New bills target Stone Mountain, Confederate monuments across Georgia

Credit: Tyler Estep

Credit: Tyler Estep

Democratic state lawmakers announced new bills Wednesday that would prohibit Confederate monuments across Georgia and put Stone Mountain Park — and its massive carving honoring rebel leaders — directly in the crosshairs.

Reps. Shelly Hutchinson (D-Snellville) and Billy Mitchell (D-Stone Mountain) were flanked by a handful of other legislators and activists as they discussed their proposals during a press conference at the state Capitol.

“The reality is, it’s not a matter of if these symbols come down,” Mitchell said. “It’s just when.”

House Bills 237 and 238, filed by Hutchinson earlier this week, would not only remove the protections for Confederate monuments in current Georgia law but expressly prohibit tributes that are “related to the Confederate States of America, slave owners or persons advocating for slavery” on public property. There would be exceptions for museums and Civil War battlefields.

Mitchell said he planned to file a corresponding bill later Wednesday. That piece of legislation, he said, would take a more focused approach, eliminating restrictions on the Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s ability to make changes to Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park.

The memorial association is a state authority charged by law with maintaining an “appropriate” tribute to the Confederacy at the park.

The association’s board recently tasked CEO Bill Stephens with assembling a task force to consider proposals that would bring the park “into the 21st century.” But Stephens has said that current law limits what changes can be made, and that “additions” to the park are more likely that subtractions of Confederate imagery.

Activists and advocacy groups, meanwhile, have argued that there’s already sufficient legal wiggle room for the memorial association to act if it wanted to. Mitchell said his bill would remove any doubt.

“This bill will simply give the memorial association authority to change the policy,” Mitchell said. “They will be able to take down memorials, Confederate flags, and stop maintaining the sculpture that is on the granite rock there.”

Stone Mountain, the Confederate imagery throughout the surrounding state park and the sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson that adorns its northern face have long been divisive. The debate transitioned from a simmer to a full boil again last summer, as protests over police killings of Black men and discussions of systemic racism swept the country — and as far-right militias backed their own rallies at the park and in the nearby city of Stone Mountain.

The Stone Mountain Action Coalition, a well-organized local grassroots group, has been leading the charge for a more inclusive park, one they say should be bereft of tributes to men who supported slavery and fought against the United States.

“These bills, when signed by Governor Kemp, will allow us to begin the work that we must do to liberate Stone Mountain Park from the Confederacy,” SMAC member Dennis Collard said Wednesday.

Several Georgia communities have found their own creative ways to remove Confederate monuments in recent months. Democratic state senators have also introduced legislation that would make it easier for local governments to take monuments down if they so choose.

The General Assembly, though, remains controlled by Republicans and any such legislation is likely to face an uphill battle.

It was less than two years ago that the legislature increased protections for such memorials and ramped up penalties for removing or otherwise damaging them. State Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) has dropped a new bill this year that would require that two representatives apiece from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the Georgia Civil War Commission be added to the board of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.

Advocates at Wednesday’s press conference decried that move as an attempt to stack the deck and prevent substantive changes.

Hutchinson said Georgia is ready to move on.

“We’ve been insulted far too long,” Hutchinson said.