Confederacy and Neo-Confederacy on Stone Mountain

So this was inevitable (per Atlanta TV station WSB):

The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP officially called for the elimination of all symbols of the Confederacy from Stone Mountain.

This comes on the heels of the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina State House.

NAACP’s Richard Rose says the time to move is now, but admits it may be a steep slope to climb….

“My tax dollars should not be used to commemorate slavery,” Rose said.

Rose said his group wants Confederate symbols removed from all state-owned buildings, parks and lands.

Rose told Petersen he would start with Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.

“Those guys need to go. They can be sand-blasted off, or somebody could carefully remove a slab of that and auction it off to the highest bidder,” Rose said.

I’ve been looking at that mountain, and its huge Confederate sculpture (finally completed in 1972), a good part of my life. I used to joke that only a display so crudely human could match the sheer weird divine gratuity in planting that gigantic outcropping of granite so close to what would become a major population center. I mean, people felt they had to do something with it, right?

Unfortunately, that “something” has often involved the Confederacy or neo-Confederacy, thanks in no small part to the family that owned the mountain originally, the Venables. In 1915, the mountain was the site of the meeting which launched the twentieth-century version of the Ku Klux Klan (cross burnings continued there pretty regularly right up into the 1950s). A year later the family gave the north face of the mountain to the United Daughters of the Confederacy on the condition that it would use it for a sculpture honoring the Confederacy. As the sculpture proceeded in fits and starts with different artists through the 1920s, fundraising for the project was conducted by a Klan-dominated Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association. Work lapsed for three decades until segregationist Gov. Marvin Griffin engineered the state purchase of the mountain in 1958, and a process was set up to find a sculptor to complete the memorial carving.

So the carving features Jefferson Davis–the arch-traitor and president of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, generally viewed as the most honorable of Confederates, and his lieutenant, Stonewall Jackson.

There’s something a bit ironic about Jackson appearing on Stone Mountain, since a more appropriate (and in contemporary sources, the most important) military adjutant to Lee was James Longstreet, who spent much of his childhood in, and eventually died in, Georgia. But after the war Longstreet supported voting rights for ex-slaves and backed (and even played a role in) military reconstruction in the South. Thus he became the object of a vociferous campaign of slander by unreconstructed ex- and neo-Confederates, who elevated Jackson into Longstreet’s place alongside Lee in the South’s popular imagination. Among other interesting traits, Jackson favored a policy of executing Union prisoners of war, based on his reading of Old Testament precedents. That’s the man up there with Davis and Lee on Stone Mountain.

I am quite certain that Richard Rose’s suggestion of “sandblasting” the carving will be described as philistine–not that I personally think the sculpture is a particularly stirring work of art–and even compared to the iconoclasm of IS and other jihadists. It’s worth noting, though, that back in the 1920s an early effort at a carving was sand-blasted away by a new sculptor. It was a work in progress for many decades.

But without question, state ownership of Stone Mountain Park makes it a bit difficult to pretend the carving doesn’t have public sanction, and the side of a mountain is a bit large to be described as a museum. Maybe the laser shows featured on holidays at the park and on the side of the mountain could be used to modify the carving over time; it could be a participatory festival to see Stonewall Jackson’s face slowly disappear (the African-American population near the mountain has been growing steadily for quite a few years). But without question, this is the largest site ever developed with the original intent of celebrating the Lost Cause and its political descendants. So yes, Georgia needs to come to grips with its awesome and awful edifice.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.