ATLANTA — Hundreds of Girl Scouts from across Georgia gathered inside the state Capitol on Tuesday, offering cookies and smiles as they sought to convince lawmakers to get their founder's name affixed to a Savannah bridge that currently honors a white segregationist.
The bridge may bear former Gov. Eugene Talmadge's name, but Rep. Ron Stephens said he recently learned the state legislature never officially named the bridge for Talmadge. The Department of Transportation never gave it an official name, nor did lawmakers. Legislation to do so passed the House in 1991, but never passed the Senate, he said.
Buoyed by this technicality, Stephens, a Savannah Republican, introduced a bill to name the bridge after Juliette Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts in the coastal city more than a century ago.
Last month, Stephens had expressed doubts that his colleagues in the Republican-controlled legislature would be eager to rename the bridge and risk angering their conservative base in an election year. But that was before he knew the bridge had never been officially named.
Stephens said his proposal has more than 50 legislative supporters and will likely get more, once others learn about the technicality.
"We don't want to rename anything," Stephens said. "Once it's done, it's for a reason. But I have it in writing from legislative counsel, the people who write our bills, that it never officially was named."
The Department of Transportation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Stephens' argument.
Backed by their national organization, the Georgia scouts' campaign began after Savannah's city council in September unanimously asked state lawmakers to strip Talmadge's name from the bridge. Their formal request came about a month after deadly violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists rallying in support of Confederate statues clashed with counter-protesters.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Girl Scouts held a news conference inside the Capitol as lawmakers and lobbyists swooped up rapidly disappearing Thin Mints and Samoas.
Naming the bridge after Low would be especially fitting, as scouts frequently hold "bridging ceremonies" by walking across bridges when they graduate to their next rank, said Sue Else, the CEO of Girl Scouts of Historic Georgia.
"Juliette was a true bridge-builder," Else said. "It's just a natural fit that the 40,000 Girl Scouts who visit Savannah every year should be welcomed by this iconic bridge."
Rep. Teri Anulewicz, D-Smyrna, is a troop leader and mother of a Girl Scout. She said she is giving Stephens' bill her full support because of the impact the organization had on her when she was growing up.
"Being a scout taught me that it was good to lead, it was good to put yourself out front," Anulewicz said. "And a lot of times for girls, they're not necessarily given that implicit OK that it's good to put themselves in leadership roles."
Since 1956, the span crossing the Savannah River at the Georgia-South Carolina line has borne the name of Talmadge, a populist Democrat who served three terms between 1933 and 1942. The old bridge was replaced by a new bridge in 1991 and the name carried over, Stephens said.
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."
A spokesman for House Speaker David Ralston said it is too early in the process to comment on Stephens' bill. A spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal said the issue is "best left to the legislature."
A similar effort to remove Talmadge's name in 2013 failed after the former governor's descendants lobbied hard at the state Capitol to oppose it.
For Zora Felix, a 13-year-old Girl Scout from Douglasville, the issue is obvious. The fact that the bridge honors a segregationist is "shocking," and should be changed, said Felix, who is black.
"2017-18 has been the year for girls and empowerment," Felix said. "What better way to honor this than by naming the bridge after the founder of the Girl Scouts?