Newton County commissioners Tuesday night, July 14, narrowly voted to remove the century-old Confederate memorial statue from the Covington Square and move it into an unspecified storage area.
And Chairman Marcello Banes said he supported replacing it with a fountain that would represent all the cities and the county with the theme of “OneNewton.”
The vote was 3-2 along party lines, with Commissioner J.C. Henderson making the motion to remove the 114-year-old structure and fellow Democrats Nancy Schulz and Demond Mason voting in support. The two Republican members, Stan Edwards and Ronnie Cowan, voted against it.
Banes said he had received messages threatening vandalism and damage to the statue and parts of the surrounding Square, which led him to call for the removal of the divisive memorial.
“When people go to making threats to destroy our town, that is unacceptable,” he said.
In response to a question from Edwards, Banes said the threats came from the same groups which had threatened a Confederate statue in Conyers recently.
“These threats are credible threats,” he said.
Rockdale County Chairman Oz Nesbitt said the threats had prompted him to order the removal of the Conyers statue June 30.
Banes said the county government already had taken bids and foresaw spending about $35,000 for the removal — much less than the 2018 estimates of $100,000.
However, the cities of Covington and Oxford would not agree to place the statue in their city cemeteries containing Confederate veterans, he said.
As a result, the statue will be removed and placed in storage at an unspecified location, Banes said.
“Maybe there will be a time it can be erected in an appropriate place,” he said.
Mason said he grew up in Tulsa, Okla., where racial division led to a massacre that destroyed a prosperous Black business area in the early part of the 20th century.
He said he wanted to do something to help end divisiveness in Newton County.
“We have to do what we think is best for this community,” Mason said.
But Edwards said, as a white man, he was “looking for a date and time when I can celebrate my heritage.”
The divisive issue had split Newton County along racial and political lines in recent years — most recently following the shooting deaths of unarmed Black people by white police officers nationwide which led to demonstrations and rioting in June.
Some Black leaders have said the statue was offensive because it memorialized soldiers who fought for a cause that enslaved their ancestors. Supporters said it needed to remain because it paid homage to their ancestors and Southern heritage.
After the Tuesday meeting, Banes said he wanted to replace the statue with a fountain that would represent all the cities and the county.
“It’s something that we are looking to do. It would include everybody — Porterdale, Oxford, Covington, Mansfield, Newborn, all the cities — with the theme of ‘OneNewton,’” he said.
“We want this community to know we are moving forward in love. That’s our goal — to continue to unify this community.”
He added that “we’re not going to have a show out here” when the statue is removed — a reference to the Conyers removal before a crowd and TV cameras.
Banes said he placed the issue on the agenda of a special called meeting of the board of commissioners Tuesday night after finding he had the public support of three members, he said.
Under the county’s charter, Banes had the authority to place it on the agenda without commissioners’ approval. However, he noted he had waited three and a half years to take the action so he could get a majority of members in support of it.
Banes also noted he and other commissioners had received threatening emails of other kinds, as well, from both sides of the issue.
Edwards offered a plan to create a citizens committee to decide by Aug. 1 how to add memorials to past civil rights leaders near the Confederate statue, which stands in a park in the middle of the Square. The plan also would have required the county to protect all memorials, he said.
Cowan said he liked the idea of a citizens committee recommending a plan because such efforts had helped the county make major changes in its government structure in recent years.
However, Banes said he did not believe such a committee could come to an agreement when the emails he and others have received reflect a bitter division on the issue.
“I know y’all are receiving the same emails I am. I am not for putting people together in a room like that,” Banes said.
Commissioners voted 3-2 to deny Edwards’ motion.
A 2019 state law states that appropriate measures for protecting or preserving such monuments “shall not be prohibited.”
But the law also says a local government cannot remove or relocate a monument unless it is necessary for such reasons as constructing, expanding, or altering buildings, roads and highways.
The law also requires the statue to be moved to a place of “similar prominence, honor, visibility, and access" if a move is required.
County Attorney Megan Martin said she interpreted the law to require placement in a place of “similar prominence” only if it was removed for a road project or building construction.
Attorney Martin O’Toole of the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans later said the Newton commission’s action not to move the statue to a place of equal prominence after its removal was a “clear violation of Georgia law.”
He said he anticipated lawsuits from numerous organizations filed in Superior Court about the commission’s action.
Edwards told a reporter he believed the compromise he offered was a good compromise for all.
He appeared skeptical that the commission’s three Democratic members voting for the removal did so to protect the statue and not because they were politically opposed to it.
“It was done to protect it. This board just voted that, 3-2,” Edwards said.
“I believe what the chairman says. I believe he has had threats. I just believe the threats could have been overcome if we had worked to a compromise.
“I tried to offer a compromise. They adamantly said, ‘no.’ That said a lot. That told me it was their way or the highway. It will be considered a board decision that I will have to support whether I like it or not.”
County resident Tyler Still organized a petition drive on Change.org that gained 11,000 names after producers of such TV shows as “Vampire Diaries” promoted it.
Still said it was “the right time for something like this to happen.”
“What I’m really looking for now is, something that’s put in its place, I want it to be representative,” Still said.
Timothy Birt, who has organized two peaceful rallies related to recent police shootings of unarmed Black men nationwide, said he supported the decision. It moves the county toward reaching bigger goals of improving the racial and economic climate for area residents.
“I know what it means to the Black community. At the same time, there’s a much bigger battle that we have to fight and the statue is just a small step in the direction we want to get to,” he said.
On the other hand, longtime Newton County resident Mike Hooten said he did not believe a racial problem had existed in Covington until recent years, especially in relation to the statue.
"I hate it's gotten about race," he said.