legislation” sponsored by the 33-year congressman.

“His only claim to fame is that he got conked on the head at the [Edmund] Pettus Bridge,” Benton said of Lewis. “And he has milked that for fifty years – or he milked it for fifty years.”

Lewis was violently beaten by police and suffered a skull fracture during a march in 1965 across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Dubbed “Bloody Sunday,” the watershed event helped spur passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Lewis died last month at age 80 following a seven-month battle against pancreatic cancer.

Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, relieved Benton as chair of the House Retirement Committee shortly after the radio remarks, calling the comments about Lewis “offensive and disgusting.”

“These comments do not reflect the values or the views of the House Majority Caucus,” Ralston said. “I can neither condone nor ignore such hurtful remarks.”

The comments came after several influential Georgia lawmakers including U.S. Sen. David Perdue and Congressman Tom Graves began pressing to replace a statute of Stephens, who was vice president of the Confederacy, with one of Lewis in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall.

Benton, who previously described the Ku Klux Klan as “not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order,” urged in the radio interview Friday for people to visit a Confederate museum at Stephens’ former property in Crawfordville and to “read all the stuff that he did do.”

Stephens, who was also governor of Georgia and a congressman in the late 19th century, defended white supremacy and slavery as founding principles of the Confederacy in his 1861 “Cornerstone Speech.”

Benton, a former school teacher who has served in the Georgia House since 2005, previously lost the chairmanship of the House Human Relations and Aging Committee for sharing an article with other state lawmakers titled “The Absurdity of Slavery as the Cause of the War Between the States” in June 2017.

This article is part of an ongoing series highlighting statements by public officials called The Public Record.

“Because public men and women are amenable ‘at all times’ to the people, they must conduct the public’s business out in the open.” -Charles L. Weltner Sr., former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court

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