Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, USA – State-owned park that is home to the world’s largest monument to Confederation – the failed rebellion of pro-slavery states that led to the American Civil War – contemplates sweeping changes amid criticism and falling revenues that could have resulted from the controversy.
At the center of calls for change is a gigantic sculpture on the north face of Stone mountain, about 25 km northeast of Atlanta.
Carved into solid rock, 122 meters (400 feet) above the ground, the work depicts three of the Confederacy’s best-known figures riding together on horseback: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two generals, Robert E Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who led troops in a rebellion against the United States from 1861 to 1865 that claimed the lives of approximately 750,000 Americans.
As the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, the figures themselves span 28 meters long (91 feet) and 58 meters (190 feet) wide.
The work, which was completed in 1972 after nearly five decades of construction, served as a flashpoint of controversy around the role of symbols on public lands that celebrate those who fought to perpetuate slavery in the States- United.
The mountain was also the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The owner of the property, Klan member Sam Venable, has allowed gatherings of the white supremacist group here for decades. A lake on the property still bears his name.
Today, the stone carving overlooks a lawn and memorial gardens that honor the Southern states that seceded from the Union, with markers that describe the roles each played in the war. Roads like Jefferson Davis Drive, Robert E Lee Boulevard, and Stonewall Jackson Drive intersect the park. Hikers walking to the top of Stone Mountain must pass a row of Confederate flags positioned near the base of the trail.
The continued display of these symbols inspired calls for an overhaul, which were amplified in 2020 around the world. protests against the treatment of blacks in the United States. The protests prompted communities in the South to withdraw or relocate Confederation relics and celebrations, which many say celebrate white supremacy and only tell a narrow story about the South.
“The Civil War is a tiny fraction of Southern history, yet it dominates our memorial landscape,” said Adam Domby, assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and author of The False Cause: Fraud , Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.
“The history of the South is not just the history of white men. More importantly, the history of the South does not end with four years in the 1860s. It goes much further and includes Native Americans, African Americans and people of all kinds of races. It’s not just war.
But soon, change may be on its way to Stone Mountain.
The first black president of Stone Mountain
The Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which oversees the park, is considering a series of reforms this month. In April, Republican Governor of Georgia Brian Kemp appointed Rev. Abraham Mosley, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, as president of the association, the first black man to hold the post. of its history.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, Mosley, 75, set out his vision for changing the park. He called for the addition of new street names in the park, such as “Liberty”, “United” and “Freedom”, but stopped before calling for the removal of streets named after Confederate leaders. .
He hopes to build a “freedom bell” pavilion at the top of the mountain to echo Martin Luther King’s call in his 1963 “I have a dream” speech to “ring the ring of freedom from Stone Mountain. Georgia”.
Mosley also supports the renaming of the property from Confederate Hall to Memorial Hall, and the addition of exhibits describing the contributions of Blacks and Native Americans and acknowledging the property’s beginnings of white supremacy.
“We have to tell the whole story,” Mosley said.
Mosley wants to bring the Confederate flags that fly at the base of the mountain’s main hiking trail closer together so those who want to visit the park without being exposed to Confederate symbols don’t have to see them.
When it comes to sculpture, however, Mosley opposes changing the law to have it removed, covered or degraded.
“I am not for changing sculpture. This is history. It is one of the largest sculptures in the world. It’s the past. The past is the past. I’m worried about today, ”Mosley said.
“I’m not too concerned about the lack of sculpture on the mountain. I think this sculpture identifies Stone Mountain. If this sculpture were extinct, what would you see? A big rock.
Proposals spark debate
In April, the association heard an official plan to make changes to the Confederate symbols in the park. Association CEO Bill Stephens announced a series of proposals echoing Mosley’s support for adding new signs and exhibits, but made no suggestions to address the sculpture itself, which in under Georgian law, can “never be altered, suppressed, concealed or obscured” and that it be preserved for “all time”.
However, the proposals, which have yet to be voted on by the board, did not satisfy either side of the debate.
The changes wouldn’t go far enough, said Derrica Williams, a founding member of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, which advocates making the park more inclusive.
“Honestly, it was a slap… It was an insult,” said Williams, who attended the meeting where Stephens presented the plan.
“The prominent display of all of these Confederate memorials is a constant reminder to all of us who should be able to enjoy this park without exposing ourselves to the darkest time in the history of this country,” said Williams, who is black.
The Coalition called for a long list of changes, including renaming confederate named streets, removing Confederate flags from the park and relegating them to museums, and adding contextual signage.
“My tax money pays for a park to continue to celebrate a time in this country’s history when I thought I was less than 100% human,” said Williams. “I pay for not being respected.”
Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of mostly white men with ancestral ties to soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War, were also present at the April meeting, where they expressed their opposition to changes in signage or the removal of Confederate symbols. .
“We are not very happy with what he said,” said Martin O’Toole, a spokesperson for the Georgia section of the group. “Contextualization is just an excuse to attack something they can’t destroy.”
More than a confederate park
To be sure, the most significant Confederate memorials make up only a small portion of the sprawling 3,200-acre (1,295-hectare) park.
The property also has a theme park, a 4-D movie theater, a golf course and a campground. On Saturday nights, the park hosts a popular “Lasershow Spectacular” on display above the monument that features Star Wars characters, a 1980s musical montage, tributes to the Southern states, and a tribute to the US military.
But the entertainment and hospitality companies that operate the facilities plan to leave to avoid becoming associated with the controversy, with one major vendor citing “protests and division,” as the reason for going there.
The park also serves as a playground and recreation area for the less and less white inhabitants. DeKalb County, where the mountain is located, is over 50 percent black, with growing populations of Latin Asian populations. The town of Stone Mountain adjacent to the site is nearly 80 percent black.
On a recent weekend night out, Daphane and Allen Gochett, a black married couple living nearby, sat down with a picnic and a bottle of wine to celebrate Mother’s Day. They visit the park often, they said, but shiver as they pass the Confederate Battle flags lined up near the entrance to the walking trail.
“It’s a great place to visit, but you have to erase it from your mind,” said Allen Gochett.
“I would like to see a change,” added Daphane Gochett. “I don’t like to see the flags fly. How can I heal if I still remember the hurt of my ancestors or the hurt I am going through today with my people? “
“You cannot heal if you keep being reminded. You cannot go forward. “