From its north side, Stone Mountain is a formidable sight. Staggeringly steep, nearly five times as high as Niagara Falls, it rises from Georgia’s wooded landscape like a rogue wave.
This anomalous, igneous dome east of Atlanta is the centerpiece of a state park that draws 4 million visitors a year. Forty stories above ground, front and center on the gunmetal-gray face of the stone, is the largest bas-relief carving on the planet, a Civil War memorial to Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. These leaders of the Southern rebellion against the United States sit astride their steeds, hats over their hearts, on a three-acre backdrop etched into the mountainside.
Stone Mountain is the Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy, only bigger. So big, a stonecutter could duck out of a downpour inside a horse’s mouth. Robert E. Lee is as tall as a nine-story building. Jefferson Davis’ nose is the size of a sofa.
Some see the carving as a memorial to rebel heroes and those who fought and died defending the Southern way of life. Activist Richard Rose sees it as “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world.”
“If you read the declaration of secession for those states, they make it clear in the first paragraph, even the second sentence, why they wanted to secede from the union.”
“The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”
Although the monument is protected by state law, Rose says it needs to go.
President of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Rose grew up in the civil rights movement, the “whites only” times. Such tributes to the Confederacy have haunted him all his life.
“I don’t think people understand the objective and the intent,” he said in a phone interview. “They don’t understand that it’s based on white supremacy because the war was based on white supremacy, and the ‘heroes’ are based on white supremacy.
“After the killings at Emanuel Church in Charleston, it finally crystallized for me that these monuments encourage violence and validate oppression.”
Two summers ago, 21-year-old Dylann Roof joined an evening Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Then, as worshippers closed their eyes to pray, he executed those around him, killing nine in all. Investigators later discovered his website filled with racist rantings and photos of him with Confederate flags and other symbols embraced by his kind.
After the massacre, Rose, speaking on behalf of Atlanta’s NAACP, and Charles Steele, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), called on Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to remove “symbols of hate” from all state properties, including Stone Mountain.
As cities across the country wrestled with whether Confederate tributes should stay or go, Charlottesville cranked up the volume.
On August 12, a contingent of mostly angry white men, some donning battle gear and waving Confederate and swastika flags, gathered for a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue from a city park. Clashes turned bloody, then murderous when a rally supporter plowed his vehicle into counter-protesters, injuring 19 and killing Heather Heyer, 32.
After Charlottesville, others joined the call for the Stone Mountain carving to come down, most notably African-American gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives.
For Rose, it boils down to this:
“If Joe Blow wants to put a statue of Robert E Lee in his front yard or on his farm, I think that’s great. I mean, this is America; he ought to be able to do that. But the state of Georgia should not be doing that, the state of Alabama, the state of Virginia. Cities and counties should not be promoting white supremacy and racism.
“And there’s a law to protect it. The fact that the state says this makes it all the more onerous.”
The Klan’s sacred stone
The nearly 60-year effort it took to create this monument, from its first fundraising campaign in 1915 to finishing touches in 1972, makes quite the compelling story. Historical photos show stonecutters dangling from cables and perched on swings halfway down the mountain’s 825-foot face. One crewman died in 1927 when a chunk of rock loosened by dynamite let go, hit his platform and catapulted him into the air. Another was killed in 1966 when a scaffold plank slipped out of place.
Carving these figures into the mountainside took courage, strength and skill. But there’s an odious side to the story.
In 1915, the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan occurred atop Stone Mountain. Klan money helped fund the monument. And the first of its three head sculptors was a Klansman, as was the owner of the mountain, Samuel Venable, whose family bought it in 1887 to run a quarry. Venable granted the Klan rights to hold meetings there in perpetuity. And for decades it did.
Two events sparked the revival of the Klan, which swept the South during Reconstruction before fizzling in the 1870s.
Fueled by anti-Semitism, the first was the lynching of Leo Frank, a Cornell graduate and Jewish superintendent of an Atlanta factory, who was convicted in a shoddy trial of the murder of a 13-year-old Christian girl. After Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life, an armed mob snatched him from prison while guards did nothing to stop it. The men drove Frank to the girl’s hometown and hanged him from an oak tree. (Decades later a witness came forward and, in 1986, the Georgia Board of Parole granted Frank a posthumous pardon.)
The other provocation was the Atlanta debut of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, a silent film portraying African Americans as savages and sex fiends who defiled white women, while glorifying the KKK as saviors galloping to the rescue.
On Thanksgiving night, William J. Simmons led a group of 15, including some members of the Frank lynching mob, to the summit of Stone Mountain, where they set up a flag-draped altar, opened a Bible and burned a 16-foot cross in an initiation ceremony described in Atlanta’s Stone Mountain: A Multicultural History, by Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza.
The resurrected KKK targeted primarily blacks, but also Jews, Catholics and foreigners among others.
Although the idea of carving a monument into Stone Mountain had floated about for years, Civil War widow Helen Plane made it her mission. As a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, champions of the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, she had both the passion and the sway. Once Gutzon Borglum was chosen as the sculptor in 1915, she wrote him with a design suggestion.
“I feel it is due to the Klan which saved us from Negro dominations and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?”
Due to funding challenges and World War I, the jackhammers, drills and explosives didn’t descend upon the mountain until 1923. Borglum had grandiose visions of carving an army of Confederates in addition to the three leaders, as many as 1,000 figures sweeping across the mountain. But after a year’s work, all he’d completed was Lee’s head.
Project managers fired him and later pressed charges when he destroyed his models. Borglum fled the state and went on to carve Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota on sacred Lakota land.
Augustus Lukeman took over, but slammed into the deadline before finishing. In 1916, Venable had granted a 12-year lease to complete the carving, and time was up. The project sat mothballed for the next 36 years.
The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education integration decision and rise of the Civil Rights Movement jump-started interest in completing the carving. In 1958, under Georgia’s segregationist governor, Marvin Griffin, the state created the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and purchased the dome and surrounding land to create a memorial park.
Carving resumed July 1964 with its third head sculptor, Walter Kirtland Hancock. Eight years later it was finished.
The state’s purchase of Stone Mountain voided Venable’s agreement with the Klan, but that hasn’t stopped sympathizers and other white supremacists from making pilgrimages to their sacred ground of hate. And, it’s hard to ignore the timing of the park’s official grand opening on April 14, 1965 — 100 years to the day that President Abraham Lincoln was shot.
Looking the other way
Stone Mountain Park has a lot more going on than its Confederate monument. The 3,200-acre tourist mecca offers an amusement park, hiking, boating, golfing, a laser show, a plantation, slave quarters included, and more. A tram takes visitors to the top, where chain-link fencing keeps them from sliding into oblivion. In addition to views, there’s a 312-foot transmission tower, restrooms and a snack bar smelling of popcorn.
On a recent fall morning, on a scenic drive around the mountain via Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Stonewall Jackson Drive, tangerine and marigold leaves skittered across the pavement on a light breeze as the road traversed bridge after bridge over the meandering, manmade Stone Mountain Lake. People were everywhere, running, strolling, biking, dog walking, the vast majority black, white, and black and white together.
The park draws all races and ethnicities. One moment you see a ball cap with Confederate battle-flag symbols, the next a hijab and veil.
“If you don’t look at the monument, and for me you can’t look at the street names either, but, you know, it’s a state park,” Richard Rose said. “You can go camping, there’s a golf course, you can rent a boat and go on the lake. They have a couple hotels, a campground. But it’s a monument to the Confederate States of America.
“Every monument is a celebration of something, a person’s life or some significant event. This represents a celebration of the attempt to maintain slavery as an institution in America.”