Attorney General Chris Carr in a 2016 file photo. DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM

AG Chris Carr: Open Stone Mountain's history -- and raise that bell tower for MLK

Something good might have come out of Stone Mountain Park on Saturday — an important acknowledgement that we need to open up the history that is told there, and sooner rather than later.

Three days after the state’s largest tourist attraction was closed to avoid a confrontation sparked by a handful of white supremacists, Attorney General Chris Carr became the first statewide elected Republican to come out in support of telling a broader tale at what for decades has been considered a Confederate shrine.

That includes a bell tower on top of Stone Mountain, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech — which gave mention to the mountain, not as a site for tourism, but as the 1915 birthplace of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan.

Such a tower was proposed several years ago but the idea has languished since.

“I’m a big believer in history by addition, not history by subtraction or deletion. I think it’s important for us to have a conversation about the facts. All the facts – the good, the bad, the ugly and the indifferent,” said Carr during a Tuesday interview in his office adjacent to the state Capitol.

“I think that conversation makes us richer, and better as a state and as a people, and as Georgians,” Carr said. “I think the fact that Stone Mountain was part of the single, seminal speech in the civil rights movement, given by Dr. King, is critically important and should be acknowledged.”

So you would support the bell tower? I asked.

“I would support the bell tower, and I would support further …conversations that allow us to continue to move forward and talk. I think it is critically important that we are able to talk about these issues, that we add to – not take away from – but add to the history of our state,” said Carr, who describes himself as something of a history buff.

Last month, Carr was the Capitol’s formal representative at the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day ceremony at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King served as pastor with his father.

Carr is a former chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga. Another member of the Isakson circle, GOP strategist Heath Garrett, backed Carr up on the Stone Mountain issue.

“I’m a Republican, like millions of Americans, partly because it is the party of Lincoln and he was right,” said Garrett, an Albany, Ga., native. “Our state leadership has a historic opportunity to use Stone Mountain as a healing and uniting, historical location.

“Put a liberty bell on top in honor of Martin Luther King and find other historically accurate ways to show the history, the progress and even the current struggles to achieve racial harmony,” Garrett said Tuesday.

The add-not-subtract language used by both Republicans fits with the approach of Michael Thurmond, an amateur historian and the CEO of DeKalb County. Thurmond, an African-American Democrat, has led an effort to make Stone Mountain something other than a monument to the Lost Cause, a mythologized version of the Civil War which denies that slavery was at the heart of the conflict.

Carr and Garrett have had informal conversations with Thurmond on the topic, off and on, over the last two years.

Stone Mountain became an issue in last year’s race for governor when, in the aftermath of the murder and mayhem at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., Democrat Stacey Abrams endorsed the “removal” of Stone Mountain’s bas relief carving of Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and Jeff Davis, the Confederate president.

Thurmond has favored the carving’s retention, not as a monument to the Confederacy, but as a historic artifact from the South’s continued attempt —over a full century, through Jim Crow and segregation — to restore what it had lost in the war. Which was a society based on the superiority of the white race.

The idea of a bell tower in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. was first proposed in 2015, the idea of Bill Stephens, the chief executive officer of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the agency that oversees the granite-based park. Also endorsed by the private company that manages the park, the tower was to be located just above the carving, at the mountain’s crest – a symbolic testament to what King and other participants in the civil rights movement had to overcome.

The idea died with the park’s all-white governing board.

Several things have worked to alter the climate. Thurmond was appointed to the Stone Mountain board in 2017 by Gov. Nathan Deal. (Thurmond left in December, but has been replaced by Gregory Levett, an African-American funeral home operator from Grayson, Ga.)

A 2016 rally by white supremacists at the park was met with counter protesters — and state riot police, resulting in several arrests. Then there was Charlottesville, Va., and a nationwide debate over the place of Confederate symbols in public spaces.

This year, as Super Bowl weekend approached, a handful of white supremacists had threatened to rally in the shadow of the mountain.

They ultimately reneged, but several dozen counter protesters said they would show up at the state park anyway. With the mass of state police dedicated to the season’s last pro football game, the decision was made to shut the state’s largest tourist attraction down.

A state official offered no specifics but said the revenue loss to the private company that manages the park was significant. “There was beautiful weather with the Super Bowl and a lot of guests in town,” said Stephens, CEO of the memorial association.

The episode again underscored the vulnerability of the state-owned park to boycotts and a hardening antipathy toward the idea of the Confederacy as the South’s defining identity.

The question now is whether other Republicans follow the lead of Carr and Garrett. And whether the Stone Mountain Memorial Association is willing to take the next step. With some speed, if not haste.

One suggestion: There’s plenty of bad Southern history on the internet. Bring in a reputable organization like the Georgia Historical Society to offer advice and guidance. Like Stone Mountain itself, the society was once a defender of the Lost Cause, but has reformed itself over the last few decades. It knows how it can be done.

Make a point of involving African-American academia. This won’t work unless you include the stories of the people who now surround the park, descendants of slaves freed in the conflict. Most of all, tell the history that we’ve been denied by refusing to concede what the Civil War was all about, and what happened next – Reconstruction and Jim Crow.

Before I talked to Carr on Tuesday, I chatted with Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, about Stone Mountain. He told me of a ceremony in Cartersville being planned for March, setting up a marker to tell the story of Amos T. Akerman.

Akerman was a Confederate officer who turned Republican after the war. President Ulysses Grant appointed him U.S. attorney in Georgia, then U.S. attorney general. Akerman’s all-consuming task was combating the Ku Klux Klan in the South – the first version. To undermine the Klan, Akerman established an investigative arm of the U.S. Justice Department that ultimately became the FBI.

Akerman’s story is one that had been lost to the dominance of the Lost Cause. His story and many others have a place at Stone Mountain. And to my Republican friends, remember that Akerman was one of you – someone you can call one of the good guys.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.