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Jim GallowayJim Galloway

Top Republican signs onto bill for MLK monument on Capitol grounds

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Recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. at the state Capitol is currently limited to an oil portrait. AJC file

Nearly forty-six years after his assassination, the Georgia General Assembly on Monday took the first steps toward putting a monument to Martin Luther King Jr. on the grounds of the state Capitol.

The Republican-controlled House suspended its own rules to give a speedy start to a pair of measures co-sponsored by state Reps. Calvin Smyre of Columbus and Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta.

But the third signature on the legislation – and the most important — belongs to House Majority Leader Larry O’Neal, R-Bonaire. “The only message I want to send is that we need to honor one of the greatest Georgians in the history of this state,” O’Neal said.

His Democratic counterpart, Minority Leader Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, also signed the legislature.

The bill must crash through the House committee system and win a floor vote by next Monday, if it is to be considered eligible for further deliberation in the state Senate.

Despite its Democratic sponsorship, the bill is the fulfillment of a promise made by Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, to an Ebenezer Baptist Church congregation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.

“Not many states can boast a native son who has merited a national holiday. But we Georgians can,” Deal said. “That’s why this year working with the General Assembly I’m committed to finding an appropriate way to honor Dr. King on our Capitol Hill.”

Deal told my Insider colleague Greg Bluestein late Monday that he hasn’t seen the legislation yet but that he’s “suitable with whatever the General Assembly comes up with.”

“I’d be supportive of some way of commemorating or recognizing his accomplishments,” said Deal, adding: “Everything has its time and its season. I think now may be the season.”

Brooks, who was a young civil rights worker in 1968 when King was slain, had introduced an earlier bill that would have given a King statue the place on the front steps of the state Capitol long occupied by a memorial to Tom Watson, a U.S. Senator with a reputation sullied by his racially incendiary outbursts.

The Watson statue was quietly moved from the Capitol last year, to accommodate repairs to the front steps of the building. But state officials now say that, for public safety reasons, the area will remain clear.

After the governor made his remarks in January, state lawmakers began deliberating over whether a statue of King was called for, or the placement of his name on a new park on the Capitol’s south side, now under construction.

According to the language in the bill – which has yet to receive a number – the matter has not yet been settled:

“There shall be placed upon the Capitol grounds of the state Capitol building or in another prominent place a statue of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., subject to the availability of private funds for such purpose.

“Unless public safety concerns warrant postponement, such monument shall be procured and placed as soon as practicable.”

In an interview, Smyre, the longest-serving member of the House, said he will pair with Joe Wilkinson of Sandy Springs, the Republican chairman of the House Ethics Committee, to raise the necessary cash for the monument – in whatever form it takes. Wilkinson’s signature is on the Legislation, too.

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