Stone Mountain Park CEO: ‘Tell the truth’ about carving, move flags

April 20, 2021 Stone Mountain - Aerial photograph shows Confederate Memorial Carving at Stone Mountain Park on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
April 20, 2021 Stone Mountain - Aerial photograph shows Confederate Memorial Carving at Stone Mountain Park on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Financial concerns help drive proposals for changes to Confederate imagery

New proposals for Stone Mountain Park include creating an exhibit “telling the truth” about the world’s largest Confederate monument — and otherwise confining tributes to the Confederacy to one designated area within Georgia’s most visited tourist attraction.

Bill Stephens — CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the state authority tasked with managing the park — publicly announced the ideas Monday, on the state holiday formerly known as Confederate Memorial Day.

Stephens said he realizes the proposals are unlikely to make anyone happy. Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans don’t want anything changed; many activists and Democratic state lawmakers have called for a more wide-sweeping transformation of the park.

But, Stephens said, he’s trying to find a “reasonable, common sense middle ground” that also complies with state laws that protect Confederate monuments.

“It’s 40 acres out of 3,400,” Stephens said of the area where the park’s Confederate monuments would be consolidated. “So if you want to see them you can come and you can see the Confederate monuments. If you don’t want to see them and you want to go elsewhere in the park, then you can do that.”

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The new park museum exhibit would be housed in Memorial Hall and explain the history of the massive mountainside carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee — which is inextricably tied to the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan and, later, white leaders’ reaction to desegregation and the looming Civil Rights movement.

Such an exhibit could also acknowledge the park’s history as a Native American burial ground, officials said.

Other proposals include relocating several Confederate flags at the bottom of the mountain’s walk-up trail, a location that hundreds or thousands of visitors walk past each day. The flags would be moved to another area near the base of the mountain that already hosts a number of smaller tributes to the Confederacy.

Confederate Hall, the building that effectively serves as the headquarters for park staff and other educational programs, would also be renamed under Stephens’ proposal.

ExplorePHOTOS: Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park
The reverend Abraham Mosley (L) is congratulated on being  the new chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association at a meeting Monday at the Evergreen Conference Center at Stone Mountain Park STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
The reverend Abraham Mosley (L) is congratulated on being the new chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association at a meeting Monday at the Evergreen Conference Center at Stone Mountain Park STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Any changes would ultimately need approval from the memorial association’s nine-member board, which was holding its first meeting under new chairman Abraham Mosley.

Mosley, a longtime pastor from Athens, was sworn in last week as the board’s first Black leader.

He called the proposals “a good start.”

“If you’re gonna walk a mile, you’ve got to take that first step,” Mosley said. “This is a first step toward a lot of good things to come here at Stone Mountain Park. It’s just gonna take time to get there.”

The board did not vote on the proposals Monday, but is expected to do so soon, perhaps as early as next month.

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Demands for a more complete reckoning with Stone Mountain’s history are nothing new. Activists have been calling for changes for years.

But things have reached a new inflection point since last summer, when nationwide protests over police killings of Black men and systemic racism also put Confederate imagery back in the crosshairs.

A grassroots group called the Stone Mountain Action Coalition formed against the backdrop of those protests and has for months pushed for comprehensive changes to the park. Their many suggestions include stopping maintenance on the carving and changing street names honoring folks like Davis, Jackson and Lee.

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Those items were not included in Stephens’ presentation. He did say changes to the names of other park features — like Venable Lake, named after the Klansman who sold the mountain to the state of Georgia in 1958 — could be on the table.

“It’s a good first step, maybe,” said Bona Allen, a SMAC member who has ancestors that fought for the Confederacy. “But I don’t think it goes nearly far enough.”

Other speakers during Monday’s public comment period included Atlanta NAACP president Richard Rose, DeKalb NAACP president Teresa Hardy and state Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain. They shared similar sentiments.

“Today is a time that we need to act on the proposals that have been made, and to go further,” Mitchell said.

Two people also spoke in defense of the park and the Confederacy. Tim Pilgrim, the Georgia division commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, proposed that the park go the opposite direction and lean into “heritage tourism.”

Visitors that come to the park want to see “the antebellum South,” Pilgrim said — “they want to see Gone with the Wind.”

There was only one brief question from the memorial association board following Stephens’ presentation. Board members were otherwise quiet and quickly left the meeting.

Stephens, the CEO, said his proposals have been run by “senior officials” at the state Capitol and he’s hopeful they’ll earn the board’s approval. He said he wants to “tell the truth about the history of Stone Mountain, of what it was, what it is, and what it ought to be.”

There are financial concerns to consider as well.

Park revenue was about $49 million in 2019, Stephens said. It fell to about $22 million last year.

The CEO said much of that dramatic decrease was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the park has also lost sponsorships and had corporations decline to host events or conventions at its facilities due to “the Confederacy issue.”

Bill Stephens — CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial, speaks at a meeting at the Evergreen Conference Center at Stone Mountain Park.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Bill Stephens — CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial, speaks at a meeting at the Evergreen Conference Center at Stone Mountain Park. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Stephens said Marriott, which runs the park’s primary hotel and conference center, plans to pull out of the park next year.

So does Silver Dollar City-Stone Mountain Park, the subsidiary of Norcross-based Herschend Family Entertainment that has operated the park’s money-making attractions since 1998. The company notified the memorial association last summer that it planned to end that relationship effective August 2022, citing “protests and division” as part of its rationale.

Stephens said the memorial association has begun drafting requests for proposals to find Herschend’s replacement and he’s had preliminary conversations with five different potential suitors.

“All five of them have said that unless we do something about the Confederacy issue they’re not going to bid” on the contract, Stephens said.

TIMELINE: History of Stone Mountain and Stone Mountain Park

  • 1915

    The founding of the second Ku Klux Klan takes place at Stone Mountain, when a handful of founders burn a cross on top of the mountain.

  • 1916

    Sam Venable, a Klan-affiliated businessman who owns the mountain and operates it as a granite quarry, leases its north face to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

  • 1923

    Carving starts on the massive mountainside tribute to Confederate leaders. Gutzon Borglum – a reputed white supremacist who would go on to work on Mount Rushmore – is the original sculptor.

  • 1925

    Borglum leaves after about two years, with only the head of Gen. Robert E. Lee completed. Work continues for a time but is ultimately halted by financial issues.

  • 1941

    Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge forms the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, but efforts at resuming the carving are thwarted by World War II.

  • 1958

    With Brown v. Board of Education recently decided and the Civil Rights Movement looming, the state of Georgia purchases Stone Mountain for about $2 million. The memorial association becomes a state authority tasked with maintaining a monument to the Confederacy. Carving resumes.

  • 1965

    Stone Mountain Park officially opens, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

  • 1970

    The carving of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee is dedicated. The sculpture itself measures 190 feet across 90 feet tall, with a carved-out backdrop covering about three acres.

  • 1983

    Stone Mountain Park hosts its first laser show.

  • 1998

    The park's money-generating attractions are privatized, as the state partners with Silver Dollar City, an arm of Herschend Family Entertainment.

  • 2019

    Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signs new law increasing protections for Confederate monuments.

  • 2020

    The deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans at the hands of police – and Ahmaud Arbery at the hands of white neighbors in Brunswick, Ga. – spark nationwide protests. Attention again turns to Confederate monuments; many across the country, and in nearby Decatur, are taken down. An activist group called the Stone Mountain Action Coalition and others launch a new push for dramatic changes to the Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park.

  • 2020

    Silver Dollar City notifies state officials that the company will be ending its lease to operate revenue-generating attractions in summer 2022. It cites the COVID-19 pandemic and frequent tensions at the park.

  • 2021

    Rev. Abraham Mosley, a pastor from Athens, becomes the first Black chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.

Story so far:

The conversation over Confederate imagery at Stone Mountain Park reignited last summer amid protests over systemic racism and police killings of Black Americans. Activists have pushed the Stone Mountain Memorial Association to make dramatic changes at the park, including changing street names, removing Confederate flags and addressing the massive mountainside carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.

Rev. Abraham Mosley was tapped last week as the new board chairman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, becoming the first Black person to hold the position. He presided over his inaugural meeting Monday, as proposals to make changes to some park attractions were announced publicly for the first time.

What’s Next:

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s board of directors is expected to vote on the changes proposed by CEO Bill Stephens at its next meeting. If the board follows its typical schedule, that meeting would be held on Monday, May 17.

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