In recent weeks, there have been a number of stories in the news about symbols of the Confederacy and the proper placement of these reminders of a particular part of our past. The fact that a flag that was in official service for a few years over a century and a half ago still evokes such strong reactions and such differing opinions today is a reminder of the power of symbols – and of the importance of the way we tell our story.
In the Atlanta area, many have reacted strongly to the suggestion that Confederate iconography be removed from Stone Mountain Park.
For those unfamiliar with Stone Mountain, it is a dome-shaped granite monadnock, five miles in circumference, and rising 825 feet above the surrounding land. From a distance, it looks like a gigantic grey stone bubble rising above the tree tops. For hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, it has served human beings as a site for recreation, exploration, exploitation of its mineral resources, and rituals of various kinds, including sunrise worship services.
In 1915, its summit was the site of another kind of ritual – the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in its 20th century incarnation in the wake of the trial and subsequent lynching of Leo Frank. In 1923, the owners of the mountain granted an easement to the Klan with a perpetual right to hold their gatherings there. In the same year, fundraising began to support a massive carving on the North face of the mountain that would feature heroes of the Confederacy.
Today, Stone Mountain and the surrounding land are owned by the state of Georgia, which has extinguished the Ku Klux Klan’s easement. But the massive carving, depicting Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson spreads across three acres of the mountain’s surface. The viewing area for the carving is lined with patios honoring the former slave-holding states. The walk-up trail features a display of different Confederate flags. The streets serving the park are named for Davis, Lee, and Jackson.
In his 1963 I Have A Dream speech, Martin Luther King Jr. called for freedom to ring from a number of American place names, including Stone Mountain, which was then well known for its association with the Klan and its celebration of the Confederate States of America.
Most people who grew up in the Atlanta area have always known Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial, but few have questioned why this is so. In a region pock-marked with Civil War battle sites, nothing of much significance happened during the war at Stone Mountain. Most Atlantans are dimly if at all aware of the Klan connection to the mountain.
The park has existed from the days of Jim Crow segregation in a majority-white and mostly rural county to become a part of the rapidly-growing Atlanta metropolitan area, in a majority-black county, with residents and visitors from around the world. In my personal experience, it in not unusual to take the one-mile hike to the summit of the mountain and hear three or four different languages being spoken along the busy trail. Each one of these hikers begins their journey by passing a building called Confederate Hall and a row of poles adorned by Confederate flags.
To me, this is a fascinating and puzzling juxtaposition of images. I have never been comfortable with the way many in my home region seem to obsess over and glorify its bloody flirtation with secession, and excuse the Confederacy’s inherent opposition to basic human rights. But the cure for this form of blindness seems not to be to cast light upon it, but rather to let the magnificent nature of the mountain assert its draw. People come from around the world, and the mistakes and pains of the past are ignored in favor of the pleasures and opportunities available today. It was with some satisfaction that I read a few years ago that the former home of the high-ranking Klan member who had granted the easement to the KKK had been purchased by the first black mayor of the town of Stone Mountain.
In recent weeks, there have been calls for the removal of Confederate symbols from the park. As in other places, and as with other memorials, passions have run high. It will be interesting to see how the debate proceeds. As a history teacher, I am always excited when people look to evidence from the past to explain the needs and values of the present.
But in this one particular instance, I think there is no doubt as to the eventual winner of the debate. Sitting atop the mountain, warm summer breeze in my face, I can only imagine the millions of years this massive stone has weathered the elements, the living things that cling to its sides, the noisy bugs that yammer and buzz around it. And I know that no matter the reasons, no matter the passions, the mountain will outlast all of us.