Opinion: Really understanding Stone Mountain’s history

When you visit Stone Mountain Park, you might not even see the large carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

You can’t see it if you trek the hiking trail to the top of the mountain, a favorite activity at the park. If you visit the attractions, you’ll spot dinosaurs and trains, but the carving isn’t visible from the water park or restaurants nearby.

You could join people of all types as they picnic and barbecue throughout the park, and be completely unaware of the massive relief sculpture.

Yet, the carving is nearly 200 feet wide — it’s bigger than the one at Mount Rushmore.

“People walk past it every day and don’t pay attention to it,” said Atlanta History Center CEO Sheffield Hale. “It’s just there.”

But make no mistake about it, the country’s largest monument to the Confederacy looms large over Metro Atlanta as the nation wrestles with the legacy of slavery and white supremacy.

It’s only a matter of time, it would seem, before the nation turns its eyes to Stone Mountain and asks what it says about us — and what we should do about it.

It’s not a new conversation in Georgia. Over the years, various ideas have been floated to alter, contextualize or remove the carving. One candidate for Georgia governor has made it a campaign issue, so the subject is likely to come up over and over again before the election in next year. (Most consider the actual removal of the carving to be impractically expensive.)

We ought to be willing to take on the issue and have a wide-ranging public conversation. No matter what the outcome, the conversation will be valuable.

But crucial to any such conversation is a clear understanding of the actual history of the carving, and separating that from the park and the community of Stone Mountain.

So what is the history of the carving?

A white paper prepared by the Atlanta History Center and sent to some members of the commission that governs the park is blunt:

“The carving on the side of Stone Mountain has a controversial history that involves strong connections to white supremacy, the Confederate Lost Cause ideology, and anti-Civil Rights sentiments.”

“From the beginning of efforts to create the carving in 1914, early proponents of the carving had strong connections to the Ku Klux Klan and openly supported Klan politics… . Efforts at rewriting Confederate history as a moral victory and pining for the supposedly morally superior society of the romanticized Old South were at the center of the motivations behind the carving.”

The decades-long effort to complete the carving coincides with key moments in our history when creating Confederate memorials gained support and popularity.

“It has a particular level of toxicity as a monument, compared to your ordinary monument in a small town,” Hale said.

Memorials to the Confederacy were created during three distinct periods.

The first, in the years immediately after the Civil War, represented mourning for the dead — the kind of thing you might see in a cemetery.

The next period, which Hale says spans the years of about 1890 to the late 1930s or so, was the Jim Crow era. The idea of the noble and romanticized “Lost Cause” became popular, but Confederate monuments had a clear purpose: remind black people that white people were still in power.

The memorialization of the Confederacy enjoyed renewed support in the aftermath of the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the concept of “separate but equal” schools for black and white students was unconstitutional. The ruling was a crucial moment that prompted Southern resistance and led the country into the Civil Rights era.

Stone Mountain’s carving tracks along this history.

In 1914, Helen Plane proposed the carving. She was the Honorary Life President of the Georgia State Division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

And the owner of Stone Mountain got behind her idea:

“From my childhood days to the present hour, I have entertained the most profound admiration and reverence for those who consecrated their lives and service to the ‘Lost Cause.’ ”

About a year or so after Plane began pushing her idea, the dormant Ku Klux Klan was reborn on Stone Mountain, complete with a burning cross, men in robes and a U.S. flag. Among the leaders was the grandson of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Plane was a supporter of the Klan, and suggested that the group be represented in the carving.

“I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination … that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?”

Her suggestion was ignored.

But work on the carving got going, a complicated, expensive and time-consuming project.

When the Great Depression and World War II came along, the project stalled and interest waned.

Then along came Gov. Marvin Griffin. He was a segregationist who was governor when the Confederate battle flag was added to the state flag in 1956.

He got the project funded and restarted. As the state’s chief executive he connected federal intervention on matters of civil rights and segregation to intrusion on state’s rights, saying the NAACP was “dead set on destroying segregation and our way of life.”

The history center white paper points out that Griffin helped create “messaging surrounding Confederate symbols as nationalization of the Lost Cause and what it stood for, essentially cloaking the Lost Cause and white supremacy in an American flag.”

Among the leaders who believe understanding this history is crucial is Michael Thurmond, DeKalb County’s CEO and a former state legislator, who has also written two books on Georgia history.

“There aren’t many days I don’t cast my eyes on that mountain,” said Thurmond, who lives nearby and noted that his views on the carving were personal and not a declaration of county policy. “Stone Mountain can become a model for how we address these issues.”

He believes the Stone Mountain carving’s history must be understood, so that the community can decide what do it about it.

He emphasized that knowing its history can lead to better understanding of the racial problems our society still faces. He said the reference to Stone Mountain in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King “wasn’t a random statement.”

When it comes to facing Stone Mountain’s history, “we have to have the courage” to understand it, and then come to a decision about how to commemorate it, he said.

“There’s a difference between Civil War history and ‘Lost Cause’ mythology,” he said.

And no place demonstrates that more clearly than Stone Mountain.

Related: Removal of Confederate carving on Stone Mountain a monumental task

Abrams calls for removal of Confederate faces off Stone Mountain

There are hundreds of Confederate monuments, not just in the South

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