Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spent his life trying to unite Americans behind the idea of equality for all.
But the divisions that he sought to heal were in sharp relief on Sunday as Georgians reacted to a plan to place a monument to King atop Georgia’s most visible Confederate landmark. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported exclusively Sunday that the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and others plan to build a bell tower — located on the mountaintop, just above the giant carvings of three Confederate heroes — that celebrates the line in King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
“A monument like this should bring people together,” said Amir Hafizovic, 33, whose young family made its weekly trip to the park on Sunday.
Tim Pilgrim, head of the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, said the plan is insulting.
“This is an insult to us,” Pilgrim said. “This is like the government going down to Auburn Avenue and putting a monument of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on top of the King monument. How would supporters of Martin Luther King feel about that?”
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Also in the works for Stone Mountain Park: a permanent exhibit on African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
The monument and exhibit are responses to a debate over government-sponsored Confederate displays in the wake of the June killings of nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C. Stone Mountain Park, in east DeKalb County, became a focal point in the debate because of its famous Confederate Memorial Carving.
The monument and exhibit would be funded with park revenue, mainly parking and entrance fees. The park is state-owned and privately operated.
Gov. Nathan Deal has approved the plans, and a formal rollout is scheduled before the end of this year. King’s heirs must approve the use of a portion of the speech because it is copyrighted. A spokesperson for the Rev. Bernice King declined comment Sunday. Efforts to contact the late civil rights leader’s other surviving children, Dexter and Martin Luther King III, were unsuccessful.
About 4 million people visit Stone Mountain Park each year, according to state estimates, which they say makes it Georgia’s largest tourist attraction. The big chunk of granite and the park that surrounds hold great meaning for many Georgians. Those passions were on display on Sunday.
The Rev. Joseph Lowery, who worked with King, said Sunday he was moved by the idea.
“It is amazing,” Lowery said. “I think it is a good idea, introducing a new era to the Deep South. They are placing Martin Luther King in a place where he ought to be. Where I never dreamed he would be. This is striking.”
It struck some Confederate descendants as wrong.
“Martin Luther King didn’t have anything to do with the Confederacy,” said Dan Coleman, spokesman for the Georgia Sons of the Confederate Veterans. “I don’t know anybody who says King should be on a Confederate memorial.”
At midday Sunday, joggers, hikers and families flocked to the park as the sun peeked through the clouds and shone on the mountain.
Warner Robins resident Kaycie Cruz, 22, who recently bought an annual pass to the park, took her two young children there Sunday afternoon.
“I think it’s a good idea. I think it would add another special person to the monument and, maybe, it will attract more tourists,” she said. “I can’t believe people are making such a big deal about (the Confederate carving).”
Lithonia resident James Kimbrough, 46, also an annual passholder, comes to the park with his wife and daughters several times a week, enjoying the serenity of the trails and the golf course. He called the plans a “small step toward progress” but said he wants the Confederate memorial removed.
“If they did do it, it would appease those calling for the removal of that monument,” said Kimbrough, 46, who is African-American. “I want to see that gone.”
One African-American woman walking through the park Sunday, who identified herself as Sarah B., didn’t think kindly of the plans.
“Why would you want to be memorialized next to them?” she asked, pointing at the mountain before walking away.