The eager vacationers Betty Pompey greets at the Stone Mountain Village Visitor Center can be from New York or Shanghai or not more than 100 miles away from Georgia’s premier tourist destination, but they always ask her some form of the same question: How do I get to the mountain?”
“I have a theory,” Pompey told me as we sat in the back corner of the refurbished train caboose turned welcome center, where she volunteers. “I think that mountain has something that…” her voice trailed off as her eyes lit up. She lifted her hands slightly, wiggling her fingers to suggest something mystical.
I looked to Pompey’s right and through the window to where the mountain was in view. Technically, it’s neither stone nor a mountain, but actually a granite rock outcrop that emerged as the earth around it eroded over 350 million years ago. It’s the largest geographic feature of its kind east of the Mississippi River. Proud Georgians sometimes refer to it as the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Yet carved into the mountain face is a reminder of one of the ugliest periods in American history: slavery and the fight to preserve it. The Stone Mountain Memorial features a 90-foot carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis flanked by his most famous generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. The memorial and the 3,200 acres of surrounding parkland are a self-financing tourist attraction, owned by the state of Georgia and protected under state law for the past 60 years.
Since the June 2015 racially motivated shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, the Georgia memorial, often called the Confederate Mount Rushmore, has been at the center of a contentious debate between civil rights activists, who want it expunged, and those who defend it as a part of their Southern heritage. The controversy over Stone Mountain is part of the larger discussion spurred by the South Carolina tragedy over the meaning and acceptability of Confederate symbols on public property.
And yet somewhat ironically, for the roughly 6,000 residents of the predominately black City of Stone Mountain, the monument is not a major concern. For them, the mountain and surrounding parklands have greater significance as a place for recreation and exercise.
The mountain is one of the things that drew Pompey, who is African American, to this eastern suburb of Atlanta. Before moving to the area seven years ago, the retired post office worker would go out of her way to drive through the city and pass its namesake on her way home from her job. “I’m an earth sign,” Pompey offered, pointing to her love of nature as an explanation. And when she saw the mountain, “That was it. I was hooked.” Pompey is nearly 70 years old, but you can still find her hiking the steep outcropping and the gentler park trails.
Although the mountain is clearly visible from the visitors’ center, the memorial is not. The City of Stone Mountain is on the west side of the outcrop and the carving is on its north face. But on the wall behind me at the center, a framed photographic close-up features the monument. I asked Pompey if she had ever seen it up close.
“No, I have not,” she said at first, but then reconsidered her answer. “Well have I been?” Pompey asked herself, looking off as she tried to recall a memory. “If I have, I don’t remember. I might have.” Then she added, “You mean right at where they have the tram up the mountain?” This was a reference to the park’s Summit Skyride, a Swiss cable car that takes visitors to the mountaintop, passing the carving as it journeys up. “Yes, I’ve been in there,” she said, but added that the monument was “not sticking out in my head.”
However insignificant the carvings might have become in Pompey’s recollection, they are gigantic in size. The memorial is not only the biggest monument to the Confederacy and outcrop east of the Mississippi, but also the largest high-relief sculpture in the world, surpassing Mount Rushmore in height by 25 feet. The carved surface is 400 feet above ground and spans an area of three acres, which is equivalent to roughly three football fields. The Confederate men mounted on their respective horses take up an area that is 190 feet wide and 90 feet high. Jefferson Davis’ thumb, for example, is the size of a couch; a buckle on the reins of his horse, Blackjack, is the size of a large shovel.
And yet, it’s not all that surprising that someone who visits the park as regularly as Pompey might pay so little heed to such an arresting spectacle. All indications suggest that the natural and commercial attractions of Stone Mountain Park are the greater draw for the four million annual visitors who have made the site the most popular tourist destination in Georgia. The park features an 18-hole golf course, a 4-D theater screening family-friendly films, laser shows on the Memorial Lawn in the summer, and shops for Christmas presents at Crossroads Village in the winter. There are camping and picnic grounds as well as 15 miles of hiking and walking trails, including the one mile trek up the mountain.
After my conversation with Pompey, I walked along the connecting path outside the visitor center into the state park to the start of the Walk Up Trail, which begins at a relatively slight incline on the west side of the mountain. But the ground is uneven, filled with cracks, and littered with slabs of the grey granite that form the mountain.
As I made my way up, I found evidence of past visitors engraved on the ground, everything from devout religious messages, such as “For God so Loved” and “Jesus saves,” to lovers’ commemorations of milestones in their relationship. One couple had etched the date December 18, 1979 inside of a large heart. The markings became fewer as the mountain got steeper and it became increasingly difficult to find stable footing. The further up I went, the more I needed to rely on the yellow dashed line that designated the path of least resistance.
I came across a covered seating area about three-fourths of the way up. Pompey had described it to me before I set out. A few of my fellow climbers on that chilly day in mid-January took a moment to rest on the park benches, but I trekked on.
The final stretch up the mountain was by far the most challenging. Near the top, there is what would have been a welcomed stretch of smooth ground if it were not for the steep incline. Pompey had hinted at the difficulty that this “scariest part” would be. Painted on the ground at that point is a yellow warning sign with white lettering that reads: “Slippery when wet. Use caution.” Although, it had not rained for days, I gripped the metal railing firmly as I made my way.
Once the railings ended, it was only a few more yards to the top, where the breathtaking view made the 45-minute uphill hike worthwhile. From the summit, I could see the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta to the west. And to the north, I could see the peaks of the Georgia Mountains. It was a clear enough day to see 60 miles out. With such a view before me and the attractions below, I understood how the carving could become virtually invisible to someone who makes the climb as regularly as Pompey does.
But a new wave of activists both for and against are certainly paying the monument mind, especially since the Charleston tragedy last June when a self-proclaimed white supremacist shot and killed nine African American churchgoers. His penchant for posing repeatedly in photographs aside the Confederate battle flag prompted black and white Americans across the country to demand that South Carolina remove the controversial emblem from its statehouse grounds. Other overtly Confederate symbols on public property have since been similarly questioned. Although this was not the first time Americans had criticized the display of Confederate symbols on public property or the Stone Mountain Memorial itself, in the atmosphere of the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing national discussion about race, the condemnation of these symbols has been widespread.
In Georgia, the Confederate flag does not fly at the capitol in Atlanta, but it does at Stone Mountain Park, some 15 miles away. The Georgia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy donated the granite slab known as the Confederate flag terrace in 1964 “in patriotic devotion to country and loving tribute to the Confederate valor,” as the text of its dedication plaque explains. Stationed at the base of the Walk Up Trail, it features the U.S. flag, the infamous battle flag of the Confederate Army, and three iterations of the lesser-known national flag of the Confederate States of America.
To date, 1,084 people have signed the petition, representing 32 states and countries as far-flung as Brazil, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. The majority of the signatories as well as those who are most vocal in their condemnation or defense of the memorial as a whole appear to come from outside the 1.7 square mile radius that forms the official city limits of Stone Mountain.A few weeks after the Charleston shooting, a MoveOn.org user demanded the Confederate flags be removed from the terrace in a petition addressed to officials at Stone Mountain Park, the Georgia legislature, and Governor Nathan Deal. “Stone Mountain can have historical and educational context,” it read, “but should not celebrate a culture of hate. Flying the flag is a sign of respect and honor, neither of which should be given to racism and a legacy of enslaving people.”
“Those guys need to go. They can be sand-blasted off, or somebody could carefully remove a slab of that and auction it off to the highest bidder.”
Most notably, the Atlanta NAACP has called for the removal of all Confederate symbols from the state-owned park, including the men carved into the mountain. In July, the chapter’s president, Richard Rose, told Atlanta’s WSB-TV, “Those guys need to go. They can be sand-blasted off, or somebody could carefully remove a slab of that and auction it off to the highest bidder.”
Such a change would require a legislative amendment because Georgia law expressly states that the memorial “shall never be altered, removed, concealed or obscured in any fashion.” This protection applies to the carving, the flag terrace, and the 13 plaques with surrounding landscape dedicated to each of the former Confederate states. This caveat stems from a General Assembly compromise when the state removed the Confederate battle emblem from its flag in 2001.
Yet, undeterred by the legal status of this monument, Rose is currently establishing a nationwide coalition to rid the United States of public celebrations and monuments to the Confederacy and its leaders.
The response from Confederate descendants and enthusiasts has been to see the growing criticism as an attack on their uniquely Southern heritage. Between June and August of 2015, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that supporters of the Confederate flag staged a total of 132 rallies across the United States, primarily in the Southeast.
One took place at the base of Stone Mountain in August of 2015. John Bankhead, the spokesman for the park, told the Atlanta newspaper at the time, “The park is open to the public. Anybody that can pay the $15 [parking] fee can come into the park and they have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights.” This officially neutral stance prompted the assembling of a mostly white crowd, which included members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Neo-Confederate League of the South, to gather at the flag terrace. On Facebook, organizers behind this event predicted 5,000 people would unite under their slogan of “Heritage not Hate,” yet only 600 to 800 people showed up. Given the protest’s modest turnout and its staging far from the park’s commercial attractions, it was easy for the average visitor to miss it entirely.
Regardless, no one at the park had anticipated the local reverberations of Charleston, nor the effort the park’s administrators would have to invest in resolving the controversy in a way that pleases all sides. In October 2015, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association announced plans to add a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a museum exhibit honoring African American soldiers who fought in both the Union and Confederate armies. However, this effort to quell the controversy—particularly the proposed tribute to King—has only riled up the parties on all sides and sparked further debate.
The “Freedom Bell” idea involved building a tower at the top of Stone Mountain to house a replica of the Liberty Bell, which would feature a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech—“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia”—as a tribute to the civil rights leader. Actually, the association had been casually considering this idea for two years but was pushed into action by the Charleston shooting. With financing from park revenues, the association’s CEO, Bill Stephens, initially told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, he hoped the project would be finished by summer 2016.
A number of local black leaders stepped forward to express their approval of the Freedom Bell. For example, vocal support came from Andrew Young, who worked with King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and went on to serve two terms as Atlanta’s second black mayor in the 1980s. He told the Journal-Constitution that, “It is not only a good idea. It is a necessary idea for this nation to pull together.” Similarly, U.S. Representative Hank Johnson, whose congressional district includes Stone Mountain, wrote a guest column for the newspaper in which he called the bell tower a “fitting tribute” to the state and nation’s progress.
However, these opinions were in the clear minority. The Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement condemning the decision and threatening to take legal action against it. The heritage group, which is made up of male descendants of Confederate soldiers, compared the bell plan to flying the battle flag at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, calling both actions “altogether inappropriate and disrespectful.” The statement went on to dismiss any and all opposing viewpoints as having “no bearing in the discussion” because of the state law.
Although such opposition and criticism from Confederate descendants could have been expected, it came as a surprise to the association that, despite the support from Young and Johnson, the local chapters of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference spoke out against this plan. The civil rights groups decried the equating of King to the Confederacy’s leaders as an insult to the civil rights paragon.
More pro-monument protests would follow. Another Confederate rally took place on November 14. An organization called Protect the South created the Defend Stone Mountain Facebook event and invited 4,400 people to stand “against the traitors who wish to tarnish our Ancestors (sic) Heritage.” In anticipation of such a large crowd and the potential for confrontations with counter protesters as well as rumors that the Ku Klux Klan would be present, the Stone Mountain Park police force called for additional help from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the state’s Department of Natural Resources.
Again, the number of protesters that attended was nowhere near the crowd anticipated and advertised on social media. In fact, it was only a fraction of the number of protesters who rallied in August. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that by 1 p.m., about 40 people had assembled in front of the Stone Mountain Park police station. From there, the group only grew to about 70 people. At times, a follow-up article observed, “it appeared there were more officers on hand than demonstrators.” The group marched to the top of the mountain and waved Confederate battle flags at the proposed site for the bell. Although, small in number, their presence, when coupled with the mounting criticism surrounding the Freedom Bell plan, was enough to derail the project, which has been put on hold indefinitely.
Three days after the bell protest, at the regular monthly meeting of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, Michael Thurmond spoke in favor of the proposed African American exhibit. Thurmond is an Atlanta-based attorney, who is African-American, and was formerly the superintendent of the DeKalb County School District, which includes the City of Stone Mountain. “The contributions of African American soldiers have not been, I think, fully appreciated or recognized,” he told those at the meeting, adding that the exhibit would be an excellent teaching tool for the school field trips that the park already hosts because it would offer “a more holistic and complete view of the Civil War.”
No doubt the current understanding of the Civil War has been shaped by a Southern interpretation, known as the Lost Cause, which rebrands the conflict as a testament to moral and cultural resilience. This historical reimagination gave the South a sense of vindication and triumph despite the crushing military defeat. It also turned the short-lived Confederate States of America into the defining feature of a separate and distinctly southern heritage.
Three basic myths drive the notion of the Lost Cause. First is the image of the “Old South” as a place of nobility and chivalry. Through these pink magnolia-tinted glasses, the second myth comes into view: that slavery was a benevolent institution with no direct relationship to the outbreak of the Civil War. This viewpoint ignores the actual declarations of secession and identifies Northern aggression as the sole reason for the war. The Union army left the South no choice but to heroically fight back to defend the rights of the Confederate states to determine their own futures.
The third myth extols the South’s adherence, despite the Confederate defeat, to the region’s antebellum values. In Lost Cause lore, this resolve represents another kind of victory in and of itself, so long as the region preserves and continues to revere its “superior” and “pure” – i.e. white – culture.
Historically, it has been southern white women who most actively worked to cement these values by memorializing their fallen fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons. Ladies memorial associations formed across the South to create and maintain Confederate burial grounds as well as to erect monuments. By 1894, these local organizations had coalesced into a national entity, The United Daughters of the Confederacy, which is still active today.
The Georgia Division of this southern women’s group formed in 1895. Among its founding members was Helen Jemison Plane, the epitome of a Southern belle. Born in 1829 near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Plane grew up on a plantation in southwest Georgia in a family that was part of the South’s affluent planter class. She enjoyed the privileges that came with her family’s social status and wealth, such as an education at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia.
In 1854, she married William Plane, a prominent Charleston lawyer. The couple and their newborn son were living in Baker County, Georgia, when the Civil War broke out in 1860. Shortly after, William left his law practice to join the Confederate army and quickly rose to the rank of captain. After training in Georgia, his company joined General Lee’s Army of North Virginia.
William served just 18 months before he was killed during the Battle of Antietam in Maryland. In his final moments, the captain managed to write a brief note to his wife. “I die for my country,” it read. “Teach our little boy to cherish my memory.”
With the unanimous approval of her fellow “daughters,” Plane obtained permission from the mountain’s owner, Sam Venable, who agreed to provide the project with a 12-year lease of the mountain’s north face and ten of its adjoining acres. Plane also established the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association to oversee the project and the hiring of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who would later design Mount Rushmore.After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox, Plane moved to Atlanta and dedicated the rest of her life to preserving the memory of her late husband and the cause he served. As an octogenarian in 1915, still president of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, she spearheaded the initial effort to create “a shrine for the South” at Stone Mountain.
That November, Plane shared plans for the memorial at the annual convention of the Georgia Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. Although the women expressed support for the idea, they offered no organizational dollars to contribute to its projected $2 million price tag. So Plane set out to fundraise from individual donors.
Meanwhile, another group of Georgians was pursuing a separate vision at Stone Mountain. On Thanksgiving night, 1915, a group of 15 men gathered at the mountain summit before a flaming wooden cross. They fashioned a makeshift altar out of 16 boulders on which the men placed the American flag, an unsheathed sword, and the Holy Bible. This ceremony marked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which had been largely dormant since the 1870s. The Klansmen struck their own deal with the Venable family, which allowed the organization to use the property for meetings and gatherings for the next 40 years.
The renewed interest in the Klan was sparked by the film The Birth of a Nation, which premiered earlier that year. The three-hour epic portrayed the hate group as a noble organization that saved the post-Civil War South from the tyranny and corruption of freed African Americans and northern Republicans. Taking this message to heart, Plane asked Borglum, the sculptor, to add a small group of Klansmen “in their nightly uniform” to the Stone Mountain design.
However, America’s entry into World War I in 1917 stalled the project. Work was further delayed by two issues: Borglum struggled to figure out the logistics of carving such an intricate design and local business leaders, who supported the project, had trouble raising the funds needed to get the work underway. It wasn’t until six years later, in June 1923, that the carving finally began. Six months later, Borglum’s crew had finished General Lee’s head and held an unveiling event on what would have been the military leader’s 117th birthday.
Despite the cold and rain, an estimated 5,000 people attended the event, including artists, engineers, Civil War veterans, and politicians. Borglum carried the then 94-year-old Plane to the speakers platform, where she waved a small Confederate flag to signal the big reveal. As Lee’s head came into view, the crowd cheered and applauded. Elderly veterans dressed in their grey uniforms even sounded the Rebel Yell.
But just as Borglum began carving Jackson’s head, his relationship with the Confederate memorial association soured amid accusations of financial misconduct. The association hired Augustus Lukeman as Borglum’s replacement, but the new sculptor was only able to complete the heads of two of the men and a horse before the lease on the mountain expired in 1928. The Venable family refused to grant an extension and reclaimed the land, stopping progress on the carving indefinitely. Over the next 30 years, there were a number of attempts to resume construction; however, the Great Depression and America’s entry into World War II stymied any substantial efforts.
During this time, Confederate groups continued to keep the spirit of the Lost Cause alive with veteran’ reunions and monument dedication ceremonies around the South. The battle flag was rarely seen outside of these special occasions. If the usage of the flag had remained limited to these heritage events, J. Michael Martinez noted in an article for The Georgia Historical Quarterly, the Confederate emblem “would have remained a symbol of the Confederate States, its meaning and interpretation inextricably linked to the Civil War.” Instead, the flag began to take on modern political connotations and has become entrenched in the symbology of 20th century racism.
The Confederate battle flag became the banner of the forces that opposed federal intervention in the Civil Rights Movement. Most notably, southerners deeply resented being forced to integrate schools following the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954. White Georgians were so committed to segregation that they advocated closing schools over their racial integration well into the 1960s. In a 1956 state address, Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin declared that, “There will be no mixing of the races in public schools, in college classrooms, in Georgia as long as I am Governor.” Shortly after, the legislature passed a bill incorporating the Confederate battle emblem into the state flag, which was interpreted as an expression of Georgia’s commitment to segregation.
It was in this atmosphere that the state of Georgia revived the Stone Mountain carving project in 1958. Griffin’s state address that year included his promise that the memorial would be completed and would stand as “an everlasting benefit to the present generation and all future citizens of this state and the entire Southland.” Working toward the governor’s goal, the Georgia House passed Bill 946, creating the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which was separate from the association involved in the monuments initial construction. This state authority was charged with acquiring the mountain and adjacent land for a state park. The association then was able to purchase the bulk of the Stone Mountain property from the Venable heirs for $1,125,000. And over the next two years, the association acquired over 970 acres from other landowners, bringing the park to its present size of 3,200 acres and the final cost to about $1.9 million.
In 1963, the association hired Walker Kirkland Hancock to complete the carving on a timeline of seven years. Although full completion took two years more, an unveiling ceremony took place as promised in May 1970.
The crowd that gathered on the lawn below the carving was only a tenth of the association’s prediction of 100,000 attendees. The two-hour ceremony featured music and speeches from state officials. President Richard Nixon even sent Vice President Spiro Agnew to represent him as a keynote speaker. The politician praised Jackson’s loyalty and Davis’s dignity and declared Lee to be the highest example of honor, and all of them “the bedrock of idealism that underlies our hopes for future generations.”
But no Venables were at the park that day. Sam had died in 1939 and his nephew, James, the Imperial Wizard of the KKK from 1963 to 1987, deliberately boycotted the ceremony. The state’s purchase of his family’s property ended the group’s ready access to a place for its annual rallies, forcing the Klan to move them to a property within the City of Stone Mountain that the Venables still owned. To get there, the group would parade down Main Street and through the African American neighborhood of Shermantown. Older residents of this part of town, which local lore says was named after Union General Tecumseh Sherman, remember the annual procession through their neighborhood as being without incident. However, some remembered other instances of burning crosses on the mountaintop as the area made its transition to a family-friendly tourist destination.
In 1998, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association entered a public-private partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment, a corporation that owns, operates, and manages 26 theme parks across 10 states, including Dollywood in Tennessee, Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, and Silver Dollar City in Missouri. The private company’s lease allows it to operate all the commercial aspects of Stone Mountain Park for an annual rental fee of $9.72 million, which is the association’s biggest revenue source. This partnership enables the association to focus on maintaining the park grounds, preserving the carving, and providing environmental and historical education services.
Stephens took over as CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association in 2011. He describes himself as a “recovering banker” who at one point “lost my mind and went into politics,” serving as a state senator from 1998 to 2006. When it comes to areas of government that tend to be embroiled in public debate, state parks rank comparatively lower than legislative bodies. So the current dispute surrounding the memorial park was something Stephens did not expect.
I met with him in his office on the second floor of Confederate Hall, just a few yards away from the flag terrace, where pro-battle flag demonstrators gathered August and November rallies.. In his five years as CEO, Stephens said the protests of the past year have been the only ones he can recall.
Bankhead, the association’s spokesman, did remember an earlier complaint at about the time he joined the park staff two years ago. “I read somewhere, when I was doing research before we got into this, that there was one man who tried to get a petition to change the monument, but that didn’t go anywhere,” he said. Bankhead was referring to a largely ignored Change.org petition against the monument, started by an Atlanta resident. It garnered a paltry 650 signatures. The Atlanta Journal Constitution posted a brief article and a local news station aired just a single three-minute clip.
It’s ironic that Stephens is the CEO at such a contentious time in the memorial’s recent history. Between 1989 and 1991, he served as the press secretary for then-lieutenant Governor Zell Miller, who in the 1990s tried, but ultimately failed to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag, which remained in place until 2001.
Stephens had already left Miller’s staff by the time the governor began making what was a very unpopular appeal to change the state flag but remembers the contretemps it caused. “People saw the symbol differently,” he said, “And for some people, as you know, they say it’s heritage and all that and then other people see it as a symbol of hate. Two people, two sides that just can’t agree. It was very hard. I think he was ahead of his time with that position.”
“…addition to the park is better than subtraction.”
For Stephens, growing up, the battle flag was “kind of more of a heritage issue” than a symbol of hate, a reflection of having grown up white in an isolated, predominantly white town of 305 residents in northern Georgia. Over the years, however, he said he has developed a better understanding of both sides of the argument, not only from dealing with the present controversy, but from his time as a state senator. “I understand more so how it came be both,” he said. Confederate symbols “can mean something totally different to two different people and in their own hearts they believe they’re right.” That evolution in thinking has brought him to believe that “addition to the park is better than subtraction.”
Meanwhile, at the headquarters of the Atlanta NAACP, Rose, the organization’s president, is steadfast in his belief that removing the Confederate monument is the only way to improve the park. I met with Rose last January, right after his breakfast meeting with one of the pro bono attorneys preparing the lawsuit that the NAACP intends to bring against the state of Georgia. Although, progress on the case has been slow and the lawyers are still figuring out under what grounds to file their suit, Rose has a very clear goal in mind.
“We want those men to come off of that mountain. We want the  plazas dedicated to the Confederate states of America to be removed,” he said, referring to the Rebel state commemorations outside the park’s Memorial Hall complex. Rose said that the plaques could go into a private museum if people insisted on keeping them, but that “the celebration of the Confederacy must stop. Period.”
Rose had only seen the memorial once before the current controversy, on a school field trip in 1965, when it was still under construction and the park only recently opened to the public. At the time, Rose had just moved to Atlanta from Memphis to study business at Clark College, now known as Clark Atlanta University. “At 17, you know, first time away from home….I didn’t know where we were going or why,” he recalled.
Like so many before him and countless others after, the spectacle totally impressed him. “There are things you do need to see, you know, God’s creations,” he said about his first impression of the mountain. The memorial was then still partially obscured by scaffolding. Rose caught a glimpse of what it would represent and was taken aback. Even to this day, he does not understand why a historically black college would arrange to take its freshmen to see a Confederate monument.
At the time, the mountain’s splendor and view were not enough to overcome Rose’s discomfort. Although, he would return to the park—once for a professional meeting and another time for his fraternity reunion—he actively avoided the monument for the next 50 years. “I just wouldn’t even look because it is so insulting to me,” he said.
“What occurred to me is that there must be something that encourages white men with [or] without a badge to abuse black people.”
After Charleston, however, Rose made a point to revisit the memorial park to see what it had to offer. He spent a couple hours last July, just wandering around on his own, taking it all in. He found the park beautiful, but this did not change his feelings. “What occurred to me is that there must be something that encourages white men with [or] without a badge to abuse black people,” he said before listing off the names of murdered African Americans: Trayvon Martin in Florida, Tamar Rice in Ohio, Walter Scott in South Carolina, Sandra Bland in Texas, and Michael Brown in Missouri. “There must be some thread that says to white men that black people are not equal and can be abused. And I believe that it is the Confederate monuments.”
Rose is a firm believer that all symbols carry meanings. He gave me the example of a cross. To illustrate his point, he said, “If you’re driving down the street in a strange city, and you see a building that has a cross at the top of it, you assume it’s a church.” So to Rose and those around him, the Stone Mountain Memorial is more than just a carving and the Confederate battle flag is more than just a banner. Instead, the civil rights activist views these symbols as encouraging racism.
“If it didn’t mean something, the perpetrators of violent, terroristic acts against black people wouldn’t have Confederate symbols in their background or on their Facebook pages,” Rose said, clearly referencing the Charleston shooter’s online presence. “They tell you it means something. I don’t have to say that. They speak loud and clear by their actions.”
Rose dismissed the argument that the Stone Mountain Memorial is about history and sees it instead as “a manufactured tribute to white supremacy, to rebellion, to traitorous actions and it shouldn’t be on public property.” He pointed out that there was no significant, recorded event at Stone Mountain during the Civil War. Moreover, the men on the mountain have nothing to do with the state of Georgia: Generals Lee and Jackson were from Virginia and Davis was a Kentuckian who farmed in Mississippi.
Would it make a difference if the men depicted on the carvings were Georgians? “The answer is no,” Rose said with little hesitation. While he agrees with Confederate descendants that “we do need to know our history,” he draws a clear distinction between acknowledging and celebrating the past: “The principles of the Confederacy have no place being memorialized, glorified, and celebrated in 2016.”
Beyond the racism, Rose also found it absurd that America has the “largest monument to a failed insurrection in a country against that country.” He jokingly asked, “Is England celebrating the American Revolution?”
The fact that the memorial is self-financing is a non-issue for Rose, who noted that taxpayer dollars contributed to the purchase of the mountain. “It’s still public property,” he said. “It belongs to the state of Georgia, which means it belongs to me, as a citizen and taxpayer of Georgia.”
Rose and like-minded civil rights leaders in the Atlanta metropolitan area had the opportunity to voice their condemnation of the Stone Mountain Memorial in a meeting with Governor Deal last October that Rose found unsatisfying. Deal, he thought, “took the meeting just to say he took the meeting.” Although, it’s possible their protest had some influence. As the controversy has grown, Deal, who initially expressed support for the Freedom Bell, began to distance himself from the project.
When I met with Stephens in January, he said that the association has put the Freedom Bell plan on the backburner while they focus on the exhibit honoring African American Soldiers. The board members had unanimously approved the CEO’s request for “permission to proceed with the exploration and evaluation of this exhibit” during their meeting last November. After this evaluation process, the board instructed Stephens to submit for its approval a proposal on the scope, content, design and location of the exhibit.
But two months after this motion, the plans for the exhibit had yet to take shape. Stephens said that the process would involve forming focus groups and encouraging professors, experts and others to submit their ideas for the exhibit. “We’re going to have to tell a story, but we have limited space and limited time to tell the story,” he said. “And so we want to pick out what would have the best educational value for people that come through the exhibit.” Stephens added that the goal is to open the exhibit by 2017 in one of the two museum buildings in the park, most likely Memorial Hall, which already has an exhibit on the Civil War.
If established, Stone Mountain’s exhibit honoring African American soldiers will be the second of its kind. The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum in Washington D.C. opened in 1999 and is one of about 93 museums in America that focus primarily on black history. While this museum honors the United States Colored Troops, the proposed exhibit at Stone Mountain will focus on soldiers from both sides of the war. However, there is no documented evidence that black soldiers fought for the Confederacy. The 190,000 black men that served in the army and the 19,000 in the navy were on the Union side. Meanwhile, the Confederate military prohibited African Americans from joining.
Black men and women were still involved in the Confederate War effort— albeit not as soldiers and not voluntarily. Slave labor was crucial to the southern war effort. African Americans worked in the fields, mines, and armories; they were also cooks, dug trenches, and made uniforms among other non-combative tasks.
Stephens said that the association’s research thus far has yet to uncover anything about black Confederate soldiers. So if park officials want to honor only servicemen during the war, they will be commemorating Union soldiers in what state law has designated a Confederate Memorial. Whether or not the association will be allowed to do that is up for legal debate and members of the Georgia General Assembly have already made attempts to permit and prohibit this addition.
When the 2016 legislative session convened in January, State Representative LaDawn Jones, a Democrat, introduced House Bill 760, which revised the current law to designate Stone Mountain park a “memorial to the Civil War era” instead of being solely a “Confederate memorial.”
Like so many others involved in the current controversy, the shooting in Charleston inspired Jones, who is African American, to push for change at Stone Mountain. She initially called for people to boycott the park during the 2015 Fourth of July weekend, the busiest time of the year, to protest the Confederate flags flying at the mountain’s base. The attempt, the congresswoman told me months later, was “highly unsuccessful,” so she changed her approach.
Jones spent the rest of the year meeting with community members and leaders, including representatives of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the NAACP, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Over time, these discussions slightly altered her position on the memorial. Although, Jones said, she would still like to see the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbols come down throughout the state, she recognizes that they are a part of a history that can’t be summarily changed.
“But there’s a difference between changing history and continuing to glorify and perpetuate certain historical mistakes that our state has made,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “And with that I thought that adding to history rather than taking away and also putting it in the appropriate historical context would be helpful to the rest of Georgia.”
By making Stone Mountain a memorial to the Civil War era, Jones’ bill gives the park room to address more than just the white southern men who fought for the failed Confederacy. It also gives the Stone Mountain Memorial Association an additional responsibility, “To maintain an appropriate, inclusive, and historically accurate memorial to the Civil War era.” To allow for this, the bill amends the existing law that prohibits any alterations to state monuments and memorials to allow the association to make any changes “in historically accurate and appropriate manners.” This is exactly the provision needed to remove any uncertainty as to whether the association can add its exhibit honoring African American soldiers.
Reaction to Jones’ bill, however, was harsh. A week after she introduced it on the House floor, the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement calling the proposed legislation “hideous.” The group feared that the bill would allow state officials to alter other Confederate monuments, not just Stone Mountain. The heritage group encouraged its members and other sympathizers to contact their government representatives—going as far as to provide as sample letter—to express opposition to “these disgraceful changes and the unlimited powers it gives those who would dishonor our Veterans in the name of political correctness.”
In late January, State Representative Tommy Benton, a Republican, proposed an amendment to the state constitution, HR 1179, which would preserve the Stone Mountain Park as a Confederate memorial. He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that getting rid of the memorial, would be “no better than what ISIS is doing, destroying museums and monuments.” In the same article, he also made comments defending the KKK, saying it “made a lot of people straighten up.” The former middle school history teacher, who is white, said that the Klan “was not so much a racist thing but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”
The backlash following these comments about the Klan was swift and in its wake, Benton removed himself as the sponsor of the amendment. In a statement, the legislator said, “It was not my intention to create a situation whereby my comments would create a negative perception.” Other lawmakers also withdrew their names from the bill, which was sent back to committee and failed move beyond the Georgia House of Representatives before the legislative session ended in March.
Jones said that the controversy surrounding Benton tarnished support for her bill, which was never granted a hearing. The failure didn’t surprise her. “I think bills like this typically don’t pass in their first year,” she said. “There has to be a long-term strategic plan that includes both legislation and advocacy in and out of session.”
“We cannot let another 20 years go by and allow our state to look like we are lost in a time vacuum of the Civil War.”
Jones, who has been in office since 2012, doesn’t plan to run for a third term and so will no longer take a lead role in this matter. But she is confident that others will keep the momentum going. “There are a number of us that are legislators and community leaders in the groups that I mentioned before that recognize the importance of keeping our finger on this pulse for the betterment of Georgia,” she said. “We cannot let another 20 years go by and allow our state to look like we are lost in a time vacuum of the Civil War.” The bill may not have been passed, she added, “but the idea of changing the Stone Mountain Memorial in a way that reflects all of Georgians is not gone.”
However, any changes to the memorial will mean a hard fought battle between those on either side of the heritage versus hate argument. The tension between these opposing viewpoints erupted during yet another rally at Stone Mountain Park on April 23, which culminated in a violent confrontation between a white power group known as Rock Stone Mountain and counter protesters.
Rock Stone Mountain scheduled the rally months in advance to coincide with the Confederate Memorial Day weekend, which Georgia and a number of Southern states celebrate in late April. Unlike the previous rallies at the park, which primarily focused on Confederate heritage and even drew some African American participants, this one had an overtly white nationalist theme. The group’s mission statement describes the attack on the Stone Mountain Memorial and other Confederate symbols as being a part of a larger “White genocide” brought about by things such as multiculturalism and interracial relationships. One man reportedly arrived at the park demonstration with a large red flag advertising the KKK; however, the Rock Stone Mountain organizers told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, they did not want these types of symbols at their event.
Following the precedent set by earlier rallies, the turnout was nowhere near the number advertised on social media. Only about two dozen people attended, far less than the 2,000 that the organizers estimated in their rally permit request. Instead, these white nationalists were greatly outnumbered by the hundreds of counter protesters, which included members from the anti-racism group All Out ATL.
Park officials had granted both the white power organizers and the counter protesters rally permits for that weekend and attempted to keep the groups in separate areas. However, the anti-racism demonstrators were able to circumvent the park police force as well as the state patrol, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and DeKalb County police officers, who had been called in as reinforcements. As these activists approached the Rock Stone Mountain rallying point, officers dressed in riot gear prevented them from advancing further. The resulting confrontation took a violent turn as the counter protesters tipped over trash cans while throwing rocks and fireworks at the barricades and officers separating them from the white power group.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that law enforcement arrested eight of these anti-white power protesters for refusing to remove the bandanas that were covering their faces, which violates a state law prohibiting people from concealing their identity in public. A ninth individual was also arrested for allegedly throwing a smoke grenade at police.
Just as quickly as the situation at the park escalated, it was over. By early afternoon, both groups had already begun to leave. But this short-lived protest caused enough disruption that the park staff became concerned for the safety of other visitors. While the park remained open to the public during the rally, a number of attractions, including the cable car, were shut down for the rest of the day and the laser show was canceled that night.
Park officials were clearly frustrated by the entire situation. Bankhead, the memorial association spokesman told a local news station that he wishes the rallies and protests would just stop. “This is a family-oriented park and we’re sick and tired of this quite frankly,” he said. “We want families to come out and enjoy what this park has to offer. It’s not geared to this type of thing.”
Meanwhile at the base of the mountain, the residents in the City of Stone Mountain have already paid tribute to the racial progress of their town and this country. On the “Stone’s Throw” tour of the town, a walk down Main Street into the downtown district, past the Stone Mountain Depot, the former location of City Hall, and the future home of the visitor center, a large cast iron bell will come into view. It is the town’s own Freedom Bell, not the property of the state park. It sits above a commemorative plaque inscribed with the line that mentions Stone Mountain from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, the same one the park had planned to use.
Chuck E. Burris, who served as the town’s first African American mayor from 1997 to 2001, dedicated the 150-year-old bell to King in 2000. At the time, he and his family were living in the Venables’ Stone Mountain home, which they had purchased from the former Klan leader’s daughter. In an interview with the New York Times, Burris said the first thing he did when he moved into the house was hang a framed picture of King in the master bedroom. The Burris family eventually moved on and someone else owns the home now, but the Freedom Bell remains. And every year since it arrived in Stone Mountain, members of the city council have gathered around it on the civil rights leader’s birthday to let freedom ring.