Moving a debate over Southern history from the state Capitol to Stone Mountain



Don't look to the state Capitol for the next extended debate over Southern history and symbolism. Shift your gaze instead to Stone Mountain and the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination.

April could become an interesting month.

In his bull session with reporters last week, House Speaker David Ralston would have been content to speak of nothing but Monday’s title match between the universities of Georgia and Alabama. He’s got UGA by six points.

Unfortunately, Monday also brings the 2018 session of the state Legislature and a raft of difficult topics. There’s the economic disaster in rural Georgia. An opioid crisis. A stymied overhaul of the state’s adoption law.

But on Thursday, Ralston sought to shorten the state Capitol’s to-do list by one topic. He is in no mood for another argument over Confederate statuary. The speaker told reporters he would not support renegotiation of the 2001 deal that gave the Legislature control over Confederate historical markers in local communities across the state.

“The history of Georgia applies wherever you live in Georgia. So to let different communities pick and choose the history of the state and what we’re going to memorialize to me seems to be divisive,” Ralston said — repeating a stance he had taken last month.

The bargain in question goes back 17 years to the hauling down of the ’56 state flag and its dominant Confederate battle emblem. But the summer violence in Charlottesville, Va., where a group of white supremacists rallied around a statue of Robert E. Lee, has prompted concern in several spots around Georgia, including DeKalb County. Much attention has been paid to a Confederate marker in downtown Decatur.

Two Democrats, state Sen. Elena Parent of Atlanta and Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver of Decatur, have filed bills that would give local governments control over monuments they own. With his remarks, Ralston has essentially shut those proposals down.

That doesn’t mean the debate ends. It simply shifts from the state Capitol to a state-owned hunk of granite with Bobby Lee, Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson carved into its side.

I’m looking at two specific events, which could occur within days of each other this spring.

No doubt you have heard that former state Rep. Stacey Abrams, now a Democratic candidate for governor, has suggested sandblasting the carving of Confederate leaders from the side of Stone Mountain.

Michael Thurmond does not agree. He’s the CEO of DeKalb County and an amateur historian. He was recently appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal to the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the nine-member state board that oversees the park’s operation. Thurmond is the board’s only African-American.

The problem with Stone Mountain, in Thurmond’s eyes, isn’t the existence of the Confederate carving. It is the absence of a truthful telling of how the carving came to be – as an idea born during the second coming of the Ku Klux Klan in defense of Southern white supremacy. The top of Stone Mountain was the site of that rebirth.

“The biggest challenge is not the carving, but the history behind the carving. You’ve got to reject that. You can’t celebrate the birth of the Klan,” Thurmond said. “It’s instructive. You can learn from it, but you can’t celebrate it.”

Rather than reject Stone Mountain, Thurmond would embrace it more tightly, as the surrounding community already has.

“Thousands of black folk go there every day – to play, to exercise. Black people have already redefined it with their feet, literally,” Thurmond said. “Now the only thing that’s lagging is the narrative that’s associated with the mountain. The mountain has changed. The people have changed it, just by showing up.”

To that end, Thurmond intends to hold his annual state-of-the-county address in Stone Mountain Park. The date hasn’t been set, but the end of March is a good bet.

The event is traditionally aimed at business and community leaders. Thurmond intends to make the case that a Stone Mountain with an honest history is an economic advantage. Without one, it remains a stunted non-starter continually threatened by boycotts – as the park’s private operators well know.

A large crowd could make an impression on the state board that governs Stone Mountain. So if you think there is a middle ground between doing nothing and blowing things up, Michael Thurmond would like to hear from you.

Several days after that particular event comes April 4 and the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tenn. Many observances are still in the works.

We can tell you of one. On that Wednesday, state Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, intends to put several thousand people on top of Stone Mountain, in recognition of the line in King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

Suffice it to say, King didn’t name the place because it was a heckuva spot for a picnic.

Jones, chairman of the state Martin Luther King Jr. Advisory Council, said he is already working with the King Center and other groups on the logistics.

Two years ago, we told you of an idea by Bill Stephens, a former state senator who is now CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, to put a bell tower at the mountain's crest – in MLK's honor.

That effort stalled, and was replaced by a proposal for a museum exhibit to mark the achievements of black Civil War veterans. That, too, has gone nowhere.

Jones said he wants to return to the original idea. “We are moving ahead with plans for a freedom bell,” the DeKalb County state senator said. “You know that became controversial. I don’t care. We want to leave a permanent marker on top of Stone Mountain.”