ATLANTA — A Georgia state representative was stripped of a committee chairmanship on Friday after saying in a radio interview that the late Rep. John Lewis' "claim to fame was that he got conked on the head," which he "milked for 50 years."
They came in a discussion about replacing Georgia's statue in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall of Alexander Hamilton Stephens - a 19th-century former governor of the state and the vice president of the Confederacy - with that of Rep. Lewis.
"I have never read of a significant piece of legislation that was passed with his name on it," Rep. Benton said, referring to Lewis. "His only claim to fame was that he got conked on the head at the Pettus Bridge. And he has milked that for 50 years."
Benton's reference was to the "Bloody Sunday," march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, in which Lewis and other Civil Rights luminaries, then just young adults (Lewis was 25), led a march intended for Montgomery in demand of equal voting rights.
They were instead stopped by Alabama state troopers at the end of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, who attacked them as they attempted to pray together, in an episode that was widely broadcast, shocking the nation with its brutality.
It played a pivotal role in the 1965 Voting Rights Act being passed.
After learning of the comments, Georgia House Speaker David Ralston from Blue Ridge, also a Republican, stripped Benton of his chairmanship of the House Retirement Committee.
The committee oversees the teachers and state employees retirement system.
"I have today relieved Representative Tommy Benton from his position as Chairman of the House Retirement Committee. The comments made by Representative Benton are offensive and disgusting. These comments do not reflect the values or the views of the House Majority Caucus. I can neither condone nor ignore such hurtful remarks," Speaker Ralston said in a statement obtained by 11Alive. “Congressman John Lewis spent a lifetime of public service advancing equality for all. He stood with Dr. King to fight for civil rights during dangerous times for which he paid a brutal price.”
The effort to replace the statue of Stephens in the U.S. Capitol with one of Lewis has been a bipartisan effort pushed by Georgia's U.S. House delegation - one supported, as well, by descendants of Stephens.
11Alive is attempting to reach Benton for comment and will update this story if we receive one.