Stone Mountain Park official: Confederate flags protected by law

10/6/2020 - Stone Mountain, Georgia - Individuals stand at a distance from one another while participating in a Stone Mountain Action Coalition Òprayer for our parkÓ event at the flag terrace at the Stone Mountain walk-up trail in Stone Mountain, Tuesday, October 6, 2020. Faith leaders gathered and prayed for peace, compassion, healing, integrity, endurance, love and understanding for hopes of bringing change to Stone Mountain Park. ÒAs the [Stone Mountain] Park continues to serve as a rally point for hate groups and violence, SMAC believes it is more important than ever to demonstrate the desperate need for peace and extraordinary opportunity it has to serve as a place of unity,Ó said a flyer give out by the Stone Mountain Action Coalition. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
10/6/2020 - Stone Mountain, Georgia - Individuals stand at a distance from one another while participating in a Stone Mountain Action Coalition Òprayer for our parkÓ event at the flag terrace at the Stone Mountain walk-up trail in Stone Mountain, Tuesday, October 6, 2020. Faith leaders gathered and prayed for peace, compassion, healing, integrity, endurance, love and understanding for hopes of bringing change to Stone Mountain Park. ÒAs the [Stone Mountain] Park continues to serve as a rally point for hate groups and violence, SMAC believes it is more important than ever to demonstrate the desperate need for peace and extraordinary opportunity it has to serve as a place of unity,Ó said a flyer give out by the Stone Mountain Action Coalition. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

The four Confederate flags that fly at the base of Stone Mountain’s popular walk-up trail are protected by Georgia law and can’t be removed, a park official said this week.

The statement provided by Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Bill Stephens was in response to the latest efforts by local activists pushing for changes to the Confederate imagery at Georgia’s most visited and most divisive attraction.

Members of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition recently launched a social media and email campaign demanding that the flags be taken down before next week’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

Coalition members believe the memorial association — a state authority tasked by law with running Stone Mountain Park and maintaining a monument to the Confederacy there — has the legal wiggle room to make significant changes. But Stephens doesn’t see it that way.

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In a statement provided to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution this week, he wrote that the flags and the surrounding stone plaza — which millions of visitors must walk past to climb the mountain each year — qualify as a monument.

The Georgia law that protects Confederate tributes defines a monument, in part, as any “plaque, statue, marker, flag, structure name, display or memorial constructed and located with the intent of being permanently displayed and perpetually maintained.”

“The removal of the Confederate flags at the park would require a change in the Georgia law regarding flags and monuments,” Stephens wrote.

State Rep. Billy Mitchell, D-Stone Mountain, plans to file new legislation that would provide just such a change, eliminating legal barriers to removing Confederate monuments throughout the state. The new legislative session started Monday and Mitchell said he could file his bill as soon as next week.

It’s likely to face an uphill battle, though, in a Republican-controlled legislature that actually strengthened Confederate monument laws less than two years ago.

The Stone Mountain Action Coalition, meanwhile, maintains that existing laws provide “broad discretion” for Stephens and the memorial association to act. An analysis written by attorneys who are part of the group suggests that the flags at the flag plaza were neither intended to be permanently displayed or specifically dedicated to a historical entity and therefore don’t qualify as monuments.

The coalition has also homed in on language requiring that Stone Mountain Park be maintained as an “appropriate” and “suitable” monument to the Confederacy. The context of the 21st century should change how those words are interpreted, members say.

“In 2021, when the Confederate battle flag was proudly displayed by those who stormed the US Capitol building on January 6 in an attempt to interrupt and destabilize our democracy, it is well past time for Stone Mountain Park to take right and lawful action and remove these divisive symbols that have no place in a state park that claims to welcome diverse people from all over the world,” Stone Mountain Action Coalition board member Sheri Lake wrote in an email.

On Friday, a spokesman for Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr provided a copy of the state law protecting Confederate monuments but otherwise declined to comment specifically on the Stone Mountain flag plaza.

While Stephens and other members of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association have repeatedly said their hands are tied by the law, they say they are considering some changes.

In November, memorial association board chair Ray Smith — an Atlanta attorney who recently helped outgoing President Donald Trump challenge Georgia’s election results — tasked Stephens with assembling a committee to review proposals for “bringing Stone Mountain Park into the 21st century.”

Stephens said this week he was still recruiting members and would release names when “nine or so” members are identified. That could be next month, he said.

Stephens said he expects the process to “allow for positive additions to Stone Mountain Park, its accessibility, and general attractiveness to more diverse audiences.”

“Additions” being the operative word.

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