DeKalb’s CEO on the complicated legacy of Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain has a complicated legacy. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Credit: Jim Galloway

Credit: Jim Galloway

Stone Mountain has a complicated legacy. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Michael Thurmond lives in the shadows of Stone Mountain, the massive gray monolith honoring a triumvirate of Confederate leaders. To say he has a complicated relationship with the mount, now under renewed scrutiny along with other Rebel symbols, is an understatement.

Three of four residents in the town that surrounds the granite dome, the same town where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn, are black. So is Thurmond, an accomplished politician who became DeKalb's chief executive in January and doubles as a Civil War historian.

He said he “cringes” to hear monuments misrepresented. Gettysburg and Chickamauga are true Civil War memorials honoring the battlefield dead, he said, and so are the historical markers between Atlanta and Savannah marking the Union march to the sea.

But the wave of statues and memorials built decades after Appomattox? He said many are little more than paeans to the Lost Cause, the revisionist history that cast the Confederacy as heroic and slavery as an afterthought. To him, the state-owned memorial, first envisioned in 1915, fits the bill.

“It was a way to sanitize history. It created a notion that slavery wasn’t what was fought over,” Thurmond said. “If you look at the narrative carved in stone, it’s very clear the celebration is about a narrative about a mythological view of the Civil War.”

And yet: It's now one of the state's top tourism attractions, one of the most vibrant places in metro Atlanta, a place for picnickers and weekend warriors and families to gather. So on his first day as DeKalb's top official, he set out to reclaim that brand for his county.

“The narrative that birthed the carving of Stone Mountain is not the narrative that will be promoted by this county,” he said. “Stone Mountain is a place where people of all races, creeds and colors come every day.”

He won’t take a side on Stacey Abrams’ call to remove the faces of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the edifice, perhaps because it’s a non-starter. State law prohibits changes to Stone Mountain, and there’s no appetite among legislative leaders to nix it even if Abrams wins the governor's office.

But he does have some broader suggestions. The park’s directors have improved Stone Mountain by adding more historical exhibits over the years, he said, but additional context is needed.

“The narrative has to become more inclusive. The idea of the mountain belonging to the KKK or the neo-Nazis – no, it belongs to the people of Georgia,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to the Confederate veterans or the NAACP. We all have an investment here.”

And he suggests that Gov. Nathan Deal and other state leaders make another significant change. There are 10 listed members on the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board that governs the site. None are black.

“I’d hope very soon,” he said, “we would get at least one African-American appointed to the board.”