“Slavery wasn’t a problem in the beginning.”
Did he really just say that? He did.
My mind was getting blown by Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson. He was speaking to his hometown Rotary Club Tuesday. I had sought an interview with him, knowing he was opposed to moving from the Georgia Capitol grounds the statue of a white supremacist named Tom Watson. Benton suggested we rendezvous at the Rotary Club meeting, where he was delivering a speech. His topic: The War Between the States.
The speech was a bonus, and Benton blew my mind when he said “slavery wasn’t a problem in the beginning.” Clearly, slavery was a problem for every human being in bondage.
It seems like every day in the news business, there’s some gaffe that gets blown up out of proportion. Outrage criscrosses the internet. The gaffe-maker gets chased and either backtracks or explains. Maybe the reporter or blogger who initially uncovers the quote makes a name for himself, or gets some kind of gold star on his refrigerator — or is the one who backtracks.
But they are frequently quotes taken out of context, like Rep. John Lewis’s interview with the Guardian about NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The Guardian’s headline said Lewis “praises Snowden’s act of civil disobedience.” Lewis never actually praised Snowden. But the alleged gaffe became a brief sensation.
When Rep. Benton spoke, there was not a single non-white person in the room. The remark drew no discernible reaction — except from me, when I grabbed my Iphone and switched on the audio recorder.
My mind reeled as I played back the quote in my brainpan. But as the minutes passed, my mind became less blown as I analyzed the context.
Benton wasn’t arguing that slavery was OK. He was saying that the issue of slavery didn’t present significant political problems during the birth of the Republic. Benton had been a high school history teacher. Sure, historians might argue with him about the degree to which slavery posed a political “problem.” But the quote was more nuanced than it sounded coming out of Benton’s mouth.
It was arguably a gaffe. Even if reported in context, the headline might have drawn some hits to my employer’s web site.
But the rest of his remarks were standard Sons of the Confederacy rhetoric. I kept Benton’s quote to myself.
Benton split hairs elsewhere in his speech. Though he appeared to acknowledge that slavery was at the heart of southern secession, he argued that the south fought for the cause of freedom, not slavery. This is a common argument used to downplay the broad reality of slavery’s role in the Civil War. Many in the room appeared to share his view.
Benton is a guy who likes to decry “political correctness,” even if by doing so, he disregards the sensitivities of people who aren’t white. He argued that the Watson statue should remain because he was wildly popular in the early 20th century — disregarding, of course, the blacks and Jews and Catholics he baited in order to become popular.
Our conversation grew animated when we talked about Eugene Talmadge, arguably as wretched a racial demagogue as any in Georgia history. His statue also graces the Capitol grounds. “Talmadge was the hero of the common man,” Benton said. I suggested that non-white men probably found him to be less than heroic.
“You start digging up stuff on folks, and you’re gonna find something on just about everybody that somebody doesn’t like,” Benton said during our interview.
He could have been talking about his speech an hour earlier.