Georgia Today: Why the Confederate Memorial Carved Into Stone Mountain Is Going Nowhere Soon
Stone Mountain’s massive monument featuring Confederate leaders has long sparked controversy. Now, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association has announced changes to the park it hopes will help tell a more "balanced" story of Georgia's past. The latest Georgia Today podcast with host Steve Fennessy and guest Tyler Estep, a reporter at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, examines the park’s history and what the future of its Confederate memorial may look like.
Steve Fennessy: Changes — very incremental changes — are coming to the nation's largest monument to the Confederacy. Stone Mountain's carved rock depiction of Confederate icons Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis has long attracted controversy — controversy that grew as the nationwide movement to remove Confederate monuments has gained steam. And this week, in a historic vote, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association approved changes designed to tell a more, quote, "balanced" story of Georgia's past.
Stone Mountain Memorial Association board chairman Abraham Mosley: You're not going to please everybody, but we're trying to get to where we need to go.
Steve Fennessy: Among the majority white association's approved changes is a forthcoming exhibit showing the park's pivotal role in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the early years of the 20th century. But what about Stone Mountain's massive stone carving, Confederate flags and other white supremacist symbols? This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. Reporter Tyler Estep at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution covered this week's meeting and the Stone Mountain Association's vote. He joins me now.
Steve Fennessy: I was at Stone Mountain; I go there every few weeks and I walk up there with my sons. And this past time I was there with my 9-year-old son. And, you know, that walkup trail to the top of Stone Mountain passes these flags, including the Confederate flag. And if you've lived here a long time, as I have, you start to almost not even see it anymore. But when I went up last time, sort of thinking about what's been going on with Stone Mountain, you look at it and you realize just how sort of remarkable it is that these symbols of a failed insurrection against the United States still sort of are aired so prominently there. I'd like to talk a little bit about how the carving specifically came to be there, because there was a park there, a state park, at Stone Mountain before there was ever a carving. So how did the carving come to be there in the first place?
Tyler Estep: It goes back to 1914.
News tape AP: The idea of a memorial began in the early 1900s around the time the Ku Klux Klan was experiencing a rebirth.
Stan Deaton Georgia Historical Society: The Ku Klux Klan was reborn on top of Stone Mountain Thanksgiving night 1915, and that sort of energized the site itself as a place for a carving to honor the Confederacy.
Tyler Estep: It's the Jim Crow era. It's an era when these Confederate monuments are going up — because most of these didn't go up right after the Civil War. They're going up in the Jim Crow era.
News tape CBS: There are an estimated 1,500 Confederate symbols on display in the United States. And one of them is Georgia's Stone Mountain, America's largest Confederate monument.
Steve Fennessy: What was it about Stone Mountain that the Ku Klux Klan saw that as the place they needed to sort of establish their new beachhead?
Tyler Estep: Sam Venable, his family actually owned Stone Mountain and operated it as a granite quarry. Well, he was a Klansman. He was very sympathetic to the cause and basically allowed them to do these ceremonies at Stone Mountain, do these rallies. So it's not necessarily a a Klan undertaking, per se, but it is, there are tentacles everywhere, essentially.
Steve Fennessy: This was before Stone Mountain was a state park, obviously, right?
Tyler Estep: Yeah. It actually did not become a state park until the state bought it in 1958 from the Venable family. The Venable family essentially gives a lease to the northern face of the mountain to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who is just a — at this time is just a deeply influential group. I mean, it's white high society women that are involved, that have a lot of economic power and a lot of social power, and it's the same group that is censoring textbooks that say that the Civil War was about slavery and that kind of stuff. So the Venable family leases it to them. They create an organization to raise funds and hire a sculptor.
Steve Fennessy: Who did they hire and how did they determine what exactly they were going to carve into the mountain?
Tyler Estep: Right, so Helen Plane, who was the president of the Daughters of the Confederacy, she reached out to a guy named Gutzon Borglum. He had at this time recently actually carved a famous bust of Abraham Lincoln, ironically enough.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial: Gutzon Borglum was the architect of Mount Rushmore. He was born of Danish immigrants in the western state of Idaho. Not only was he a talented artist and sculptor, but he was a political activist back in the 1920s when our country was prospering.
Tyler Estep: He starts carving by about 1923, I believe. And they're raising money. They're even getting cuts of the box office from screenings of Birth of a Nation.
News tape PBS, Harvard University Historian Vincent Brown: D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation was the single most important American film in early cinema. But the film is about history, it's about the Civil War and Reconstruction and the nation, the birth of a nation. It just so happens that the American nation has to be born out of white supremacy.
News tape PBS, Columbia University professor Jelani Cobb: But it was also the most pure, honest, unfiltered distillation of white racial thought at that time.
Tyler Estep: But then things get kind of derailed and it's a little murky, but eventually a spat between Borglum and a gentleman who runs the predecessor of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, they apparently didn't like each other and actually allegedly supported different candidates for the leader of the Klan. So they get in a fight, Borglum gets fired in about 1925. They hire another sculptor named Augustus Lukeman, who gets to work. Eventually, he actually carves his own version of Lee's head, then blows up Borglum's work. So the carving has been blown up before. And then that's essentially the last thing that happens with the carving for 30 years. The Depression comes, they have problems with financing, World War II, etc., and it kind of lays dormant for three decades.
Steve Fennessy: And what revives it?
Tyler Estep: Brown v. Board, oddly enough.
Khan Academy: Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, decided in 1954. Brown vs. Board was a landmark case that opened the door for desegregation and the modern civil rights movement. In Brown, the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools for white and Black children, which had been prevalent throughout the American South since the 1896 decision in Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation, were, in fact, inherently unequal.
Tyler Estep: So within a couple of weeks, Marvin Griffin, who is the lieutenant governor of Georgia at the time, he announces his candidacy for governor and says he's going to maintain segregation at all costs and he's going to buy Stone Mountain and finish the carving. It's part of a movement called massive resistance that takes place across the South where officials and everyone else kind of do everything they can to push back against federal integration efforts. The carving is kind of just like a middle finger, if you will, to the United States government. And then Griffin is also once he was elected, he changes the Georgia state flag to include the Confederate battle emblem. So it's all kind of part and parcel of the same reaction to Brown v. Board.
Steve Fennessy: They're also doing other things that sort of commemorate or memorialize, honor the Confederacy. What are some of the other things they do?
Tyler Estep: So they basically attempt to produce an antebellum plantation from scratch. They bring in slave cabins, quote unquote, slave cabins. They build a big house, quote unquote, and create this kind of neo-Confederate theme park, I think I've heard it phrased that way before. The actress Butterfly McQueen, who played the enslaved woman Prissy in Gone with the Wind, she apparently was was down on her luck. And they brought her in and she lived in the, quote unquote, big house and greeted visitors and everything. And at the same time, you know, they're building the lake, you know, different other facilities. And a lot of that was built with prison labor. So it just adds another layer to the ugly history. So, yeah, it was it was worked on throughout the ‘60s and then dedicated in 1970 during the Nixon administration. In a depressing sort of way, it kind of spans this full — almost a century of American history, whereas they resumed the carving after Brown v. Board in the middle of the civil rights movement when Martin Luther King Jr., who was born 20 miles to the west, is leading the civil rights movement. It is about the Confederacy, but not really. They're more about celebrating the defeat of Reconstruction and glorifying white supremacy.
Steve Fennessy: Stay with us for more on Stone Mountain's past and present and what's behind the decision to tone down the park's racist imagery. This is Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy.
Steve Fennessy: This is Georgia Today; I'm Steve Fennessy, I'm joined by Tyler Estep with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Perhaps one reason the carving at Stone Mountain is proving so difficult to change for so long is the fact that its protection is literally written into Georgia law.
Stone Mountain Memorial Association spokesman John Bankhead: Any changes to the park would have to come through the state legislature and a change in the law.
Steve Fennessy: Which sort of raises the question about, why is the destruction of the carving not really in the cards here?
Tyler Estep: I just don't think we're there yet in terms of the political will. I mean, you look at some of the changes that they approved on Monday, they're trying to navigate a very fine line. State law does protect the monuments. Yeah, there's a lot woven into to the law. Some of it has been strengthened even recently.
Steve Fennessy: What has been the role of Stone Mountain Park and specifically the carving in terms of being a point of controversy about whether it should stay, whether it should go, in terms of how we get to this moment that we're at now?
Tyler Estep: It was really the Charleston shooting in 2015 that kind of started this whole conversation again in earnest.
News tape NPR News: A white supremacist murdered nine people in Charleston, South Carolina. They were worshipers at Emanuel AME Church.
Tyler Estep: And that kind of reignited the debate over Confederate monuments.
News tape NPR News: Shooter Dylann Roof was convicted and sentenced to death. Before the Emanuel massacre, he posted a racist manifesto online. Roof posed for pictures with Confederate flags.
Tyler Estep: And then as the years progressed, every time there's a police shooting of a Black man, it kind of flares back up again. Last summer, with all the protests surrounding George Floyd and other deaths at the hands of police, protests resume. A group called the Stone Mountain Action Coalition formed last summer with the express purpose of trying to get things changed of the park. Folks like the DeKalb NAACP, the Atlanta NAACP, they've been trying to do this for years, but the Stone Mountain Action Coalition kind of got to them.
Steve Fennessy: What is it that they actually want to see happen?
Tyler Estep: Some folks are hardline — we want to dynamite the carving off the mountain, that kind of stuff. Others are a little more — “practical” isn't the right word, but a little more practical when it comes specifically to the carving. They don't they don't want it there, but they realize that it's a three-acre carving on the side of a granite outcropping.
Steve Fennessy: You talked about how last summer in particular, there was kind of a concentrated effort around trying to make some changes at Stone Mountain Park. What kind of pressure did Gov. Brian Kemp feel?
Tyler Estep: The most tangible pressure, I guess, that he's feeling is economic, which is all kind of tied together. Herschend Family Entertainment, which is the company that has run, they call it revenue-generating attractions, at the park since 1998, they came out last summer and said that they are pulling out of the park, too, in part due to clashes between Confederate groups, militia groups, counterprotesters, that kind of stuff. They're pulling out. The Marriott is evidently considering doing the same thing. They run the — the main convention center and hotel.
Protesters: To protect the Black nation. To protect the Black nation.
News tape WSB: Hundreds of protesters dressed in black, armed with assault rifles and a passionate plea at Stone Mountain Park today demanding the carving of Confederate figures be removed from the mountain.
Steve Fennessy: Brian Kemp is now facing protests from increasingly vocal contingents in the state to make changes there. So how does he respond? What does he do?
Tyler Estep: Last month, he appointed Rev. Abraham Mosely, who was a pastor from Athens, his hometown of Athens, to be the chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. And Rev. Mosley is the first Black person to chair the group.
News tape GPB News: He says if people are looking for him to push for the removal of Confederate iconography, like the stone carving of Confederate leaders, they might be disappointed.
Abraham Mosley: Well, hopefully, we'll make tomorrow better for generations to come. But this is past. You can erase it. You can put a flag over it, you can put anything at all. Will that really take away what it stands for?
News tape GPB News: Mosley says his hope is to turn to Stone Mountain into a family destination for people of every race and background.
Abraham Mosley: I want it to be a place where families can feel comfortable coming.
Tyler Estep: How much power he actually has is up for debate. But it is at least a sign that the state is willing to consider making at least incremental changes at the park.
Steve Fennessy: To what degree does Rev. Mosley's appointment as chairman of the board, does that indicate that, you know, there might be even more changes forthcoming?
Tyler Estep: I'll put it this way. They wouldn't be doing any of this without a stamp of approval of some sort from the governor's office, right, so he's playing it behind the scenes, but he is clearly in favor, if for no other reason than the economic implications, he's in favor of incremental changes.
Steve Fennessy: He's facing a primary; a tough primary. And so he has to cater to different constituencies, at least in that part. So he has a very thin line he has to walk.
Tyler Estep: Oh, yeah, absolutely.
Steve Fennessy: So going into this week, the board was going to meet to consider proposed changes to aspects of the park. What were some of those proposed changes and which ones specifically were accepted, which were rejected?
Tyler Estep: Everything that they had on the table was accepted.
News tape: The board announced several changes to Stone Mountain Park, but first said the famous carving of the three Confederate leaders will stay. They will, however, move the controversial Confederate Flag Plaza from the walkup trail to the base of the carving and will build a museum and memorial hall to, in their words, tell the complicated history behind Stone Mountain and the motivations for the carving. They'll also create an advisory board which could recommend further changes, including getting rid of Confederate general street signs. Board chair Abraham Mosley admitted the compromise would not make everyone happy.
Tyler Estep: The Stone Mountain Memorial Association board voted to move those flags that have been at the base of the walkup trail since since the ‘60s, essentially since the park opened. And they are going to move them to a, I guess, kind of a minipark within a park. It's called Valor Park. It's kind of down near the base of the mountain on the carving side. It's an area where there's already a lot of kind of smaller Confederate tributes and that kind of thing. And their thought process, from what I can glean, is, you get them off of the walkup trail, which is probably the most heavily trafficked part of the park so folks that don't want to see them don't have to walk past them every time they climb the mountain. State law, it mandates that they be moved to a place of similar prominence, I think is the term in the law, so that was a good compromise, I suppose.
Steve Fennessy: Was there significant debate at the meeting? Who showed up to voice support or opposition to these proposals?
Tyler Estep: The room was split, probably about 50-50.
News tape: Some Confederate monument supporters seemed OK with the changes,
News tape: It's not destruction of the monument. You know, they'll move the flags. As long as they put them in a place of honor, I don't have a terrible issue with it.
News tape: But opponents say they'll accept nothing except the removal of all Confederate imagery.
News tape: I'm shocked and appalled at what we saw here today. We saw them whitewash history.
Tyler Estep: There was the Stone Mountain Action Coalition and then members of the Atlanta and DeKalb NAACP. They were holding signs that said take down the hate, you know, that kind of stuff. There was also a decent contingent of folks from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and supporters along those lines. And those folks actually, earlier in the day before this meeting, they had tried to pitch the memorial association on kind of going the complete opposite direction and kind of leaning into, quote unquote, “heritage tourism.” I tend to doubt that that will go anywhere but that was their pitch. And, you know, the activists that were there, they're kind of walking a sensitive line. I mean, something is better than nothing, right? But they just want it all wiped off the face of the mountain, essentially.
Steve Fennessy: Tyler, I think about what's happened politically in Georgia in the last year or so. For the first time since 1992, a majority of Georgians chose a Democrat for president. You know, and there are huge political forces now that Georgia really is a state that's in play. And so, to what degree is this whole debate part of a larger kind of story about who Georgia wants to portray itself as to everyone else?
Tyler Estep: Right. I think that's certainly part of it. You listen to these activists, you listen to even, you know, Democratic state lawmakers. They say that this presents Georgia as — Georgia as a monument to the Confederacy, I guess, is kind of what they're saying. And, you know, celebrating the Confederacy is just not a good look.
Steve Fennessy: And one of the things that strikes anyone who goes to Stone Mountain Park. And especially when they go up the walkup trail to the top, you pass hundreds and hundreds of people pretty much any day of the week or any time of day. And what's remarkable about the people you pass is that they are a cross section of Georgia. They are not just white, they are not just Black. They are a representation of the vast diversity of the state. Do you think that these changes are going to provoke any more conversations about how people experience that place?
Tyler Estep: I think the average person that goes to the park, they're not going to look at the Confederate carving, right? They're going to walk around the mountain or walk up the mountain or play golf or do whatever. Some of the activist groups say, let's just return this to just a beautiful natural environment, what it should have been from the beginning.
Steve Fennessy: My thanks to Tyler Estep from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He says questions remain about when many of the changes approved by the association will take effect and the issue of what, if anything, to do about the Confederate carving there will likely be debated for years to come.
For more Georgia Today go to GPB.org. I'm Steve Fennessy. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Subscribe to our show anywhere you get podcasts. Don't forget to leave us a rating and review on Apple. Jess Mador is our producer. Our engineer is Jesse Nighswonger. Thanks for listening. We'll see you next week.