Michael Thurmond gambles on a better history for Stone Mountain

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM

Credit: Casey Sykes

Credit: Casey Sykes

DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond. CASEY SYKES, CASEY.SYKES@AJC.COM

When the DeKalb County school system was sinking, Michael Thurmond was brought in to rescue it. As DeKalb CEO, he has attempted to bring sanity to county government – to the point that, this month, Republicans in the state Capitol killed an effort by one of their number to do away with his job.

They like him there.

But this week, the African-American leader of the most Democratic county in Georgia will launch what may be the riskiest gambit of his career as a fix-it man.

He will publicly embrace Stone Mountain Park, a state-owned enterprise that shudders with every spasm of white-supremacist violence in spots like Charlottesville and Charleston. In exchange, Thurmond wants a complete telling of the history the park now purports to represent with its massive Confederate carving.

”They are giddy, but there’s a price,” Thurmond told me.

Consider it a play in two acts, beginning with a “State of the County” address that Thurmond will give Wednesday morning to 300 or so ticket-buying business leaders, inside the park confines.

That will be followed by an April 4 speech on top of the mountain itself, marking the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

Thurmond is well-positioned for the paired effort. In addition to the fact that he’s the chief executive of the county that surrounds the park, he’s also the only African-American on the nine-member governing board of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.

Some might be inclined to accuse Thurmond of tilting at a distraction in a county that doesn’t need any more. Thurmond will argue that the situation at Stone Mountain actually cuts to the heart of DeKalb’s problems.

Ever the amateur historian, in a column published last Sunday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Thurmond connected the struggles within his water department – brought home this month by a water main break that paralyzed a region – to a government bureaucracy that still hasn’t recovered from DeKalb’s harsh transition from a white-flight community to one dominated by a black electorate.

“The mass turnover exposed the absence of a discreet but critical fail-safe,” he wrote. “Written standard operating procedures were all but nonexistent. DeKalb had emerged as an urbanized juggernaut, but county departments were mired in post-World War II operational mindsets.”

Thurmond elaborated a few days later. Racial divisiveness lies at the core of DeKalb’s troubles. “So where else to go but to Stone Mountain to, in a historical way, and in a philosophical and political way, discuss how we can come together?” he asked.

So far as he knows, no DeKalb CEO has ever held such an event at Stone Mountain. The endorsement matters a great deal to those with a financial stake in the park. Last year’s violence in Charlottesville and the 2015 murder of churchgoers in Charleston both involved Confederate symbolism, resulting in calls for a boycott of Stone Mountain.

The park’s reputation as an open wound has gone international — witness the fact that Russian social media trolls have used it as one of many soft targets for creating enmity among us.

African-Americans make up the majority of park visitors, and continue to make use of the acreage, but the parks’ hotel and conference center is vulnerable. Just how vulnerable we don’t know. The numbers are shielded by the state park’s contract with a private operating company. One measure can be seen in the defensive camouflage of its name: the Atlanta Evergreen Marriott Conference Resort.

On Wednesday, Thurmond will be seeking business backing for his move. He’s likely to point to the sign at the park’s entrance: “The people of Georgia welcome you to their park.”

That means something, he said. If we all are invested in the park, if we all share ownership, then all stories need to be told.

Thurmond does not endorse, as some have, the removal of the massive carving of Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the side of Stone Mountain. He is about the addition of points of view, not subtraction.

For instance, white Southerners often speak of the terrible destruction wrought by U.S. Gen. William Sherman on his March to the Sea in 1864. Black Southerners, Thurmond said, would consider 19,000 escaped slaves that joined the trek as a net positive.

On the evening of Thanksgiving Day in 1915, a dozen or so white men climbed to the top of Stone Mountain and lit a fiery cross. Long before it was Georgia’s top tourist destination, Stone Mountain was well known as the birthplace of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. Not a single marker at the park makes note of this – even though early designs of the mountain carving included KKK symbolism.

In 2015, Bill Stephens, CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, proposed the construction of a bell tower at the mountain’s 825-foot summit, to commemorate that line in Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 1963: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

When that idea went nowhere, a museum – or at least an exhibit – of African-American involvement in the Civil War was proposed. That, too, has stalled.

Thurmond has not given up on either. And there is an implied threat in what he’s about — endorsements aren’t permanent gifts. They can be retracted.

Now, about Thurmond’s second speech -- the one that will be delivered on top of Stone Mountain, on the 50th anniversary of King’s death. Politically, it will be the more hazardous of the two. Three years ago, a King bell tower met opposition from African-Americans who didn’t want their history touching that of the Confederacy.

I don’t know what Thurmond will say. If I were he, I might suggest pointing out that, if we erase the Confederacy, we diminish King — because we would also be erasing the mountain the civil rights leader was required to climb. Segregated histories, like peas that aren’t allowed to touch the potatoes, result in a segregated society. And we’ve already been there.

I’ll leave that thought right there for Thurmond’s consideration. But the DeKalb CEO knows there’s a bright line that links the problems of Stone Mountain with his own in Decatur.

“DeKalb County has been divided for decades,” he said. “In history, there are spirits. And I think the spirit of division rests in Stone Mountain. I don’t think it was by accident that King called out Stone Mountain.”

His fellow board members at the Stone Mountain Memorial Association have at least agreed to listen. They’ve bought a table for his Wednesday speech.