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Statue damaged by Atlanta protesters champions unity, not Confederacy

ATLANTA — Protesters took to the streets in Atlanta and elsewhere Sunday night, outraged over the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a "Unite the Right" rally clashed with counter-protesters. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when a car plowed through a group of pedestrians. James Alex Fields Jr., 20, a failed military aspirant whose former high school teacher said he was "fascinated with Nazism" and "idolized Adolf Hitler," was charged with second-degree murder and was denied bond Monday.

The Atlanta march traveled from Woodruff Park to Piedmont Park, where some damaged the Peace Monument, erected in 1911. The sculpture features an angel standing above a Confederate soldier, guiding him to lay down his weapon.

“I completely understand what happened,” said Thornton Kennedy, a sixth-generation Atlantan who has taken his children to visit it many times to explain Atlanta’s history. “It’s a statue that, to the observer, looks like a Confederate memorial.”

But it was erected to champion unity, not venerate the Confederacy.

When the Civil War broke out, members of an Atlanta militia called the Gate City Guard were among the first to take up arms against the North. Afterward, some survivors became part of what would eventually become the Georgia National Guard. Others, who felt they were too old to fight any longer, took up the cause for reconciliation.

“These guys realized a national healing needed to take place,” said Kennedy, a history buff who keeps the three-volume set “The Chronicles of the Old Guard” on his bookshelf. “They organized a peace tour of the North, which is really remarkable. These were guys who fought in the Civil War, against Union troops. They would go meet with Union soldiers and began to repair those fissures the war created. It speaks to what we call the Atlanta spirit.”

Atlanta author Goldie Taylor, who’s been a contributor for the Daily Beast, was among those weighing in via social media Sunday night.

"The Peace Monument is NOT a Confederate memorial," she wrote. "It was erected to honor those who worked to reunify the country after Reconstruction."

No one, of course, suggests that 1911 Atlanta was the progressive bastion of equality, diversity and inclusion that modern-day Atlanta enjoys. Jim Crow laws were still prevalent back then. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was decades away. Women were still nine years from having the right to vote.

Judged by the mores of their era, however, the Gate City Guard members who sought to heal the rift between North and South would likely have been considered relatively enlightened for their time. The Peace Monument erected that year was something of harbinger of Atlanta’s reputation during the 1960s Civil Rights era as the “City Too Busy to Hate.”

“I think Atlanta has done a fairly good job of putting the Civil War in context and moving on from it,” Kennedy said. Sometimes when he’s visiting the park, he becomes an impromptu tour guide, detailing the monument’s meaning to visitors.

“I do want everyone to know the history of that statue and know that it truly is a peace monument,” he said.

A protester was hurt by metal falling from the edifice as the group tried to tear it down, AJC photographer John Spink reported Sunday night. Tensions rose as the lone policeman on the scene was surrounded by black-clad Antifa protesters shouting “pig.” Black Lives Matter protesters put themselves between the police officer and the Antifa crowd, and the gathering soon dispersed.

The former Gate City Guard has given way to a civic group called the Old Guard of the Gate City Guard, whose members participate in historic commemorations including an annual rededication of the Peace Monument. Past commandant John Green, who repudiated the “racist garbage” he saw on display in Charlottesville over the weekend, hopes the Peace Monument will be restored in time for this fall’s ceremony.

"We would like for people to know what it is," he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.