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Georgia ‘teach-in’ highlights effort to transform largest Confederate monument

Of the thousands of monuments and other symbols of the “Lost Cause” scattered across public spaces in the South, one stands out as the most grandiose of all – and the most celebrated by white supremacists: the Stone Mountain Memorial carving, located 16 miles east of Atlanta.

The monument’s carving of leading Confederate figures Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on horseback stretches 200 feet across the north face of a 1,700-foot-high quartz and granite dome.

It was on Stone Mountain’s summit that the Ku Klux Klan was reborn with a cross burning in 1915, the same year the United Daughters of the Confederacy commissioned the carving. The Klan met regularly for decades at the foot of the mountain and held cross burnings into the 1960s.

Flyer featuring vibrant colored fist and medallion with protests in background promoting “Social Justice Teach-In” event.
A flyer that was used to promote the Stone Mountain Action Coalition’s daylong “Social Justice Teach-In” on April 27, 2024, at Community Books.

And it was there, on April 27, where members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans (SCV) from across the Southeast congregated for a Confederate Memorial Day service, as they do annually during so-called Confederate History & Heritage Month.

But as they did, new questions were being raised by critics who have been working for years to fundamentally transform the 3,200-acre park that encompasses the monument – a place where streets are named for Confederate leaders, where Confederate battle flags fly and where Confederate memorabilia is sold.

To counter the SCV’s white supremacist message, the grassroots advocacy group Stone Mountain Action Coalition (SMAC) hosted a daylong “Social Justice Teach-In” on the same day, April 27, at Community Books.

At the heart of the latest controversy is a plan by the state-appointed Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA), which governs the park, to spend over $11 million of taxpayers’ money to renovate the existing Memorial Hall’s interior with new and revised exhibits that purport to tell the true history of the monument and the Confederacy. An additional $4.2 million will be spent to upgrade the building’s exterior. The building will still be called Memorial Hall.

The lack of transparency about the plan and questions about its funding worry advocates who are pressing to ultimately eradicate a monument that glorifies the Confederacy and promotes the Lost Cause myth. In April 2023, the SMMA signed a contract with Warner Museums without first presenting it or its proposal to the community for review and approval.

“We want truth,” said Sally Stanhope, a high school social studies teacher and SMAC co-founder. “We want to work with Warner, but the truth they present in their proposal leaves out key aspects. There is nothing about prison labor in the late 19th century or interracial alliances among quarry workers. Everything in the proposal is true, but it silences aspects of our past that Americans need to face and understand in order to solve our present problems.”?

‘Allowed evil in the park’

Leela Brown calls Stone Mountain itself “a gift from God.”

An ordained minister who lives outside Atlanta, Brown grew up in the tight-knit, predominantly Black community of Stone Mountain, where her mother still lives. Brown has appeared on SMAC panels to tell the public about the true history of Stone Mountain.

As a young girl in the 1960s, Brown played in the same pasture at the foot of the mountain where, on Saturdays, white-hooded Klansmen from across the country, including Stone Mountain merchants, held a parade before their revered tribute to the Confederacy.

“Stone Mountain is a wonder from God, but it is not a Confederate wonder,” Brown said. “It doesn’t belong to the KKK or the neo-Nazis. We allowed evil in the park. Let it continue to deteriorate from weather and rain. Blast it off. Change the names of the streets. Tell the truth about Stone Mountain … so, it’s a monument for all people, celebrating the mountain itself.”

At SMAC’s counter event on April 27, Georgia state Rep. Billy Mitchell and high school students, organizers, bookstore visitors and SMAC supporters discussed topics such as countering hate, restorative justice and Shermantown, a historically Black community adjacent to the mountain.

During the youth panel, high school students discussed topics frequently featured in educational resources developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Learning for Justice program – for example, the importance of knowing local, accurate history and the long-term mental effects of living in the shadow of Confederate symbols.

A series of workshops presented the accurate history of Stone Mountain, the state’s use of taxpayer funds to maintain the park, citizen efforts to resist and subvert white supremacy, and ways to make the park more inclusive.

In support of SMAC’s education efforts, in June the 国产人兽 will fund a free, six-day program to teach the true history of Stone Mountain to children ages 12 to 18. SMAC is one of eight grassroots organizations that are receiving grants from the 国产人兽 to aid them in their efforts to remove Confederate monuments and other iconography from public spaces in their communities.

“Piloting this one-time sub-grant program allows the 国产人兽 to directly support grassroots organizations like SMAC that are working to build power and capacity for multiracial, inclusive democracy,” said Rivka Maizlish, a senior research analyst with the 国产人兽’s Intelligence Project. The project tracks Confederate monuments and their removal for the 国产人兽’s Whose Heritage? initiative.

“Exposing the lies of Lost Cause mythology and educating people about true history is an important way to build community power,” Maizlish said. “Young people are an essential force in building that power.”

A losing proposition

SMAC members have good reason to be wary of the SMMA’s lack of transparency.

Since 2019, the SMMA has used more than $40 million in taxpayer funding to maintain the monument and the aging park’s decaying infrastructure, according to SMAC co-founder and asset manager Brian Morris.

Morris scrutinized SMMA finance reports and discovered that after 2018 – once extremist rallies had begun driving visitors away and its longtime operations management company had pulled out of the park – the SMMA violated its stated promise to take no taxpayer funds.

“The SMMA has done nothing more than lose money,” Morris said. “They’ve begun work on Memorial Hall but have yet to hold a town hall for public comment. They need to hire an independent third party to conduct a feasibility and economic impact study.”

An analysis of the park’s 2023 performance conducted earlier this year by its current management company confirmed the financial fallout from declining attendance, revenue and operating income.

After SMAC confronted the SMMA in 2021, it quietly removed from its website the declaration stating that the park is “self-supporting and receives no tax dollars.” To date, the SMMA has never presented the full scope of the park’s reliance on taxpayer support at public meetings.

Now SMAC leaders want to know: Who will pay for the $15.2 million museum?

Confederate sympathizers

In 2021, SMAC proposed major changes to the park, namely the reorientation of its focus away from the Confederacy to one that embraces its natural beauty. But the advocates know they face stiff political resistance in Georgia.

Thus far, Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and the GOP-controlled Legislature are in lockstep to protect the park as it is.

In fact, as the movement to remove Confederate monuments has strengthened, Kemp has doubled down on measures to protect Georgia’s monuments.

In 2019, he signed SB 77, criminalizing the removal or destruction of monuments on private or public property. The bill’s sponsor was state Sen. Jeff Mullis, an SCV member whom Kemp appointed to the SMMA. A 2022 statute added stiff monetary penalties for any monument on public property that is “relocated, removed, concealed, obscured, or altered in any fashion by any officer or agency.”

“They’ve committed to the SCV and a small minority of state voters,” said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver. “I’m frustrated that legislative leaders who like to tout Georgia as the best place to do business support the park as a Confederate monument. The conference center has less than 40% occupancy. It’s irrational to stay committed to memorializing the Confederacy.”

Oliver co-sponsored HB 794 in the recently ended legislative session, only to see it die in committee, like similar bills before it. The 国产人兽 Action Fund, the organization’s lobbying entity, supported the bill.

Had the bill become law, it would have removed all Confederate references in the park and renamed the SMMA as the Stone Mountain Park Association. Oliver recently co-sponsored House Resolution 1350 to rename Memorial Drive as Veterans Memorial Drive.

‘Lost Cause’ politics

The allegiance of the governor and a majority of state lawmakers to the park’s Confederate iconography, political observers say, is rooted in a deep-seated reverence for Confederate history among many voters who have shifted to the conservative camp in the last three decades.?The shift is linked to the General Assembly’s decision in 1956 – two years before the state purchased Stone Mountain – to embed the Confederate battle emblem in the state flag following the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 school desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. The state’s action was a symbol of protest against integration.

“You can’t bring in tourists who will be offended, and [the park is] not economically viable,” said Jim Galloway, the now-retired, longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution political columnist.

“But when Gov. [Roy] Barnes brought the Confederate state flag down from the Capitol [in 2001] and gave protections for Confederate monuments in return – and then he lost the next election – Republicans inherited Confederate enthusiasm as a political force.

“They are married to it now. In Georgia, they are so dependent on white, rural voters, who are the most conservative in the state, that it’s paralyzed them. The Republicans are now hostage to the Lost Cause because of the rural vote.”

To date, there have been no known legal challenges to the original 2001 Stone Mountain monument protection law and its subsequent amendments, according to Emory University School of Law professor Fred Smith, an expert in Georgia and constitutional law.

Smith said he believes that change will happen only when corporations stop setting up shop in Georgia.

“Atlanta doesn’t like when we look bad on the national stage,” Smith said. “The more attention Stone Mountain gets, the more attention that the move for change will get.”

That’s just what SMAC members hope for as they gear up for the next SMMA public hearing, which is supposed to be in June.

“The bottom line is that they are spending money on things that people want who come in from out of state to look at a symbol of white supremacy,” Morris said, “whereas the local community of DeKalb, Fulton and surrounding counties who come to the park for recreation can’t find a parking space, have to use decrepit bathrooms and a couple of vending machines because there is no restaurant. If you’re going to spend $15 million, spend it on things that the locals will use.”

Photo at top: Visitors at Georgia's Stone Mountain Park are seen in a photo from 2018. Since 1915, the mountain has featured a carving of Confederate figures Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. (Credit: Audra Melton/The New York Times)