CONYERS — Hundreds of people turned out at 10 p.m. on June 30 to watch the Confederate monument that stood for 107 years at the corner of the Rockdale County Courthouse on Main Street in Conyers come down. The monument will be put into a safe place at an undisclosed location in the county until a decision is made on where it will go, possibly in the historic city of Conyers cemetery.
Rockdale County Commission Chair Oz Nesbitt Sr. announced in a video late Tuesday afternoon that he had made an “executive decision” to have the statue removed.
Nesbitt said later that threats coming into the county and his concern for the safety of the citizens led to his decision. Nesbitt said he and county staff came up with the ceremony that accompanied the removal as a way to honor both those opposed to the monument coming down and those in favor of it.
“We wanted to do the right thing and bring some dignity and respect for those who honor this memorial, and dignity and respect for those who oppose it, and find a common ground,” Nesbitt said.
The monument was erected on April 6, 1913 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy to honor Confederate soldiers from Rockdale County who died during the Civil War.
In the midst of protests following the May killing of George Floyd, a number of monuments memorials and statues across the United States have been removed, many of them related to the Civil War.
Georgia Senate Bill 77 was passed last year to actively protect all government statues and monuments, including prohibiting the removal of Confederate monuments. But the bill also allows a local government seeking to relocate a monument to place it in a “site of similar prominence.”
Citizens on both sides of the issue started gathering at the statue and debating the issue prior to the ceremony. While there was some shouting back and forth, most of the debates were peaceful and respectful.
Steve Camp, a Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) camp member in Conyers, said he came not as SCV representative, but as a citizen to witness the removal of the monument.
“Tonight I’m just here as a witness to an unlawful act by a Rockdale County commissioner,” Camp said.
Deena Watkins was among a group of citizens who gathered around the monument. She said the debate over the monument is not a Black and white issue, but about heritage and history of all races, and that people must be able to talk together to resolve such issues.
“This is how I teach my children: If we all sat down around a table and had a real conversation on how to change things, we would get things done,” Watkins said. “But this stuff right here, bickering back and forth, destroying things, tearing down statues, and disliking each other; we’re never going to get anywhere.”
Anthony Smith said in response that everyone knows what the monument stood for.
“We know the Ku Klux Klan would use that symbol” he said. “We know that our people were hanged because of that symbol. How does it bring equality to us as Black people?”
Alonzo Hill added that a courthouse where everyone should have equal justice should not have such a monument in front of it.
“We are supposed to be able to enter a courthouse feeling like everybody is going to be judged fairly,” Hill said. “When you come down Main Street and see the Superior Court judge sitting up under this Confederate statue (on a nearby bench), it makes us think that when we go back into that courtroom, it is not about equality. My biggest problem is at the doorstep of our courthouse that we all go into seeking some equality.”
Nesbitt spoke briefly at the beginning of the ceremony and took the podium to a mixture of cheers and boos.
“We are gathered here tonight because the people of this community need to understand that this courthouse is for fair and equal justice,” Nesbitt said. “Every person that enters into the doors of the Rockdale County Courthouse should not have to pass a symbol that conflicts with justice.”
The ceremony ended with prayers from three local pastors. In his prayer, Dr. Dave Benson of Conyers First United Methodist Church quoted “God mend thine every flaw” from the song “America the Beautiful” and said the people “are here tonight to mend one of those flaws.”
Brother Pablo Maria, a retired missionary and former monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit, led the crowd in the Lord’s Prayer.
Pastor Eric Lee of Springfield Baptist Church said before ending the ceremony with a benediction, “To those who this statue has great meaning, to those who celebrate what it stands for, to those who sit at the foot of this statue, it will not be destroyed. You can celebrate it in the cemetery.”
Roper and Sons Crane Company began removing the statue about 10:30 p.m., taking it down section by section, with the Confederate soldier on top being the first section removed, to a round of applause from many of those in the crowd. It took about six hours to completely remove the monument, place the pieces on a flatbed truck, and haul them to an undisclosed location.
According to the county, the cost to remove the statue was about $15,000.