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Confederate monuments spark debate about how cities remember their history

Workers lower a ladder into a monument as they dismantle the Confederate Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery December 20, 2023, in Arlington, Virginia. CREDIT: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/GETTY IMAGES

(NEW YORK) — More than 60 years after Martin Luther King Jr. uttered ‘Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia,’ racial and historical tensions continue to boil over at Stone Mountain, which doubles as the home of the largest Confederate monument in the world and the Ku Klux Klan’s 20th-century rebirth.

The Confederate monument etched into the mountain is larger than Mount Rushmore, according to the Atlanta History Center. The carving honors three Confederate figures in the Civil War — Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states, and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson.

Stone Mountain is one of more than 2,000 Confederate memorials still in place across the country, according to the legal advocacy group Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). This list includes monuments, plaques, street and building names, and more.

In 2023, about 49 memorials were removed, including nine Department of Defense forts that have been renamed, according to the SPLC.

According to a Congressional Naming Commission Report, hundreds of Confederate monuments — including names, symbols, monuments, and paraphernalia — honoring figures on Department of Defense land alone were set to be removed by January 2024.

This includes the controversial Reconciliation Monument at the Arlington National Cemetery that the cemetery said promotes “a nostalgic, mythologized vision of the Confederacy, including highly sanitized depictions of slavery.” Monument removals or changes — like the Reconciliation Monument and changes at Stone Mountain — have prompted legal threats and challenges from Confederate heritage groups.

This represents a growing, concerted effort to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces. Critics say these memorials distort history and praise the Confederate fight in favor of slavery.

“These memorials serve the purpose of rewriting history, telling a different story of that war and remaking Confederate heroes as American heroes,” said SPLC historian Rivka Maizlish. “You can imagine the psychological impact, especially on African Americans, but on anyone who does not believe that white supremacy is an American value, and seeing these memorials all over the country.”

She continued, “Another real goal was to claim white spaces. A lot of these memorials are put up in front of courthouses to claim the law as something that is only for whites. After Brown v. the Board of Education made segregation illegal, many schools suddenly changed their names to the names of Confederates, making a clear statement that no matter what the law says, these schools are white spaces.”

There has simultaneously been a fight to preserve these spaces, specifically for those whose ancestors played a role in the Confederate Army and who say that removing these statues removes a piece of their heritage.

Martin O’Toole, of the Georgia branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told ABC News that at least two of his ancestors fought under Jackson in the war.

“Stone Mountain is intended to be a memorial to the sacrifices of the people of Georgia, in particular, but the South in general in the establishment of a southern Republic, and then the sacrifices that were made were tremendous,” said O’Toole.

He continued, “When this current upsurge of destruction of monuments, historical monuments and the like took place, then many of the members became convinced that our charge that we got from General Steven D. Lee … required that we do something in the legal realm to defend these monuments.”

Stone Mountain and the surrounding park are just one of the spaces at the center of controversy.

The park is lined with streets named after Confederate soldiers and Confederate flags waving on its lawns, with the large Confederate rock etchings as their backdrop. Stone Mountain, the city at the base of the park, is a predominantly Black community, according to the U.S. Census.

The park was also the site of the reemergence of the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 amid the national success of the controversial Civil War epic film “The Birth of a Nation,” according to the Atlanta History Center.

Before the film came to Atlanta, several men walked up Stone Mountain and set fire to a cross to symbolically resurrect the group — which would later host Klan rallies, member initiations and more for decades, the Atlanta History Center reports.

Much of this memorial is protected by old Georgia law, which states that the memorial must be maintained as “an appropriate and suitable memorial for the Confederacy.”

“The memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain 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,” read state code on the memorial.

This has made discussion over park changes more difficult.

Those against the Confederate monument, including history teacher Sally Stanhope of the Stone Mountain Action Committee, say they are calling for an end to the upkeep of the monument, to allow it to grow over with biomass. They also say slavery is not mentioned in the signage and historical displays around the park.

However, a museum — dubbed by park officials as a “truth-telling museum” — will address some of these issues. ABC affiliate station WSB-TV in Atlanta reports that the museum will cover the racist past of the monument, including the KKK’s resurgence and the monument’s symbolic origins.

The state has dedicated $11 million for the museum’s construction in a building that also houses the current Stone Mountain Museum, according to WSB-TV. It’s expected to take two years to complete.

O’Toole said that because of these laws, the Sons of Confederate Veterans have threatened the state of Georgia with legal actions over changes that have been proposed, as well as those that have been made at Stone Mountain. This includes changes that have been made to put the park’s Confederate flags in a more inconspicuous area.

O’Toole said the group has filed an ante litem notice in anticipation of a lawsuit, arguing that the changes are unlawful.

“They want to have it sort of basically turned into a civil rights playground,” said O’Toole. “We take the position that they need to obey the law … If they want to change things, they need to change the law.”

Mayor Beverly Jones, the first Black female mayor of Stone Mountain, has already faced backlash for making several changes around the park — this includes renaming streets that honored Confederate figures.

She said she sees these monuments as a glorification of dark aspects of life for Black Americans.

“We don’t ever want to have any cities to have monuments children have to look at every day and feel like ‘[Confederate figures] were powerful and you know, this is someone to look up to.’ We don’t want that to ever happen in the city of Stone Mountain.”

She said that while speaking to high school students who live in the city of Stone Mountain, they told her they never visited.

“They talked about the Klan and they still had this image that they were walking to this area that they have their rallies at,” Jones told ABC News in an interview.

She hopes an MLK Day march on Monday at Stone Mountain can bring attention to the ideals of freedom and King’s cause which he advocated for in his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.

Rev. Abraham Mosley, appointed to his position as chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, is at the center of the back-and-forth discussions between the two sides.

He was born and raised in Georgia, but said he has no personal connection to the mountain: “I’m a Black person and it was a place in the past — way back in the past — that a Black person wasn’t seen around,” he said.

He continued, “It’s a lot different now from what it was back then. And we’re still improving.”

However, a football-field-size rock etching is much more difficult to remove than an honorary plaque or a statue, said Mosley.

“Those problems and things that are on that mountain, they didn’t show up overnight and they’re not gonna go away overnight,” said Mosley. “So that’s gonna take some time to try to come to some common ground with everybody.”

 

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