After chaotic meeting, activist group still excluded from Stone Mountain’s Juneteenth event

Councilmembers accused each other of censorship and grandstanding
This is a screenshot from the City of Stone Mountain's special called meeting on Tuesday.

Credit: City of Stone Mountain

Credit: City of Stone Mountain

This is a screenshot from the City of Stone Mountain's special called meeting on Tuesday.

An activist group’s exclusion from the City of Stone Mountain’s first Juneteenth event led to a chaotic city meeting meeting full of accusations and threatens to drown out the message behind the celebration.

The Stone Mountain Action Coalition, a grassroots group that has advocated for changes to Stone Mountain Park’s Confederate iconography, was denied a vendor table at the city’s planned June 19 celebration, which honors the emancipation of slaves.

A councilmember-led Juneteenth Event Committee approved nearly 30 vendors but the action coalition was not among them.

During a special called meeting Tuesday, councilmembers on both sides of the debate hurled accusations at one another of censorship and grandstanding. The public spat threatens to overshadow the event itself, which is a monumental first for a city best known for the huge granite Confederate memorial carving and its role in the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.

“The fact that we are having these arguments about Stone Mountain Action Coalition and not speaking to Juneteenth is exactly what we were trying to avoid,” said Mayor Pro Tem Chakira Johnson, who is also a Juneteenth committee member.

Councilman Clint Monroe, who advocated for the inclusion of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, presented a resolution to rescind the earlier denial and give the group a vendor’s table. The motion failed when Mayor Patricia Wheeler broke a tie vote.

Members of the action coalition will still be able to attend the event, scheduled for 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, and hand out flyers. But they will not be allowed to set up a table or sell goods. In a statement released Tuesday, it wasn’t clear if the group plans to attend.

The city decided in April it would hold its first Juneteenth celebration and formed a committee to organize the event, envisioned as a block party. With Stone Mountain’s history of KKK meetings and cross burnings atop the nearby mountain, the celebration had an added importance to the city.

The small city of roughly 6,300 residents became the scene of a clash last summer when anti-racist groups and armed militia members argued and fought over race, politics and the Confederate iconography at the park.

Johnson, who is also on the board of the Stone Mountain Historical Society, said the Juneteenth event is meant to highlight the city’s Black history, namely its historic Black neighborhood of Shermantown. She said she wanted to take a “neutral stance” on Stone Mountain Park to avoid making the event about politics and the Confederacy.

‘Trying to make controversy’

Discussion about the action coalition’s participation in the city’s Juneteenth event began to overtake City Council meetings June 7. During an update on the Juneteenth event, Monroe questioned why the group was denied a vendor table, equating it to censorship.

He, along with two other councilmembers , tried to hold a special called meeting last Friday afternoon to discuss the action coalition’s application, but the mayor and other councilmembers did not attend. Lacking a quorum, the meeting never began.

In Tuesday’s meeting, Monroe spoke about how refusing to issue a vendor permit for the group was effectively an affront to freedom, which Juneteenth is meant to represent and celebrate.

“Why the heck are you trying to separate freedom from the rights of citizenship? If you deny that, there is no freedom at all,” Monroe said. “Juneteenth has to be about freedom, but it also has to be about Juneteenth and citizenship...”

He was cut off by Councilwoman Jasmine Little, another Juneteenth committee member, who questioned the relevance of his comments. Wheeler agreed, adding that Monroe was trying to overtake the meeting.

Little said the committee’s intentions were to unite the city during its inaugural Juneteenth festival. Focusing on Stone Mountain Park’s Confederate carving, a longstanding controversy in the state, was what the committee wanted to avoid, she said.

She accused Monroe of trying to make a scene in public.

“You want to do this in a public forum when you can have the most impact and ... you are out here trying to make controversy when this city is finally recognizing Juneteenth as a holiday,” Johnson said.

‘Intended to silence’

Darryl Gresham, a resident running for mayor and a Stone Mountain Action Coalition member, said during the public comment portion of the meeting that the group’s denial was politically motivated.

“It is disingenuous to say that no one was being silenced from speaking at the Juneteenth celebration,” Gresham, who announced his candidacy in May, said. “... It is totally absolutely clear that the intentions of the committee, along with the City Council members, purposefully intended to silence oppositions to the mayor, Patricia Wheeler.”

The mayor responded in the meeting by saying she wouldn’t comment.

In a phone call with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Gresham said both his political campaign and DeKalb Young Democrats also applied for vendor tables and also were denied. The committee told him they weren’t approving political groups.

“It’s disingenuous to talk about freedom if you’re going to limit the access for any political organization who might highlight the point of voting,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”

The action coalition issued a statement after Tuesday’s council meeting saying it’s “disappointed” it will not be a vendor at Stone Mountain’s event, adding that the group will have a table at Decatur’s Juneteenth event on the same day. It’s unclear whether members will still attend the Stone Mountain event in any capacity. Gresham also said he wasn’t sure if he would attend.

Stone Mountain’s event will take place in its downtown village along Main Street. Johnson said anyone is invited to attend.

“We have never said, ‘You are not allowed to attend our event. You are not welcome,’” Johnson said. “... please come. If you want to hand out your information, we cannot and we will not stop it.”

The meaning behind Juneteenth

Juneteenth marks June 19, 1865, when slaves in Galveston, Texas were told they had been freed with the end of the Civil War two months earlier and through the Emancipation Proclamation, signed more than two years earlier. Juneteenth has been celebrated by the Black community for more than 100 years as the true end of slavery.

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