Why I refuse to visit Stone Mountain

On our family’s summer vacation to northern Georgia, we’ve visited lots of places in Atlanta and the surrounding area. Stone Mountain was not one of them. Here’s why — and why I believe all Confederate monuments should come down.

We have spent this August visiting my family in northern Georgia. Given our proximity to Atlanta — we’re about 70 kilometers (45 miles) north of central Atlanta — much of our sightseeing has been there. The Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site was our first stop along with the nearby Sweet Auburn Curb Market. The Georgia Aquarium, the World of Coca-Cola, the CNN Studio Tour, the Fernbank Museum of Natural History, The Varsity, Zoo Atlanta, and Piedmont Park are among the other places we’ve been during our time here. (Those links are to Instagram posts from our visits.)

Both before and during this trip, a number of people have asked if we are going to visit Stone Mountain. Stone Mountain itself is an impressive feature of the Atlanta area’s topography: a massive monadnock — essentially, a giant rock — that rises 250 meters (825 feet) above the surrounding rolling hills. If you have ever flown into or out of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, you have probably seen it; it is impossible to miss to the east of the downtown Atlanta skyline. The mountain and the surrounding area have been turned into a state park with a variety of activities, including a train ride around the base of the mountain and an aerial tram to the top.

But perhaps the biggest tourist draw at Stone Mountain is the carving found on its north face. It is the biggest bas-relief sculpture in the world, 48 meters (158 feet) wide and 23 meters (76 feet) high, 120 meters (400 feet) above the ground — a sort of Southern Mount Rushmore. The subjects? Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

So, to those who have asked if we are going to visit Stone Mountain on this trip, my answer has been the same:

No, I refuse to visit Stone Mountain, and I will not take my children there.

I have been to Stone Mountain once before, on a trip to Atlanta with my family in 1995. I was 13 at the time, and I enjoyed riding the aerial tram to the top. We also stayed and watched the laser show on the north face of the mountain that evening. To be honest, the sculpture is impressively large and the laser show was cool, though even at that age I found it strange that people got on their feet and cheered and shouted for these leaders of a short-lived nation from 130 years earlier as their figures were outlined and animated by lasers and a laser Confederate flag flapped behind.

Those who cheered might have claimed that they were celebrating heritage. But it is impossible to celebrate that heritage without acknowledging the racism and hatred that motivated the creation of the sculpture on Stone Mountain in the first place.

A history deeply rooted in racism

The idea for the carving on Stone Mountain dates from the early 20th century, and work on it started in 1923.

The original sculptor selected was Gutzon Borglum. It was not only his skill and ambition to create a carving on an as-yet-unattempted scale that made him a good choice for the project. His nativist ideology — he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan — fit perfectly with the project’s ambitions. (He was also, unfortunately, a fellow Mormon.) However, Borglum abandoned the project in 1925 and then went on to carve Mount Rushmore.

Another sculptor continued the work until 1928, after which it was abandoned for three decades.

In 1958, as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum in Georgia and throughout the South — thanks largely to the efforts of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and others based in Atlanta — Georgia’s governor encouraged the legislature to use state funds to buy Stone Mountain so the carving could be completed. Work on the sculpture started again in 1964. The sculpture was finally completed in 1972, on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement.

In other words, as African Americans and their allies were fighting for civil rights throughout the 1960s, carving a memorial to the long-dead Confederacy’s long-dead “heroes” gained more and more steam.

But that’s not all.

C. Helen Plane, who first had the idea to carve a memorial to the Confederacy on Stone Mountain, insisted that the sculpture include an altar for the Ku Klux Klan. She wrote to Borglum, “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”

(After Borglum abandoned the project and smashed all the models of his ambitious plans for the sculpture — Davis, Lee, and Jackson were to be followed by a legion of artillery troops riding around the mountain — and it lay dormant for 30 years, the end result was scaled back, though still enormous, and did not include the altar.)

That is not the Klan’s only connection with Stone Mountain. The original Ku Klux Klan was organized in the aftermath of the Civil War, but it was largely eliminated by federal law enforcement in the early 1870s. Then in 1915, a series of events, including the August 1915 release of the film The Birth of a Nation, inspired the creation of a second iteration of the KKK, which was founded on top of Stone Mountain on 25 November 1915. The 9 April 1965 issue of Time magazine described the scene, led by “an itinerant Methodist preacher named William Joseph Simmons”:

On Thanksgiving Eve 1915, Simmons took 15 friends to the top of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, built an altar on which he placed an American flag, a Bible and an unsheathed sword, set fire to a crude wooden cross, muttered a few incantations about a “practical fraternity among men,” and declared himself Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

In October 1923 the mountain’s then-owner, Sam Venable, who had been involved in the reestablishment of the KKK, granted the Klan a perpetual easement to hold gatherings and ceremonies at Stone Mountain as they wished. (One of the silver linings of the mountain’s purchase in 1960 by the State of Georgia is that the state condemned the property to remove this easement, though that may have been more to assert the state’s ownership of the property rather than the result of disagreement with the Klan’s ideology.)

Stone Mountain’s connections with racism and white supremacy run long and deep.

The broader context

This year, our family’s summer vacation takes place at a time of deep division in our country and vociferous — and sometimes violent — debate over America’s long history of racism and discrimination. Central to this debate are a number of Confederate statues, monuments, placenames, and other symbols across the country. They can be found in some surprising places, in the South as well as the North and from coast to coast: a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Virginia; an obelisk in front of the county courthouse in DeKalb County, Georgia, home of Stone Mountain; street names on an Army base in New York City; a memorial to Jefferson Davis in rural Arizona just east of Phoenix; and countless others.

These monuments memorialize the Confederacy and its leaders — and most certainly its ideology.

I grew up in the South. I have been around this history and these symbols and the controversy surrounding them for much of my life. I understand that history is not simple and that emotions run deep.

Yet as I’ve grown older and lived in various places across the United States and, most importantly, interacted with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, my answer to questions about these symbols is a simple one: they have no place in our society.

The recent events in Charlottesville confirmed my feelings and strengthened my resolve against these symbols. They are symbols of hate, not heritage.

To those who argue that they are symbols of heritage or at least reminders of history and should remain in place, I will grant that they could stay.

They could stay if they didn’t memorialize a nation that was founded to perpetuate the institution of slavery and on the idea that one race is superior to all others.

They could stay if they hadn’t been erected in the first place to intimidate African Americans and other minorities, to protest a society that was becoming more open and more tolerant, and to protest laws that expanded civil and voting rights.

They could stay if African Americans and other minorities didn’t continue to experience widespread racism and discrimination.

They could stay if a young white man hadn’t walked into a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot and killed nine African Americans.

They could stay if neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other racists and hate groups didn’t regard them as shrines and use them as gathering points to spread their messages of hate and racism.

Otherwise, they must go.

So much more to celebrate

As these symbols of hate disappear, Southerners and Americans may remember that there is so much more to celebrate about this region. The South is so much more than four years of secession and war in the 1860s. From the green slopes of the Appalachians to the broad coastal plain and the sandy shore, it is a place of incredible beauty and biodiversity. The South is a land of rich history, tradition, and culture. And the food — and I’m talking about real, home-cooked Southern food — is amazing.

Above all, the South is defined by its people — people from every race, religion, and background. Its past is shared by all of them. Its future most certainly will be — and a bright future must include all of them.

One of the ways to make sure it does is to get rid of the reminders in stone and bronze that tell some of them that they are less than others or that they don’t belong. One of the ways, as someone much more eloquent than I once said, is to let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

Much of the historical information in this post has been gathered from articles on Wikipedia and various online sources.

Featured image: Atlanta’s skyline from Buckhead
Chuck Koehler | 23.13, 8 January 2007 | CC BY 3.0

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