Stone Mountain and the Debate Over Confederate Symbols in Georgia

Confederate flags are easy.

This illustration can only be used with Naomi Shavin piece that originally ran in the 8/1/2015 issue of National Journal magazine.
National Journal
July 31, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

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

this his­tory?‘“Š”

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.

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