ATLANTA (Reuters) – The Confederate Stone Mountain Memorial, a nine-storey bas-relief sculpture carved on a sprawling wall northeast of Atlanta, is perhaps the most daring monument in the south for its still intact pro-slavery heritage.
FILE PHOTO: a man speaks into a megaphone while pointing to the Confederate monument carved in granite on Stone Mountain while protesting against the monument at Stone Mountain Park in Stone Mountain, Georgia, USA, 16 June 2020. REUTERS / Dustin Chambers
Despite long-standing demands for the removal of what many consider a sanctuary of racism, the gigantic depiction of three Confederate heroes on horseback still towers ominously over the Georgia countryside, protected by state law.
The monument – which reopens on Independence Day weekend after the COVID-19 pandemic forced it to close for weeks – faced new requests for removal from the May 25 murder of George Floyd, a dead black man during an arrest by a white police officer who blocked his neck on the ground with one knee.
The brutality of Floyd’s death, captured by cell phone video, sparked a national protest against racial injustice and revived a long battle between those who demand the removal of racist symbols from the public sphere and those who believe that monuments honor tradition and the history of the South.
“Here we are in Atlanta, the cradle of the civil rights movement and we still have the largest confederate monument in the world,” said Gerald Griggs, vice president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP civil rights group, who organized a march for the last time in which the sculpture is requested to be scraped off the side of the mountain. “It is time for our state to go to the right side of history.”
The sheer size of the monument makes its removal a daunting task to contemplate. Longer than a 100-yard football field, it looks like Jefferson Davis, the president of the 11-state Confederacy, and two of his legendary military leaders, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, with a 400 relief feet off the ground.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans is an organization that firmly defends Stone Mountain and other Confederate statues and emblems. Dedicated to teaching the “southern cause”, according to his website, he believes their removal is similar to the elimination of American history.
The Southern or “Lost Cause of the Confederacy” claims that the war was fought for a heroic but lost effort to defend the rights of states to secede from the Union in the face of northern aggression rather than the preservation of slavery.
Martin O’Toole, an Georgia chapter official, said the monument is by no means a totem of racism. It’s history, plain and simple, he says.
“They are three men on horseback,” said Oole. “What is racist about it?”
Maurice J. Hobson, associate professor of African American Studies at Georgia State University, retorts this, describing the Southern cause as “a false story” that minimizes the role of slavery in the civil war.
He said Confederate leaders were traitors to the United States who fought to maintain a southern economy that depended on slavery.
All three men on the monument, Davis, Lee and Jackson, were slave owners.
“The entire Stone Mountain was erected to show what some white Georgians worshiped,” he said.
Stone Mountain has long had symbolism for white supremacists. The Ku Klux Klan, a hate group formed by veterans of the Confederate army and with a history of lynching and terror against blacks, held its rebirth ceremony on top of the mountain in 1915 with flaming crosses. Klansmen still holds occasional meetings in the shadow of the building, although he has now met protesters behind the police tape. Many of these cross burns occurred on or around July 4th.
The monolithic monument was proposed over a century ago and has had numerous false beginnings over the years.
But with the rise of the civil rights movement, segregationist officials in the state pushed for the creation of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association in 1958 and bought the park. The sculpture was completed in 1972.
“This debate has been going on for years and we are sensitive to it,” said John Bankhead, group spokesman. “We want to tell the story as it is, not as some say.”
In the past, others have suggested putting more balance into the monument. There was a proposal to build a monument to Martin Luther King Jr, the Atlanta-based civil rights icon, but the Confederate Veteran Sons, as well as the King family, rejected the idea.
Although that idea has been shattered, Hobson claims the addition of additional sculptures on the rock face, including African American historical figures and civil rights leaders.
“It must be put in a context that forces a conversation, a serious conversation,” he said. “The easiest way to rectify it is to surround it.”
NAACP’s Griggs said the civil rights group consulted with stone masons who said it would cost $ 300,000 to $ 400,000 to remove the massive images.
“Take it down,” he said. “Return the mountain to its original condition.”
Reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Frank McGurty and Aurora Ellis