LATE AT NIGHT on June 24, amid the debate over whether South Carolina should remove the Confederate flag from its Statehouse grounds, a Facebook post by a Georgia country radio station started a minor Internet panic that was, depending on how you view it, either belated or premature. “A petition has begun, seeking to remove the famous Confederate memorial carving from Stone Mountain. What do you think?” the post read. It referred to a Change.org petition that called for the eradication of a bas-relief depiction, carved into the side of Georgia’s Stone Mountain, of Confederate icons Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee.
Thousands of outraged comments later, it became clear that the post was from 2013 and that the petition was moribund. But then on July 13, the Atlanta NAACP released a statement from chapter President Richard Rose that really was a current call for the removal of the carving. “Those guys need to go,” Rose said. “They can be sand-blasted off, or somebody could carefully remove a slab of that and auction it off to the highest bidder. “¦ My tax dollars should not be used to commemorate slavery.” (The carving is maintained by the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which does not receive tax dollars.)
Rose’s comments and the questions they raised were picked up by media outlets around the country — “Art, monument or embarrassment?” one Associated Press story asked — officially launching a new phase of the battle over Confederate symbols: What do we do about emblems that are harder to remove than a mere flag?
And should we destroy works of historic public art in response to changes in the national consciousness?
What do we do about emblems that are harder to remove? Should we destroy works of historic art in response to changes in the national consciousness?
A recent unscientific poll of Atlanta Business Chronicle readers found that 90 percent wanted to keep the carving because it “is part of a memorial to Southern heritage.” But despite what the carving may mean to many today, it was not created to honor the Civil War dead or to pay homage to homegrown Confederate heroes. (None of those depicted came from Georgia.) Its origin story goes like this: In the 1910s, a man named Sam Venable owned Stone Mountain, which was used as a quarry and a major meeting place for the KKK, of which Venable was a powerful member. Venable leased the north face of the mountain to the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which hired Gutzon Borglum to carve a tribute to Lee into the rock. But Borglum — who 12 years later began work on Mount Rushmore — wanted to expand the UDC design. Tensions grew, and he was cut from the project. The next sculptor blasted Lee’s disembodied head off the mountain and began again, but the effort stalled when money ran out just before the Great Depression. Then, in the 1950s, in response to Brown v. Board of Education and growing pressure to desegregate the South, Georgia Governor Marvin Griffin oversaw the purchase of Stone Mountain by the state, intending to see the carving completed. Finally, in 1963, work on the project resumed under Walker Hancock. He unveiled the memorial in 1970; it was completed in 1972. The final carving depicts Lee, Davis, and Jackson, all on horseback.
Last week, I traveled to Stone Mountain to see what, if anything, visitors thought should be done about the monument. I went in the evening and stayed for the 45-minute laser show, which is projected directly onto the carving. The show has several segments, including one about music from Georgia, which prominently features African-American musicians, but the cornerstone is its homage to Jackson, Lee, and Davis. At one point, the men and their horses appear to shake free of their granite confines and ride about on the mountain face, striking battle poses.
Most of those I met were either locals there for recreation or tourists with educational groups. Many were African-American — the area is 75 percent black, and African-Americans make up a significant portion of visitors to the park. A 19-year-old African-American college student named Selena told me she was home for the summer and had come to Stone Mountain to exercise and watch the sunset. “I didn’t think much about it before,” but ever since Charleston, “I think about it a lot,” she said, adding that she’s “in the middle about it. I think it should come down; however, this is a part of history. “¦ I think it should come down, but I don’t think it is going to.” Two black teens, one from North Carolina and one from New York City, who were there with a Georgia Tech program for high school students, admitted they hadn’t heard about the debate prior to speaking with me, but they had opinions. “I don’t agree with the flag being there, but I don’t think you should blow up part of the mountain,” said one young man. “It’s part of history,” concurred the other. Both noted disapprovingly, however, that they hadn’t been told anything about the context of the carving during their visit. One African-American visitor I encountered provided his own context: During my cable-car ride to the top of the mountain, I heard a man quietly tell his young son, “Look now and you’ll see the devils.”
I also called Rep. Hank Johnson of Georgia, the Democrat who represents the district that Stone Mountain is in, to see what he thought. “It’s historic and it’s also a man-made marvel,” he said. “It’s a work of human ingenuity. It’s to be preserved just for that fact — but the fact that it’s preserved does not mean that it should be left without revision into perpetuity.” He suggested that carvings of Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Martin Luther King be added to the mountain’s face. Others have also advocated altering rather than removing the work; King comes up often as a possible addition, but Jimmy Carter has been mentioned as well. A Brooklyn-based artist has proposed adding Big Boi and André 3000 from Outkast. The Atlanta City Council has come out in support of adding figures to the mountain and has asked Georgia Governor Nathan Deal to consider the proposal.
Derek Alderman, a cultural geographer at the University of Tennessee, says a relevant phrase that comes up often in his work on memory and memorials is “symbolic accretion.” “It means that you layer memories on top of each other, or you layer messages on top of each other,” he says. “We can get a lot of value politically and educationally by thinking about juxtaposing memories against each other.” Adding an image of King to the current carving, for example, would raise questions such as, “What does the Confederacy have to do with the civil rights movement? What does that have to do with King’s vision of the South? “¦ It automatically draws people to talk about, ‘What does that history have to do with
Even Richard Rose of the NAACP seemed open to this sort of solution. When I asked him if he thought the carving would be removed, he said: “I don’t think it’s likely, but we want something to happen. No synthesis without thesis and antithesis.”
Naomi Shavin is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.