On any given day, fitness enthusiasts toting water bottles and earbuds stream to Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta to test their strength and endurance. They make the 1-mile climb to the top of the 825-foot granite outcrop or navigate the sidewalks and trails that surround it.
Out of their view, on an adjacent side of the mountain, is the nation’s largest Confederate memorial — a carving set in a niche about the size of a city block.
The carving and the park carry a deep history. The property, which was the site of long-ago Ku Klux Klan cross burnings and a more recent “pro-white” rally, is repeatedly drawn into the debate about what to do with Civil War monuments. Violence during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought an increased police presence at Stone Mountain Park amid new calls for the removal of its Confederate symbols.
But Stone Mountain Park is unlike other memorial sites, and visitors quickly realize why this home to one of 700 public Confederate monuments is unique. Where else features an enormous tribute to Confederates near a Dinosaur Explore attraction, scenic railroad and Ride the Ducks?
Many who frequent the park reflect the multiculturalism and racial diversity of the neighborhoods and towns in the shadow of Stone Mountain, and say they don’t believe removing symbols at Stone Mountain will substantively help solve divisions in the nation.
“Until you change the people’s hearts … taking down the monument I don’t think is going to make a big difference,” said regular climber Nikki Harris, catching her breath on a hot summer afternoon. Behind her was a commanding view of metro Atlanta’s skyline, clusters of high-rise buildings poking up from a slight haze.
Edward Graves, 51, also African-American, is among many park patrons ambivalent about the carving. They go about their daily routine, believing there are more important things to debate in today’s political climate.
While the carving’s reminder of Confederate heroes causes pain, “It’s not going to keep me from coming to the mountain,” said Graves, a Stone Mountain resident.
A recent NPR/PBS poll shows 62% of Americans want statues honoring rebel leaders to remain as a historical symbol. Among blacks, 44% favor them staying in place, while 40% said they are offensive and should come down.
Laser show has it all: From ‘Drone Wars’ to Elvis
The genesis for the carving came during the height of the “Lost Cause” period in Georgia. White Southerners argued that states’ rights, rather than slavery, was the impetus for the men in the carving — Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson — to take up arms against the federal government during the Civil War.
Historians say documents from the time of the war show Southern politicians believed their motivation was preserving slavery.
The majority of the park’s estimated 3.3 million annual visitors aren’t drawn by a deep affection for or interest in the carving, officials said.
“Most people come out here for entertainment and exercise, to boat and fish and not dwell on the Confederate aspect,” said John Bankhead, spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.
The association, a state authority, partners with a company that operates the commercial aspects of the park, which include an amusement area, a gondola to the mountain’s top and the popular laser show projected on the granite from the lawn beneath.
At Stone Mountain, the drone-supported laser production includes an animation of the three Confederate figures riding on horseback to the music of Elvis Presley’s “An American Trilogy,” a medley featuring “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” that ends with a message of national reconciliation. That segment and others recognizing the armed forces and US patriotic images brought cheers among the thousands jammed on the grass on Saturday night.
As dusk settled in before the show, patrons on the lawn tossed footballs and Frisbees and enjoyed their picnics.
Bonnie McKinney, of Brooklawn, New Jersey, reiterated a common refrain about the removal of monuments: Where does it stop? Across the lawn, Charmaine Duvernay of nearby Lawrenceville said she has concerns since the violence in Virginia and believes people should consider how people of other races feel. “It’s in our best interest to make changes to remove hate and negativity.”
Not many interpretation changes at the park
The carving was dedicated in 1970, decades after work began, only to be slowed by world wars, the Depression and a changing of sculptors. One, Gutzon Borglum, went on to create Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Work went on as vestiges of Jim Crow laws were slowly being stripped.
The park’s portrayal of the Civil War hasn’t changed much in the past decades. But with its complex story and setting, the carving won’t be going away any time soon, if ever.
For one thing, it’s simply too big to cover up. Removing it would require a lot of dynamite and political will. And state law prohibits anyone from messing with its current appearance or removing Confederate monuments.
Ravish Methil, a greater Atlanta resident originally from India, uttered a sentiment common to many across the country. The laser show patron said: “There are some things that need to be in the museum.”
That’s the argument cited by Georgia’s Republican Gov. Nathan Deal, with a twist.
“Many on both sides of the argument have said that these Confederate symbols belong in places where we view historical artifacts, such as museums. In Georgia, where these symbols are no longer on our state flag or on Capitol grounds, Stone Mountain serves that purpose,” he said in a recent statement.
The association’s CEO told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2015, “We’re into additions and not subtractions.”
For a time, there was talk of additions. One would have created a tower in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell with a line from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” The park also pursued telling the story of African-American soldiers who fought for the Union.
Both ideas fell through. Ardent defenders of the Confederacy didn’t want King’s likeness there. And civil rights groups said the proposal was an attempt to gain black support while keeping racist symbols, according to local reports.
As for the soldiers exhibit, “It’s gone as well at this point,” Bankhead said. “It needed more time, study and a look at the expense.”
Park patrons CNN spoke with largely agreed there needs to be more explanation about the war’s causes and its impact on society today. African-American servitude is currently addressed by clapboard slave cabins nestled amid relocated 19th-century homes at Historic Square.
“If you are going to do your side, do the other,” said Ericka Wallace, 22, who lives in the area.
Does the site celebrate Confederacy?
Streets within the park still bear names like Robert E. Lee Boulevard and Stonewall Jackson Drive. The site principally recognizes the Confederacy through the carving and a flag plaza, which includes Confederate national banners and a Confederate battle flag. They are topped by an American flag fluttering in the breeze.
Roger Rhodes, who is black, said the Confederate banners won’t stop him from coming, but he’d prefer they be taken down.
The Georgia chapter of the NAACP called on state officials Friday to remove all Confederate symbols from public property. One speaker said the group opposes the “continued celebration” of the Confederacy.
Bankhead said the park does not glorify the Confederacy. Rather, he said, it remembers those who fought and died.
The association’s board is sensitive to the debate but has no current plans to add context, such as civil rights and causes of the conflict, that patrons told CNN would be beneficial.
Instead, “The park is concentrating on what the park has to offer for those who visit.” By that, Bankhead means showcasing its natural beauty and attractions. He said those who visit the natural district outnumber those who come for attractions by 3 to 1.
‘They need to take it off’
The carving had few spectators on a recent weekday morning. The lawn, still laden with dew, was empty, and the only sound was splashes from three fountains in a memorial pool. On the top of the mountain, yellow daisies — for which an upcoming popular craft show at the park is named — flourished in the cracks between granite boulders.
John, William and Virgil Palmer, three brothers in their 70s from Pennsylvania, walked past the carving as part of their annual road trip to Civil War sites. This year they came to Georgia. Many who come to this part of the park are from out of state or from other countries.
The white siblings oppose removing Confederate monuments, though they understand slavery was wrong. “I love it,” William Palmer said of the carving. “I think it is remarkable.”
Not far away, African-American metro Atlanta resident Lera Lister walked in with a first-time visitor.
“It’s unbelievable these people were on this wall,” she said. “They need to take if off. It is offensive and they lost.”
Lister loves the park, including soul concerts, but is bothered by the symbol and its former Klan association. An April 2016 clash between white nationalists and counterprotesters brought arrests and the temporary closing of some attractions at the park.
Before the state bought the property, the mountaintop in 1915 was the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Police and Klansmen clashed in 1962 over an intended cross burning.
This past week, the park rejected a request from the Sacred Knights of the Ku Klux Klan to hold another cross burning to commemorate the 1915 event. Officials cited disruption to operations and possible dangers to public safety.
“(The authority) condemns the beliefs and actions of the Ku Klux Klan,” a statement said.
Atlanta resident Amber Goldman, 35, said she has been thinking more lately about Confederate monuments. Goldman, who is white, appreciates the carving as a work of art, but isn’t keen about its symbolism.
While sad about the prospect, Goldman — who was enjoying the view of Atlanta from the mountaintop — said she understands why the carving may need to go.
“I wish we could change it without destroying it,” she said.