by Jo Freeman
Democracy Restored: a history of the Georgia State Capitol
by Timothy J. Crimmins and Anne H. Farrisee;
photographs by Diane Kirkland.
Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, c2007. ix, 190pp
Democracy Restored is more than a history of a building. It is "a conscious effort in historical memory making" which blends stories about politics and protest into a narrative about architecture and construction.
I was sent this book because one of my photographs is on p. 174. It shows the funeral cortege of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. passing the Capitol, which "was locked that day by order of Governor Lester Maddox." Below it is an Associated Press photo of the casket of Coretta Scott King being carried by Georgia state troopers into the Capitol in 2006, where she was the first African-American woman to lie in state. Together these photos convey the message that times change, though not without a struggle. That is the theme of this book.
I enjoyed reading it not just for the many pictures, but the way it weaves black history and women’s history into the political and architectural history of the Capitol. From the laying of the cornerstone on September 2, 1885 to the removal of the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag that flies over it only in this century, the Capitol has been the scene of many conflicts not only among those who exercised power within it, but among those who did not.
Long before that cornerstone was laid, Atlanta civic boosters used uncertain times created by civil war and reconstruction to move the state capitol from Milledgeville, where it had been for over 60 years. Government met in the Atlanta Opera House until a new Capitol was built.
During those years blacks joined whites as members of the Assembly, but not without resistance. After ratifying the 14th Amendment in order to be readmitted to the union, the white majority expelled the black legislators, arguing that the right to vote did not bring with it the right to hold office. Congress reinstated them in 1870; in 1978 they were honored with a statue on the Capitol grounds.
Nonetheless, their numbers declined as rural whites used fraud, intimidation and violence to push the former slaves out of the political sphere. The last African American member of the Georgia legislature served in 1907; there wouldn’t be another one until 1963.
Long before this, the legislature was segregating the building and the state. The first segregation law was passed in 1891, requiring separate seats on city street cars. Blacks responded with a boycott which delayed — but did not prevent — enforcement. The color line was eventually expanded to include all public facilities, including the public galleries in the statehouse.
Women faced a different kind of exclusion as none could vote or serve before 1920. It was customary for Atlanta civic groups to meet in Capitol rooms which were not being used by the legislature. In 1895 Georgia suffragists asked to use one for an evening meeting but were turned down by the Governor on the grounds that "it would be unconstitutional to allow women to use it." It took four years of lobbying and another Governor before they could meet under the dome topped by a 15-foot statue of "Miss Freedom."
On July 24, 1907 women swarmed the capitol to successfully convince the legislature to impose statewide prohibition of alcohol. They were absent on August 13, when a constitutional amendment intended to disfranchise African Americans was sent to the voters, who ratified it over a year later.
Women returned in 1914 to lobby for their own enfranchisement, but not successfully. The most popular argument against woman suffrage was that if white women could vote, black women would vote and black men would soon follow. The Georgia legislature officially rejected the proposed 19th Amendment in 1919 and did not ratify it until 1970.
In 1923 a marble drinking fountain commemorating Georgia suffragists was installed in the Capitol. Three months later the first two women were sworn in as members of the Assembly. Their numbers would grow slowly until the 1970s.
Georgians often used their Capitol to celebrate the Lost Cause of the Confederacy and to emphasize that theirs was a "white man’s country." The hallways were filled with the portraits and statues of men who had fought for the Confederacy.
In 1891 the first portrait bought specifically for the new Capitol was that of the former Secretary of the Confederacy, who had represented antebellum Georgia in the House but subsequently refused to swear an oath to the United States and continued to advocate defiance of the federal government.
The statues of Confederates were joined in 1932 by that of Tom Watson, one of Georgia’s most famous orators. He had begun his political career in the 1890s as a populist, but ended it railing against Negroes, Jews, Catholics — and the Great War.
Speaking at the statue’s public presentation was governor-elect Eugene Talmadge, who followed in Watson’s inflammatory footsteps. The following year he put the state capitol under martial law in order to gain control of independent state entities, until the federal government intervened. He dismissed the Board of Regents when it refused to fire state college faculty and administrators who, he claimed, were fostering integration. His statue was dedicated in 1949.
In the next decade the US Supreme Court’s desegregation decisions led to further defiance. In 1956 the Confederate battle emblem replaced the stripes on the Georgia state flag. In 1960 demonstrations by black college students trying to desegregate the Capitol cafeteria were rebuffed.
But times were changing. The 1962 election of the first black legislator in 55 years brought that change to the Capitol, and more. When nine African Americans joined the legislature in 1966, one, Julian Bond, was denied his seat because he spoke out against the Viet Nam war, while another, Grace Towns Hamilton, became the first black woman to sit in the Georgia legislature.
Symbolic acceptance of integration as a fact was made by Governor Jimmy Carter in 1973 when he announced that the portraits of three African-Americans would be added to the Capitol walls. One of those was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is not the end of the story, but to know more about how the building and the state changed over time, you will have to read Democracy Restored.