Hundreds made their way to the world’s largest Confederate monument in Stone Mountain Park on Saturday for a rally they say is focused on preserving Southern heritage.
Early Saturday morning, a procession of pickup trucks, cars and motorcycles adorned with the Confederate and U.S. flags stretched at least five miles along I-285 as onlookers in other vehicles — many of them black — looked on bewildered or disgusted.
In the park, hundreds, many of them white, had already made their way into the park’s Yellow Daisy lot, some dressed in camouflage and toting rifles. Others like the League of the Confederacy passed out literature. They came from all over the state to protest what they see as an attack on their heritage.
Police did not offer an estimate of the crowd size, but it appeared to be about 600 to 800 people.
“They will not erase our history,” said James Howard, 20, who sat atop the roof the brown pickup truck that brought he and his friend John Gibbs from Meriwether County for the rally.
“We support the flag,” said Gibbs gesturing to The Army of Northern Virginia battle flag - more often recognized as the Confederate flag - that stood in the bed of the truck. “It’s our heritage. It’s not hate. Not at all.”
Meanwhile, a family reunion was gearing up just a few blocks away. Black joggers meandered through the park.
Loganville resident Marlene Taylor came to “protect my Southern heritage.”
“I do genealogy and history is very important to me,” she said. “It’s not just heritage about the War between the States. My ancestors came to Georgia in the early 1700s. Many served in the Revolutionary War. That’s all part of our Southern heritage.”
Just over her shoulder in the distance the mountain rose majestically. Talk of removing the confederate monument from its face disturbs her.
“It would be horrible if they did anything to the mountain,” she said. “If they did, I’d never come back.” She grew up in Atlanta and remembers being able to come to the park for free.
Billy Armistead of Covington said he’s attending the rally to honor the memory of his relative Lewis A. Armistead, who fought for the Confederate States of America in the Civil War. For him, the flag stands for heritage.
“We’re here to support our heritage,” he said. “We’re not racist. We’re doing a peaceful thing.”
Armistead said he believes the recent calls for the rebel flag to be taken down threaten his rights as an American citizen and that he is attending the rally to speak out.
“Our purpose for being here today is that our rights are being taken from us. We have all the right in the world to fly this flag,” he said. “You can’t change print in the history book.”
The event did draw a handful of counter protestors, including a small group representing the Revolutionary Communist Party who carried a banner protesting police brutality.
“I feel a little anxiety,” admitted Ivy Rain of Stone Mountain, who was part of the counter protest. “It’s 2015 but it feels like 1955 and it ain’t right.”
Charlie Anderson, who led the counter protestors, said the flags flying across the parking lot made for a “stark scene.”
“This is a concentration of a lot of ugliness,” he said. “This is a real provocation.”
Apart from that group, the rally did draw individuals opposed to the flag and curious – or brave – enough to mingle and debate, including one black man who showed up in rags and claimed to be dressed like a slave.
Others took a less dramatic approach. Bruce Batterson was among people who came to see the rally.
“We need to step up the support,” Batterson said. “These are just as many people who think it shouldn’t be flown.”
Batterson said he represented a group called The African-American Equality Committee, which had participated in an earlier protest at the park against the Confederate flag.