ATLANTA – Georgia's House speaker on Friday took away a committee leadership post from a fellow Republican who said in a radio interview that the late U.S. Rep John Lewis' "only claim to fame was that he got conked on the head."
Rep. Tommy Benton, who was chairman of the House Retirement Committee, made the comment during an interview on WJJC-AM on Thursday while outlining his opposition to replacing Georgia’s statue of former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens with a statue of Lewis in the U.S. Capitol. A number of state lawmakers, including some Republicans, are supporting the proposal, saying they want to honor Lewis’ leading role in the civil rights movement.
“I have never read of a significant piece of legislation that was passed with his name on it,” Benton said. “John Lewis, his only claim to fame was he got conked on the head at the Pettus Bridge. And he has milked that for 50 years."
The remark was referring to when Lewis was beaten by Alabama State Troopers in Selma during a civil rights march in 1965, an attack that provided political impetus for the Voting Rights Act.
“The comments made by Representative Benton are offensive and disgusting,” House Speaker David Ralston said in a statement. “These comments do not reflect the values or the views of the House Majority Caucus. I can neither condone nor ignore such hurtful remarks.”
Benton, a Republican from Jefferson, did not respond Friday to an email seeking further comment.
During the hourlong radio interview, he went on to describe proposals to replace the statues of Stephens and surgeon Crawford Long as “malarkey," dismissing them as symbolic politics by Democrats who he said are otherwise ineffective.
“They can't fix anything else, so they take out their frustrations on those statues,” Benton said.
Ralston previously stripped Benton of a different committee chairmanship in 2017 and knocked him off a special civic education advisory committee after he mailed an article disputing slavery as the cause of the Civil War to Ralston and other House members.
In 2016, Benton told an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter that the Ku Klux Klan “was not so much a racist thing, but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”
Benton sponsored a bill that would have required the state to formally recognize Confederate Memorial Day and Robert E. Lee’s birthday as public holidays, a constitutional amendment that would protect Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial, and another bill that would require street names changed since 1968 to revert to their former names if the prior name had honored a Civil War veteran.
Benton also opposed erecting a statue of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on Georgia’s Capitol grounds and warned in the Thursday interview that he feared Democrats would remove statues of former Confederates from the state Capitol if they regained power in Georgia.
When Ralston appointed Benton to lead the Retirement Committee in 2019, the speaker said he believed everyone deserved a second chance, despite criticism of the move. The retirement committee oversees state pension funds.
Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.