By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - A predominantly Black group of heavily armed protesters marched through Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta on Saturday, calling for removal of the giant Confederate rock carving at the site that civil rights activists consider a monument to racism.
Video footage of the Independence Day rally posted on social media showed scores of demonstrators dressed in black - many in paramilitary-style clothing and all wearing face scarves - quietly parading several abreast down a sidewalk at the park.
Many of the protesters carried rifles, including military-type weapons, and some wore ammunition belts slung over their shoulders. Although African Americans appeared to account for the vast majority of the marchers, protesters of various races, men and women alike, were among the group.
One video clip showed a leader of the demonstrators, who was not identified, shouting into a loudspeaker in a challenge to white supremacists who historically have used Stone Mountain as a rallying spot of their own.
"I don't see no white militia," he declared. "We're here. Where ... you at? We're in your house. Let's go."
John Bankhead, a spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said the protesters were peaceful and orderly.
"It's a public park, a state park. We have these protests on both sides of the issue from time to time. We respect people's First Amendment right," Bankhead told NBC affiliate station WXIA-TV.
"We understand the sensitivities of the issue here at the park ... so we respect that and allow them to come in as long as it's peaceful, which it has been."
Stone Mountain, which reopened for the holiday weekend following a weeks-long closure over the coronavirus, has faced renewed calls for its removal since the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.
Floyd's killing helped revive a long-simmering conflict between groups seeking to do away with Confederate statues and sculptures, which they see as pro-slavery symbols, and those who believe they honor the traditions and history of the Deep South.
Nine stories high and spanning the length of a football field, the bas-relief Stone Mountain sculpture carved into a granite wall overlooking the Georgia countryside some 25 miles (40 km) east of Atlanta remains the largest such monument to America's Civil War Confederacy.
It features the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, who was president of the 11-state Confederacy, and two of his legendary generals, Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson.
Stone Mountain has long held symbolism for white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan, a hate group that was formed by Confederate Army veterans and has a history of lynchings and terror against Black people, held its rebirth ceremony atop mountain in 1915 with flaming crosses. Klansmen still hold occasional gatherings in the shadows of the edifice, albeit now met with protesters behind police tape. Many of those cross-burnings took place on or around July 4.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Eureka, California; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Daniel Wallis)