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Barred From Removing Confederate Monument, County Adds Context Instead


If you stand outside the old DeKalb County Courthouse in Decatur, Ga., you can't miss the 30-foot-tall obelisk erected there in 1908. It's a monument to Confederate soldiers, and its inscription calls those men part of a, quote, "covenant keeping race," praising them as men of virtues in peace and in war.

Well, as of this month, there's now a contextualizing plaque alongside that obelisk. It reads, in part, this monument and similar ones were created to intimidate African Americans and limit their full participation in the social and political life of their communities. That marker was approved by vote of the DeKalb County Board of Commissioners. And county Commissioner Lorraine Cochran-Johnson joins us to talk about that decision.

Welcome to the program.

LORRAINE COCHRAN-JOHNSON: Thanks so much, Melissa. I am happy to be here.

BLOCK: The original vote by the county commission was to remove that Confederate obelisk, but ultimately, that ran up against a state law in Georgia. What does that state law say?

COCHRAN-JOHNSON: Literally, the state law said - it does give you the ability to move the monument. However, even if that monument is moved or transferred to a third party, it must remain visibly displayed. So to remove the monument and place it out of public view was never an option. And I think after consideration from both our legal team, as well as the BOC and the community, it was decided to leave the monument in place and to contextualize its presence.

BLOCK: And I think that the county tried to find another taker for the obelisk, and no one wanted it.

COCHRAN-JOHNSON: Well, let me say this. And you know, being on the BOC, you see all kinds of emails. And there were people in social media that said, I will receive the monument, and I will be happy to display it. But ultimately, I personally, as a commissioner - I'm satisfied with the outcome. I believe that the contextualization gives a balanced view of history. I can say, personally, even within my district, I've had very spirited conversations with individuals on both sides of the aisle who feel that it is a good thing to have the monument erected and contextualize it. And there are some who said it is a very painful reminder of a dark time in history, and I don't want to see it at all.

BLOCK: I'm curious - for you as an African American, is part of it painful when you see that obelisk and know who - for whom it was erected and in their praise?

COCHRAN-JOHNSON: I will say, for me, as an African American, it is a constant reminder of a period. For me, being raised in rural Alabama - I often call it LA to sort of poke light at where I'm from, but I absolutely love lower Alabama. You know, for me - and coming from a family of civil activists and people that were truly on the front line of the civil rights movement - it is a constant reminder. But I don't see that personally - from a personal perspective as a bad thing. I think across races, all hues, it is very important that we understand our history and embrace it and appreciate it.

BLOCK: I was looking at a statement from your fellow Commissioner Mereda Davis Johnson, who voted for the plaque but was not happy about what the outcome was. She called it progress, not victory. And here's what she said - shame on the Georgia Legislature for forcing local governments to leave in place racist symbols. Do you agree with her that the law in Georgia should be changed so that you could remove the obelisk - the monument - and not have to put it somewhere else?

COCHRAN-JOHNSON: I will say that I do agree that the Georgia law should be changed and allow each jurisdiction to make that determination. So from that standpoint, I do believe that local government should have the ability, based upon the vote of the people and/or those who represent them, to determine whether or not Confederate monuments remain erected.

BLOCK: That's Lorraine Cochran-Johnson. She's a commissioner on the board of DeKalb County, Ga. She joined us from WABE in Atlanta. Thanks so much.

COCHRAN-JOHNSON: Thank you so much, Melissa. It was great speaking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.