Mayor Rusty Paul said he can’t prove Sandy Springs’ Lake Forrest Drive and Forrest Lake Drive were named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general during the Civil War who also served as the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, though he’s convinced they are.

But by removing one of the “r’s” from those streets, he hopes to eliminate any evidence of the man’s presence in the city as it takes steps to remove racism while the nation continues to grapple with that issue and the deaths of black individuals at the hands of white police officers.

“I’m not for erasing history and tearing down every monument and changing every name, but we need to send a message that if you want a community of racial harmony and justice, we need to understand what these symbols mean to our fellow neighbors, community members and the people we meet in the course of our daily lives,” Paul said. “We can never make amends for some the things we did in our history, but we can do some things in meaningful ways.”

At its June 16 meeting at City Springs, the Sandy Springs City Council voted 6-0 to approve a resolution supporting coordination with the city of Atlanta to rename the two streets, since Lake Forrest Drive runs from Powers Ferry Road in Buckhead to Mount Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs.

According to a news release, renaming a road requires a public hearing, advertising at least 25 days in advance and giving written notice to all impacted property owners. But the council is expected to make a second and final vote on the streets’ name change at its July 21 meeting, which will also serve as a public hearing.

Paul said he and City Attorney Dan Lee have reached out to Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and that city’s legal department, respectively, about the issue. Paul said this simple name change, which the Fulton County Schools district did when it opened Lake Forest Elementary School in 2008, possibly because of the KKK leader, is a step in the right direction.

Three of the 10 individuals who spoke during the meeting’s public comment portion talked about the racism issue, including the street name change.

“Mayor Paul, thank you for your public statements acknowledging racism as an insidious disease,” Brandy Huff said. “Your encouragement to gather for deep conversations about racism and how we can eradicate it from everyday life is an important step toward understanding that there is one race — the human race — and we are all responsible for healing the wounds and eliminating the inequities of structural, institutional and individual racism.

“What I see missing from your comments, those of the city council and those of the police chief is acknowledgement that individuals — empowered and protected by laws and law enforcement — are responsible for the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others. Thousands of lives have been lost at the hands of individuals who vowed to protect and serve the community. When you avoid stating that truth, you inadvertently excuse those who are responsible while sustaining and protecting the racist systems that enable these individuals to abuse their power.”

Paul, who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, said his stance on the Civil War and his Confederate relatives has changed over the years.

“My great-great-grandfather was captured at Gettysburg and died in a federal prison camp,” he said. “I have dozens of ancestors who fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War. I have grown up to realize the symbols I was revering as a child were appropriated for the purpose of generating hate, (and that) means we have lost them as part of our heritage. I don’t accept that argument any longer.”

District 6 Councilman Andy Bauman said he’s in favor of changing the street signs but wonders how much it will cost the city.

In related news, the council voted 6-0 to approve a resolution encouraging the Georgia General Assembly to approve a statewide hate-crimes bill (House Bill 426), since Georgia is one of only four states that doesn’t have one. The Legislature resumed its 2020 session June 15 after it was delayed for three months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it had only 11 days left starting then.

Bauman, who is Jewish, crafted Sandy Springs’ hate-crimes ordinance, which was approved by the council in July and is the first city law of its kind in the state. Georgia’s hate-crimes bill failed to get approved in the 2019 session and seemed destined not to again this year, Paul said. But that changed after the recent protests and civil unrest following the officer-involved deaths of at least four black individuals, including Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, prompting support from House Speaker David Ralston and others in the House.

“It’s years late but better late than never,” Paul said.

District 3 Councilman Chris Burnett added, “I think it’s important to point out that I grew up in this city in the ’60s and ’70s, and we had a motto: The City Too Busy to Hate. … It is just time that the rest of the state realizes it’s embarrassing to be one of four states left to not have a hate-crimes law.”

Finally, city spokeswoman Sharon Kraun provided information on Paul’s plan for the city to host civic dinners starting in July as a way to foster more dialogue on race. The dinners, which will involve eight to 10 residents each, will be get-togethers of a diverse group of individuals, meeting virtually at first and eventually in person.

“We’re getting the foundation together with the questions (that will be asked at each one) and are working with the groups within the groups so there are very diverse people there,” she said. “We’re also planning to do these in English and in Spanish, so people are comfortable doing this in their own language.”

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