OPINION: Stone Mountain's ugly history to get another new rewrite

·4 min read

May 29—The South's obsession with romanticizing the Confederacy was making national news again last week after the Stone Mountain Memorial Association — the board overseeing Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta — voted unanimously to relocate Confederate flags from a walking trail and to begin telling the truth about the park's racist history.

That truth is ugly. And perhaps telling that ugly truth might be better than removing the 190-foot long and 90-feet high carvings of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson from Stone Mountain's northern face.

The truth is that the Stone Mountain carvings were built less as a shrine to the Confederacy and more as shrine to the Ku Klux Klan in the 20th century — many decades after the Civil War but at the same time white supremacists and segregationists got busy promoting "Lost Cause" histories to say the war was fought not over slavery but over states' rights.

"Work on the enormous carvings began in the early 1900s," wrote The Washington Post after Monday's Stone Mountain Memorial Association vote. "C. Helen Plane, a leader of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in Georgia, enlisted the sculptor John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, known for his work on Mount Rushmore. The KKK became a funder, and Plane wrote to Borglum that his project would get local box office proceeds from the silent film 'Birth of a Nation,' which portrays the KKK as heroes.

"'Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South, I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain,' Plane wrote in 1915. 'Why not represent a small group of them [Confederate leaders] in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?'

Work on the carvings was slow and dragged out for decades, not hitting full steam again until the 1950s when desegregation efforts began nationally. The work got a boost when Marvin Griffin ran for Georgia governor vowing to fight the federal government's desegregation work. He won and made good on his campaign promise to purchase Stone Mountain and finish the job. That's when the landmark became state property.

The monument, by then 190-feet long and 90-feet tall, was finally completed in 1972.

But now, according to Monday's vote, a new museum exhibit will soon present the full story of what one scholar called a "ground zero" for "Lost Cause" mythology. Also, the likeness of the carvings will be removed from the park's logo.

Memorial association CEO Bill Stephens said increasing scrutiny of Confederate symbols and pressure from the business world as companies pulled out of the park led to the changes. In other words, park revenue is down. Way down. The park has begun marketing itself as a family theme park, rather than a monument to the Confederacy.

But there's still much to overcome.

Just last March, the same Stone Mountain Memorial Association that voted to "tell the truth" about Stone Mountain had to deny the Sons of Confederate Veterans a permit to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day there. In doing so, the association acknowledged the problematic relationship and cultural flashpoints between the park and its legacy.

In 2016, a "white power" demonstration at the park drew hundreds of counter protesters and clashes with police. In 2019, the park closed for a day rather than be the site of a Super Bowl-weekend gathering of white nationalists and the left-wing opposition expected to show up en masse.

As with other locales in recent years as a record number of Confederate memorials are being relocated in a push to reject racism, not everyone agrees about just "telling the truth" about Stone Mountain. Some want it gone — the carvings removed — despite Georgia law that bans officials from simply removing some of the tributes.

Derrica Williams, who grew up visiting the park and now leads the DeKalb National Council of Negro Women, told the Post the new museum plans are "a slap in the face. They are trying to whitewash the fact that that park is a shrine to white supremacy," she aptly said.

Others, like Eric Cleveland, a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, called the changes a "compromise," but said at the Monday's meeting he thought they would embolden critics. "These people will not stop until our history is completely erased," he said.

That's the trouble. Hate is hard to erase — even if the mountain, home to early Klan cross burnings, were to be blasted, the hate would still be with us.

But telling the truth, and spreading the truth, is a really good start.

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