Girl Scouts join fight over bridge named for segregationist
iStock/Thinkstock(SAVANNAH, Ga.) — Lawmakers can expect face-to-face meetings with Girl Scouts from across Georgia next month at the state Capitol, where the young Scouts plan on treating legislators to a milk-and-cookies reception.
These girls bearing gifts of Thin Mints and Samoas will also come packing an agenda. They want to see Savannah’s towering suspension bridge renamed in honor of Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in the coastal Georgia city more than a century ago.
The Girl Scouts saw an opening last fall when Savannah’s city council formally asked state lawmakers during their 2018 session to strip the name of segregationist former Gov. Eugene Talmadge from the bridge. Georgia Scouts are getting support from the Girl Scouts’ national headquarters in New York, which has hired a lobbyist to help sway lawmakers in Atlanta.
Rep. Ron Stephens, a Savannah Republican, is on board with the switch. He said he plans to introduce a bill on Feb. 6, when Girl Scout leaders plan to bring as many as 300 Scouts to the Capitol.
“I can’t think of a name that could go on the bridge at the Savannah River that would mean more,” Stephens said of Low, though he’s not optimistic fellow lawmakers will agree if that means rescinding an honor bestowed upon a former governor. “My opinion is chances of passage are slim to none.”
Since 1956, the span crossing the Savannah River at the Georgia-South Carolina line has been named for Talmadge, a populist Democrat who served three terms between 1933 and 1942. Talmadge railed against the New Deal for offering blacks hope of economic parity with whites. He defended whites-only primary elections in Georgia. And he once proclaimed a black man’s place was “at the back door with his hat in his hand.”
In September, Savannah’s city council unanimously called on the legislature to take Talmadge’s name off the bridge. Mayor Eddie DeLoach sought the change following the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, as white supremacists rallied to protect Confederate statues. DeLoach said Savannah’s bridge should “no longer be named for a man who divided us.”
By law, only Georgia lawmakers can name or rename state roads and bridges. Girl Scouts leaders said it’s an ideal chance to honor Low, who insisted Girl Scouts have a place for all girls regardless of race, religion or disabilities.
Low recruited the first troop of Girl Scouts over tea at her Savannah home in March 1912. In their first year, the girls learned to cook and care for babies. But Low also taught them how to shoot rifles and tie up burglars.
While Low began with only 18 Girl Scouts, 1.8 million are enrolled today. Acevedo said Scouts from across the U.S. attending an October convention embraced their Savannah colleagues’ cause. Roughly 10,000 Girl Scouts and alumnae have signed a petition asking lawmakers to rename the bridge for Low.
In December, Acevedo joined the leaders of Georgia’s two Girl Scout councils at the state Capitol in Atlanta to meet with Gov. Nathan Deal. While the meeting focused on boosting girls’ interest in science and math, the Girl Scout leaders also told the governor they want Low’s name on the bridge.
“I don’t know that he ever came out and said, ‘I’m supportive of this,’ ” said Sue Else, chief executive of the Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia, who attended the meeting with Deal. “But he’s been very supportive of Girl Scouts in general.”
Meanwhile, Girl Scouts national leaders hired Savannah lobbyist Amy Hughes for the legislative session that began last week. Hughes was hired specifically to lobby lawmakers on the bridge issue, according to Alice Hockenbury, the Girl Scouts’ vice president for advocacy in Washington.
Stephens doubts fellow lawmakers will take action. A prior attempt to strip Talmadge’s name from the bridge fell flat in 2013. He said it could be tougher this year, as the Republican-controlled legislature tries to avoid election-year backlash from GOP voters amid controversies over Confederate statues and memorials.
“As far as I can tell, just by the conversations I’ve had with people, they’re going to run from anything that’s extremely controversial,” Stephens said.
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