Names and flags have been removed from statehouses and street signs across the US, but at the stone-etched Georgia monument, no one is able to claim victory
Exactly a century ago this holiday weekend, more than a dozen men climbed to the top of a mountain outside Atlanta, pulled on white hoods and lit a 16ft, kerosene-soaked wooden cross. It marked the rebirth of Ku Klux Klan, and Stone Mountain became the Klan’s spiritual home.
The next year, work started on an enormous relief carving – the largest in the world – to commemorate the heroes of the Confederacy. Since then the rock has stood like a historical door stop, an 825ft reminder of the Lost Cause.
“But the Lost Cause was slavery,” Richard Rose said recently. He is the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Atlanta, where in recent years Stone Mountain has become a point of increasing tension for him and many others in a city now far more black than white.
This autumn, two sides have emerged in a new ideological skirmish over the monument. It’s the latest battlefield in an ongoing war over Confederate symbols across the south. So far neither side is able to claim victory on Stone Mountain.
But Rose said his group was about to escalate the fight, starting with a suit against the state of Georgia, which owns the mountain and the monument.
After that, he said: “We will take more direct action.”
The mountain is actually a single stone, like an enormous granite egg sitting in the earth, which has eroded around it for millions of years. As long as humans have traversed this part of the continent they have oriented themselves around the rock. Native Americans called it the “stone mountain” and met there for ceremonies. By the mid-19th century, tourists were gathering to admire the mountain’s beauty.
In the early 20th century, a group of white men in Atlanta read a novel called The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon. The original Klan, for all its notoriety, had only operated for a couple of years during the Reconstruction era, after the civil war. But the book romanticized the group, and appealed to white Georgians who felt power slipping from their grasp. The men decided to resurrect the Klan on Thanksgiving 1915, to coincide with the local release of the book’s film adaptation: Birth of a Nation . Stone Mountain offered a natural and dramatic ceremonial site.
The group climbed to the mountain’s rounded summit, where a granite altar held copies of the US constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the laws of the reborn Ku Klux Klan. From that dramatic setting the KKK grew to about five million members nationwide, and held regular meetings on the mountaintop. At the same time, the Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned Gutzon Borglum , a renowned sculptor from Connecticut, to carve the monument. Borglum, who did not complete the Stone Mountain project, went on to carve Mount Rushmore.
For a while, people remembered the mountain’s racial connection. In 1963 when Martin Luther King Jr delivered his “ I Have a Dream ” speech in Washington, he included the line: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
Everyone knew he was leveling a finger at the Klan.
At the base of the mountain today there is an It’s-a-Small-World version of an Appalachian village, with glass blowers and story tellers and faux-rustic shops selling T-shirts. Finding an unobscured view of the mountain is surprisingly difficult.
“Go past the attractions and through the marketplace,” a young Stone Mountain staffer said this week, as she checked tourists for wristbands.
She was black. In fact everyone wearing Stone Mountain uniforms in the village was young and black. Asked if it felt strange to work in the literal shadow of Jefferson Davis, Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, they seemed largely puzzled by the question.
Past the attractions and through the marketplace, Mattie Harris stood holding a measuring stick to check small visitors before allowing them into the holiday-themed “snow zone”. Behind her, the heroes of the Confederacy sat on their stone horses.
“I don’t really know much about it. It’s my second day,” she said. She had never heard about the monument before she arrived there. “I try not to think about the negative.”
The idea that the monument could become so banal, physically looming but mentally commonplace, alarms Rose, the NAACP head.
“African Americans have a long history of adjusting, just getting by,” he said. The town of Stone Mountain – not the theme-park village, but the town around it – is 75% black. “It’s easy for people to walk to work at the mountain, and just accept it.”
The NAACP wants the carving removed, the Confederate flags removed from the site, and the street names changed from Robert E Lee Boulevard, Jefferson Davis Drive and so forth. It’s not defacing history, Rose argued, because no civil war history happened at Stone Mountain.
“We recognize the horrible human cost of the war. And there are many sites in Georgia, like Andersonville and Chickamauga, where those lives are memorialized,” he said. “But Stone Mountain doesn’t speak to that. Its only purpose is raising the leaders of an insurrection to hero status.”
In a food court outside the village marketplace, Dave and Karen Jones of Janesville, Wisconsin, sat eating hamburgers with their grandchildren. They seemed nonplussed by any controversy about the monument.
“Why? Why do we have to get rid of all our history?” Karen said. She winced, and shrugged her shoulders. “Who does it offend?”
Possibly the people whose ancestors the stone figures fought to keep in bondage.
“But is it the black people making that an issue?” Dave said. “It’s white people on their behalf.”
That’s not exactly true. Outside the bubble of the Stone Mountain village – and its employ – a black family had just finished hiking down the side of the mountain. They wore exercise clothes, carried water bottles and averted their eyes from the carving.
“This was here long before they claimed it as a Confederate monument,” Rashida Brandt said. She and her family had come from Durham, North Carolina.
Her brother, Omari, said the monument was a scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape.
“It’s an homage to treason,” he said. Asked whether the carving should be removed, he paused and looked at his little girl, Zuri. “I am torn about that,” he said. “I don’t think we should sanitize what happened.”
A police car cruised past slowly, twice, as he spoke. Another parked across the road. “I’m more afraid of the police than statues,” Omari said. “That’s a more quiet but more powerful racism.”
His wife, Nakia, nodded toward one of the patrol cars as it crawled past a second time.
“Did you see the officer give you a thumbs up to check whether you’re OK?” she asked. “It’s because we are talking with you. That bothers me.”
This autumn, a movement for compromise gathered momentum. Its proponents wanted to place a bell dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr on the mountain. A couple of weeks ago opponents waving Confederate flags gathered for a rally on the summit, decrying the idea.
Then discussion shifted to the notion of a museum to commemorate black soldiers who fought in the civil war.
In a remarkable legal twist, the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) claimed that the mountain’s purpose was explicitly defined by the state government as a monument to the Confederacy. So commemoration of rebels – who fought against the law of the land – has become the law of the land. Anything else, the SCV says, is illegal.
“The act of the General Assembly which created the Stone Mountain Memorial Association specifically states the park, including both the mountain and all adjacent property, is to be maintained and operated as a Confederate memorial (OCGA 12-3-191),” the SCV wrote in a statement.
Georgia’s governor, Nathan Deal, concurred.
“Stone Mountain is set up and preserved by state law as a Confederate memorial,” he wrote.
The SCV went on: “The erection of a monument to anything other than the Confederate Cause being placed on top of Stone Mountain because of the objections of opponents of Georgia’s Confederate heritage would be akin to the state flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters.”
Then came a second twist on the idealogical battlefield: the NAACP agreed. To place a monument to King on the mountain would sully his reputation, they said. The only answer is to eradicate the carving altogether.
So now both sides have dug their trenches, as the NAACP prepares to launch a new legal offensive. If that doesn’t work, Rose said, the monument’s opponents will demonstrate in the street and organize boycotts.
Paul Hudson, a professor at Georgia Perimeter College , is the author of Stone Mountain: a Multicultural History. He takes the longest possible view of the mountain: it stood for eons before the Confederate figures appeared on its flank, and it will stand long after wind and rain wear them away.
In the meantime, he said, the ideal solution is to remember the Confederacy with accuracy instead of romance. To view the past with longing is dangerous, he said. But forgetting the past is equally perilous.
“You can’t just erase history,” he said. “No matter how unpleasant.”
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