“Why would they build a monument to three losers?” asked my northern-born relative after a trip to Stone Mountain Park many years ago. Jefferson Davis. Robert E. Lee. Stonewall Jackson. Yep. You can look it up. Definitely lost.
My answer to my relative – to better remember history. The winners and the losers.
Most Saturday mornings you can find me and/or my wife enjoying the beauty that is Stone Mountain Park. I’ve written before about how it really is one of our forgotten jewels, peaceful and plain spoken. No Ferris wheels or roller coasters. Life slows down when you pass through the gates. If it doesn’t, one of the Park’s finest will be happy to pull you over and point out the speed limit signs.
Now this state park has hit a far more expensive form of radar – public opinion.
When South Carolina removed the Confederate Battle Flag from the Statehouse grounds, other state’s rights symbols were already under reconsideration. I figured the Confederate Memorial Carving would eventually make it to the top of someone’s list. It’s Number One with a bullet right now.
The Atlanta NAACP wants to sandblast off the carving. The Atlanta City Council suggests leaving it there, but adding other Georgians to the carving such as Jimmy Carter or Martin Luther King, Jr. They’ve asked Governor Nathan Deal to study the idea.
Sandblasting anything seems terribly wrong, too much like the Taliban blowing up centuries-old religious art it finds offensive. I have no opinion on the City Council idea. In a free society, we ought to be able to talk freely about symbols on taxpayer-owned land.
I do believe that Stone Mountain Park has already served a remarkable purpose. Go see for yourself one day.
When we moved to Georgia in 1967, my parents took us to the Park. The carving consisted of only Robert E. Lee’s head. Funding had run out decades ago. The carving was finally finished in 1972, two years before Atlanta would elect its first black mayor.
Unlike the controversy surrounding various state flags and the Confederate Battle Flag symbol, this carving wasn’t conceived in the 1950s or 1960s as a reaction to Brown vs. Board of Education. It had been underway since before World War I. Original sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who would later carve Mount Rushmore) envisioned a whole “army of thousands” trailing away from the central figures of the carving. Imagine that animation in the laser show today.
True, Stone Mountain was once the sight of Ku Klux Klan rallies and cross burnings. And Brown vs. BOE likely prompted the funding to get the carving finished once and for all. But over time, something remarkable has happened at the Park. Something historic. Fitting even.
A place that remembers the heroes of the Confederacy, a place that was once the site of Klan meetings, a place that flies the Confederate Battle Flag among many others, is now a popular spot for African Americans.
The demographics in South DeKalb have played a role. But I think of it more like one of the dreams Dr. King didn’t get a chance to include – “one day black and white Georgians will jog together in a place once owned by a white supremacist. I have a dream…”
We’ve made so many friends during our Saturday mornings at the park. Over the years, not one has mentioned their discomfort with the carving. No one has urged me to do a story about the Battle Flag. Perhaps someone will now. Or perhaps it’s just not important to the people who see the park as so much more.
Critics say the Confederate Battle Flag belongs in a museum. Stone Mountain Park is a giant 3200-acre museum, complete with an Antebellum home and slave quarters. Walk the trails. Walk to the top of the mountain. Look around. It’s a battleground transformed.
My first TV job was in Macon. The old train station has “Colored Waiting Room” carved into the granite. I used to take my Northern relatives by there to understand our state, warts and all. “They really treated black people like that?” they would ask. Yes, I said. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Yes. Hard to believe.
I moved away in 1983. Later, someone suggested sandblasting off “Colored Waiting Room.” I’m told local civil rights leaders said no. Don’t touch it.
After all, it’s our history.