A protester holds a banner while marching against a white power rally at Stone Mountain Park on April 23, 2016. A white power rally and two counter-protests took place at the park at the time. Ben Gray / bgray@ajc.com

Kempner: Mount Treason? A brand re-do at Stone Mountain Park

The carving of three Confederate leaders and their horses at Stone Mountain Park isn’t just about race, rebel hoopla and questions of history. Unlike most of the staid statues and monuments under threat of being torn down on courthouse squares across the nation, the one at The Big Rock also involves money.

The three-acre carving is the biggest branding sign we’ve got in Georgia, as disconcerting as that is.

The metro Atlanta chapters of the NAACP joined forces calling for the state and city to remove any vestiges of the confederacy, including the Stone Mountain carving.

It consumes more space than any Coke sign, MLK bust, statue to Jimmy, Olympic cauldron, Big Chicken or memorial to Ray Charles or Bobby Jones. It’s more vast than the Mercedes-Benz emblem (allegedly “the largest corporate logo on Earth”)  now atop the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Hood Ornament in downtown Atlanta.

Stone Mountain Park also claims to be the biggest attraction in Georgia. That’s where the money and business comes in.

Three or four million people visit annually, depending on who you ask.

This is not treated as an embarrassment in DeKalb County, where more than half the residents are African-Americans.

Instead, video of the carving is the first image that popped up on homepage and Facebook page for Discover DeKalb, which is how the county pitches itself to visitors and tourists. (Just after this column was writen, the video selection was changed, putting less emphasis on the carving.)

Consider that the original idea for the carving traces its lineage to supporters of the Ku Klux Klan, before the state got involved in the project.

Now, the state’s Stone Mountain Memorial Authority farms out the park to be run by a for-profit outfit, Herschend Family Entertainment, which pays the state about $10.75 million a year. 

Messing with money

“Mess with this park and you are messing with economic development in this state,” said R.K. Sehgal, who served as Georgia’s commissioner for industry, trade and tourism in the early 2000s.

“When promoting tourism, this park was mentioned very prominently in our sales efforts,” he told me. “We played up the largest granite outcrop in the world. We played up the mountain rather than the carving.”

Besides, he said, in such a sprawling park with lots to do, “the carving is more or less an asterisk.”

Wasn’t the presence of Confederates on a mountainside viewed as a big, fat negative by employers being recruited by the state?

“Absolutely not,” Sehgal told me. He said he’s been to Stone Mountain Park “hundreds of times.”

A little backstory: Sehgal was born in India. Andrew Young, the veteran civil rights leader and MLK lieutenant, is godfather to Sehgal’s son.

Stone Mountain Park invites those kinds of odd juxtapositions. The carving gets special protection under state law. It’s a memorial to the Confederacy and the spot where the KKK was reborn for people who let fear and meanness get the better of them.

When I tell this to visitors from outside Georgia they usually ask roughly same question: “And that’s a thing people take their kids to see?”

Fireworks explode during the laser show at Stone Mountain Park. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Graffiti on the haunches

I tell them the rest of the story, at least as I see it. It’s a beautiful mountain, aside from the graffiti carved in its haunches. There’s a zillion things for families to do in the 3,200-acre park, from the nightly laser show and boat rides to running trails and hikes up the mountain for stunning views of Atlanta.

So how crucial is the carving to keep people visiting the park? And how many potential visitors does it deter?

I tried to get answers from Herschend, the park’s operator, but the company seems to be trying very hard to hide under the bed on this whole issue lately. 

A few years ago, the company’s CEO told the AJC the park didn’t track the impact from the Confederacy legacy. Online, Herschend highlights family activities and nature more than the carving.

A spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association said the association doesn’t know the answer to either question, but he said three-fourths of the park’s visitors go to the natural stuff compared to the attractions and carving.

Ken Bernhardt, a retired Georgia State University marketing professor, told me his past research found that when tourists are choosing a city for a getaway weekend, learning about history and visiting museums is among the most important considerations. Only shopping and fine dining were bigger, he said.

The carving, I guess, is at least a suggestion of history, one that glamorizes an ugly chapter in our history.

It’s a detraction from the mountain’s natural beauty. But it’s also pretty amazing, having been carved hundreds of feet up a sheer cliff. The figures are so big that an adult could stand in an ear of one of the horses.

But I doubt most park visitors spend lots of time contemplating what motivated the Confederates etched into stone. Heck, I’d be surprised if one out of 20 people could name all three of the dudes.

Instead, the rock where the KKK burned crosses has become a magnet for people of all different backgrounds, from all over the world. Families, including plenty of African-Americans, have picnics and family reunions in the shadow of the carving.

Flaccid reminders?

And so the images on the mountain have become only flaccid reminders of the Confederacy.

Except when the rallies and protests crank up. That reminds us that there’s an uglier history hanging over our heads.

Which is why we are again confronted with the question of whether its worth it socially — or financially — to find a way to kill it or keep living with it.

Suggestions to add a big civil rights monument or carve non-Confederate figures into the rock haven’t gotten much traction. And spending time and treasure to demolish or cover up the existing carving doesn’t sound very satisfying to many people.

Hiding sins has a way of making them fester. And destroying a carving marvel feels unseemly.

Maybe instead of dynamite, what we need is more honesty, context and truth in advertising. Perhaps it’s time to rebrand The Big Rock.

Someone I know suggested just renaming the mountain for what the carving really represents.

“Treason Mountain,” he said.

There are other options. Bigots Boulder, Sedition Stone, Racism Rock, Rebels’ Ruse, Distortion Hill.

Imagine putting any of those on a tourism site.

We’re all stuck with our pasts, but we are free to do better. 

If we choose to live with this thing, let’s really live with it. Let’s acknowledge what it really is.


AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner offers you a unique look at the business scene in metro Atlanta and beyond. You'll find more on myAJC.com, including these columns:

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