Stone Moun­tain an­other test for Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols

South Florida Times - - NATION - By KATE BRUMBACK Associ­ated Press

STONE MOUN­TAIN, Ga. - The huge raised-re­lief images show a Con­fed­er­ate trin­ity sit­ting astride their horses, high above the ground. Hats held across their chests, Pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jack­son ride across the face of Stone Moun­tain into faded glory.

Part theme park and part shrine to Dixie's Lost Cause, this gran­ite out­crop east of At­lanta - sculpted like a Mount Rush­more of the Con­fed­er­acy - is once again an ide­o­log­i­cal bat­tle­field as a new fight rages over rebel sym­bol­ism across the South.

In the af­ter­math of the Aug. 12 white-na­tion­al­ist rally in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia, a Demo­cratic can­di­date for Ge­or­gia gov­er­nor said the carv­ing should be re­moved. But re­moval would prob­a­bly mean de­stroy­ing a work of public art that took decades to com­plete and is the cen­ter­piece of one of Ge­or­gia's big­gest tourist des­ti­na­tions.

The images carved into the moun­tain, “like Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments across this state, stand as con­stant re­minders of racism, in­tol­er­ance and divi­sion,” Stacey Abrams wrote in an email to sup­port­ers fol­low­ing the vi­o­lence in Char­lottesville. Abrams is vy­ing to be­come the na­tion's first black fe­male gov­er­nor.

Gaz­ing up at the carv­ing Thurs­day with out-of-town guests, Leila Finn and San­dra Neuse, white women from nearby Avon­dale Es­tates, said they visit Stone Moun­tain for the hiking trails and other park ameni­ties. They see the carv­ing as a cu­rios­ity.

“I think it would be more pro­duc­tive to use it as a talk­ing point for ed­u­ca­tion than to just get rid of it,'' Finn said, quickly adding, “I wouldn't mind if they took down some of the flags.”

John Purpera, who's white, stopped re­cently at Stone Moun­tain with his wife and son while driv­ing from their home in Port St. Lu­cie, Florida, to St. Louis to see Mon­day's so­lar eclipse. Orig­i­nally from Louisiana, he op­poses the re­moval of Con­fed­er­ate stat­ues.

“The peo­ple that want it re­moved should be shot,” he said. “It's part of his­tory, and you shouldn't just delete parts of his­tory you don't like.”

Even if Abrams wins the nom­i­na­tion and beats the odds next year to be­come gov­er­nor of this red state, it's un­likely she would be able to get the carv­ing re­moved. State law says it “shall never be al­tered, re­moved, con­cealed or ob­scured in any fash­ion and shall be pre­served and pro­tected for all time as a trib­ute to the brav­ery and hero­ism of the ci­ti­zens of this state who suf­fered and died in their cause.”

That lan­guage was part of a com­pro­mise in a 2001 law that changed the state flag from one that in­cluded the Con­fed­er­ate bat­tle flag.

It would be ex­tremely dif­fi­cult to muster enough sup­port in the Ge­or­gia Gen­eral Assem­bly to change the law, Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor Charles Bul­lock said.

“That's go­ing to be a lot harder than pulling down a statue,” he quipped.

Those who want Con­fed­er­ate sym­bols re­moved of­ten say they be­long in a mu­seum where there's ex­pla­na­tion and con­text, not promi­nently dis­played on public lands. The Stone Moun­tain Me­mo­rial As­so­ci­a­tion, which man­ages Stone Moun­tain Park, ar­gues the park serves pre­cisely that pur­pose.

Lin­ing the mas­sive lawn stretch­ing out from the moun­tain's base - where fam­i­lies gather with pic­nics to watch a laser show pro­jected onto the moun­tain - is a se­ries of in­di­vid­ual brick ter­races, one for each Con­fed­er­ate state. A plaque notes the dates of the state's se­ces­sion and of its read­mis­sion to the Union.

The white-columned Me­mo­rial Hall at the top of the lawn houses full-scale re­pro­duc­tions of parts of the carv­ing so visi­tors can get a bet­ter sense of its size - 90 feet (27 me­ters) by 190 feet (58 me­ters). An­other sec­tion ex­plores lo­cal his­tory, with ex­hibits on the Civil War that do not delve deeply into the war's causes or touch on later con­tro­ver­sies.

In 2015, when the mas­sacre of nine black wor­ship­pers at a Charleston, South Carolina church by a white su­prem­a­cist gun­man led to calls to re­move Con­fed­er­ate memo­ri­als, the Stone Moun­tain as­so­ci­a­tion con­sid­ered adding a me­mo­rial to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. But the plan was dropped after it ran into re­sis­tance from both those who iden­tify with King and those who honor the Con­fed­er­acy.

Stone Moun­tain's his­tory is deeply en­twined with the Ku Klux Klan.

The first sketches for the carv­ing were drawn up in 1915 at the re­quest of the United Daugh­ters of the Con­fed­er­acy. That same year, the Klan ex­pe­ri­enced a re­birth with a Thanks­giv­ing night cross burn­ing atop Stone Moun­tain. That year also saw the re­lease of the film “The Birth of a Na­tion,” which glo­ri­fied the Re­con­struc­tion-era KKK.

For decades there­after, Stone Moun­tain was the site of an an­nual KKK cross burn­ing.

Be­cause of fund­ing prob­lems and other is­sues, the carv­ing was not com­pleted un­til 1972.

Ge­or­gia His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety his­to­rian Stan Deaton said it's sig­nif­i­cant that the mon­u­ment was be­gun as the KKK was re­born and com­pleted fol­low­ing the civil rights move­ment and de­seg­re­ga­tion. He said many South­ern politi­cians still chafed at changes im­posed by what they con­sid­ered an in­tru­sive fed­eral gov­ern­ment.

“As a seg­re­gated so­ci­ety is com­ing to an end, we're go­ing to for­ever en­shrine these three Con­fed­er­ate heroes on the front of this moun­tain as a kind of per­pet­ual mid­dle finger, if you will, to the fed­eral gov­ern­ment,” Deaton said.

The Sa­cred Knights of the Ku Klux Klan ap­plied last May for a per­mit to hold a “light­ing cer­e­mony” on top of the moun­tain on Oct. 21 to com­mem­o­rate the 1915 burn­ing.

In a let­ter last week deny­ing the per­mit, the Stone Moun­tain Me­mo­rial As­so­ci­a­tion cited a dis­rup­tive 2016 clash be­tween a white na­tion­al­ist group and op­po­nents at the park. The as­so­ci­a­tion “con­demns the be­liefs and ac­tions of the Ku Klux Klan” and be­lieves deny­ing the per­mit “is in the best in­ter­est of all par­ties and is the ap­pro­pri­ate course of ac­tion,” it said in a state­ment.

As Don­ald Smith and Anna Harde­man, who live just south of At­lanta in Col­lege Park and are both black, con­tem­plated hiking the trail that goes up the back of the moun­tain to the sum­mit Thurs­day, they said they would like to see the carv­ing re­moved.

“It's a re­minder of a time you don't want to be re­minded of,” Harde­man said.

But Smith said he won­dered if re­mov­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments might just sow more divi­sion. Not­ing that as soon as he en­tered the park, he had to turn onto Robert E. Lee Boule­vard, he mused on a child­hood adage.

“It's like my par­ents said about sticks and stones,” he said. “These names will never hurt you. It's when the peo­ple ac­tu­ally pick up the sticks and stones that it can hurt you.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF STONE MOUN­TAIN PARK

Stone Moun­tain de­picts the Con­fed­er­ate fig­ures of Jef­fer­son Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jack­son.

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