Late last month, on the state holiday formerly known as Confederate Memorial Day, Bill Stephens stood behind a podium in a crowded ballroom.
The longtime CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association was, finally, ready to reveal what had come from months of behind-the-scenes discussions about the future of Georgia’s only controversial tourist attraction.
“What I am proposing first,” Stephens said, “is that we should tell the whole story of Stone Mountain Park. And tell it truthfully. And start with the carving.”
The carving, of course, is the three-acre homage to Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee that’s embedded in Stone Mountain’s northern face. The Confederates on horseback make up the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture and, presumably, the world’s largest monument to the Lost Cause.
The story of how it got there spans more than half a century, beginning not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but in the Jim Crow era of the early 1900s. The bulk of the work was done during the Civil Rights era. It wasn’t completed until the Nixon Administration.
Stephens’ proposal, one of several expected to be considered Monday by the memorial association’s board of directors, is to explore all of the history in a new exhibit at the park’s on-site museum.
It’s an idea, Stephens admits, that’s largely driven by financial pressure — and one that’s likely to make few people happy. Groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans want the park to embrace the Civil War South even more tightly; activists would prefer that just about everything that honors the Confederacy be removed from the taxpayer-owned property.
As for the story of the carving itself: Stephens admits it’s ugly. Historians agree.
The truth, those scholars told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, is about much more than the Confederacy. The truth is about white supremacy and residents’ reactions to movements for equality.
Nothing of significance even happened at Stone Mountain during the Civil War.
“The monument itself is not about history,” said Kevin M. Levin, a Civil War scholar and educator based in Boston. “It’s about memory, about the people who put it up and what they were trying to do.”
The first substantive call for a Confederate carving on Stone Mountain came from a June 1914 editorial published in the Atlanta Georgian. It proposed a 70-foot tribute to Robert E. Lee.
C. Helen Plane, the honorary life president of the Georgia division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, took the pitch and ran with it.
By the early 1900s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy had become an influential group across the South and one of the primary peddlers of Lost Cause mythology, according to historians. They perpetuated the lie that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery, going so far as censoring textbooks that claimed otherwise.
The UDC also erected scores of monuments throughout the South. They were ostensibly about memorializing Confederate soldiers, but historians say their real aim was to immortalize a warped history of the war — and remind newly emancipated Blacks of their place in society.
Jim Crow laws would limit their ability to vote, work and get an education; public monuments would remind them who was in charge, historians say.
And a carving on Stone Mountain would send the loudest message yet.
“It’s really part of that whole era,” said Grace Elizabeth Hale, an American studies and history professor at the University of Virginia. “It’s only sort of distinction is its grandiosity.”
Plane quickly secured the support of Sam Venable, whose family had owned and operated Stone Mountain as a granite quarry since the 1880s. She also contacted a sculptor.
Plane wrote to Gutzon Borglum — famed for his bust of Abraham Lincoln at the U.S. Capitol and, later, his work on Mount Rushmore — in December 1915.
The second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan had been born in a fiery ceremony atop Stone Mountain just a few weeks earlier, likely with Venable’s involvement. “Birth of a Nation,” the now-infamous film that glorified the Reconstruction-era Klan, the Lost Cause, and racial violence, had debuted in Atlanta shortly thereafter.
“Nostalgia for a white supremacist past,” said Emory University professor Joe Crespino, “was driving the revival of the Klan at the same time it was driving the memorialization efforts of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”
In her letter, Plane said the UDC would be getting a cut from the profits from an upcoming screening of the film — and suggested that Klansmen be included in Borglum’s forthcoming masterpiece.
“Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South, I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpet-bag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain,” Plane wrote. “Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?”
The suggestion didn’t take. The sculptor did, however, dramatically expand upon Plane’s original vision.
He would carve not just Lee but fellow Confederate General Stonewall Jackson and Confederate president Jefferson Davis into the mountain. The trio would be on horseback. Hundreds of soldiers would flank them.
It would be the eighth wonder of the world.
Work started slowly, thanks to World War I and the slog of fundraising. But Borglum was carving on the mountain by 1923 and, a year later, unveiled Robert E. Lee’s completed head.
From there, things soured quickly. There were technical problems, financial disputes and a personal spat between Borglum and the president of the newly formed Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association.
According to Hale, the University of Virginia professor, both men were members of the Klan — and favored different national leaders for the organization.
Borglum was fired in Feb. 1925.
On April 29, 1928, the replacement sculptor Augustus Lukeman unveiled his own version of Lee’s head — and then blasted Borglum’s unfinished work off the mountain.
The carving then would sit for nearly three decades unfinished, with just one giant head.
The Great Depression came, then World War II. Access granted to the United Daughters of the Confederacy was revoked by the Venable family, which continued allowing the Klan to hold meetings and rallies on the mountain.
Resistance to civil rights
On May 17, 1954, the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.
About two months later, Marvin Griffin announced his campaign to be Georgia’s next governor.
The main pillar of his platform was a promise to fight integration, a concept he called “an order to us from Washington [to] mongrelize the South.”
Griffin also vowed, often in the same breath, the buy Stone Mountain for the state and finally complete the carving.
He won the election.
After he took office, Griffin and the legislature quickly changed Georgia’s state flag to include the Confederate battle emblem. Griffin’s floor leader at the time, Rep. Denmark Groover, would admit decades later that the change was a response to the federal government’s integration push.
This is what historians call “massive resistance”: the coordinated, wide-ranging mission by white Southern leaders to maintain segregation, squash the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and intimidate Black people.
It was against that backdrop that the state of Georgia, in early 1958, wrote a check for about $1.1 million and purchased Stone Mountain from the Venable family.
While the Civil Rights movement raged, while a Black man born just a few miles from the mountain was leading a nationwide fight for equality, efforts to create the world’s largest monument to secessionist white supremacists were being revived.
“If it wasn’t for Brown v. Board of Education, it would never have been finished,” said Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.
By the time the federal Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, the state of Georgia had sold $5 million worth of bonds to fund the carving’s completion. Crews led by sculptor Walter Hancock and Roy Faulkner — a local man with no artistic experience but who knew how to use the kerosene-powered torches used to chip away the granite — got to work on the mountain’s face.
Far below them, Stone Mountain Park was being born.
In addition to a lake and other facilities that were built largely by prison labor, the state created its own sanitized version of an antebellum plantation from scratch.
Neat, well-furnished “slave cabins” painted a misleading picture for visitors, according to Grace Elizabeth Hale’s research. Promotional pamphlets assured them that many masters in Georgia were kind and voluntarily freed the people they’d enslaved before “The War Between the States” started.
A down-on-her-luck Butterfly McQueen, the Black actress who played the enslaved Prissy in “Gone with the Wind,” was hired to greet visitors at the “Big House.”
A historian at the Atlanta History Center would later describe it all as “a comical orgy of Lost Cause, Old South, and even Western movie clichés, clearly removed from the more serious and hateful Ku Klux Klan past, but also clearly rooted in it.”
Then there was the carving.
By the summer of 1970, the mostly completed rendering of Davis, Lee and Jackson was ready to be dedicated.
About 10,000 people — a fraction of the 100,000 forecast by organizers — attended the ceremony.
Vice President Spiro Agnew spoke in lieu of President Richard Nixon, who was distracted by recent developments in the War in Vietnam. In his 12-minute speech, Agnew held up the men carved on the mountainside as pillars of American virtue.
Later, Georgia’s secretary of state took the stage, donned a gray cap and let out a Rebel yell.
The crowd joined in his yell, which the Atlanta Constitution called a “long lusty cheer.”
‘Change is inevitable’
Today, activists who have for years called for a reckoning with Stone Mountain’s Confederate imagery say ideas like better explaining the carving’s history don’t go far enough.
Atlanta NAACP president Richard Rose called the current proposals — which also include renaming Confederate Hall and moving Confederate flags that have flown at the base of the mountain’s walk-up trail for decades — a “slap in the face.”
The memorial association’s motives, too, are largely financial.
Marriott, which runs the park’s primary hotel and conference center, reportedly plans to pull out of the park next year. So does Herschend Family Entertainment, which has run the park’s revenue-generating attractions since they were privatized in 1998.
Mention of Coca-Cola as an “official sponsor” was also recently removed from the Stone Mountain Park website. A spokeswoman for Coke said the logo was removed to make it clear that their relationship was with Herschend, not Stone Mountain itself.
Still, the fact that changes are even being considered is not an insignificant development.
“Economically we can’t stay the way we are,” Stephens, the memorial association CEO, said. “Change is inevitable. We can either take charge of it or we can be defined by it.”
Why the AJC looked at Stone Mountain’s history
For several years now, activists have clamored for changes to the Confederate imagery at state-owned Stone Mountain Park. The Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s board of directors is expected to consider such changes during a meeting on May 24.
The proposals put forth by memorial association CEO Bill Stephens include moving Confederate flags that have flown near the base of the mountain’s walk-up trail since the 1960s and renaming the building known as Confederate Hall. The proposals also include creating a new exhibit “telling the truth” about the history of the mountainside carving of Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
To explore the true history of the carving and give an accurate depiction of Georgia and America across the decades it was being conceived, the AJC sifted through hundreds of pages of contemporary news articles, primary documents and scholarly publications. The AJC also spoke with several historians with expertise in the Civil War and the post-Reconstruction South.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge attempts to revive work on the carving but is thwarted by World War II.
With Brown v. Board of Education recently decided and the Civil Rights Movement looming, the state of Georgia purchases Stone Mountain for about $1.1 million. The memorial association becomes a state authority tasked with maintaining a monument to the Confederacy. Carving resumes.
Stone Mountain Park officially opens, on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
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.
Stone Mountain Park hosts its first laser show.
The park's money-generating attractions are privatized, as the state partners with Silver Dollar City, an arm of Herschend Family Entertainment.
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signs new law increasing protections for Confederate monuments.
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.
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.
Rev. Abraham Mosley, a pastor from Athens, becomes the first Black chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association.