The path to a Martin Luther King Jr. monument on top of Stone Mountain is already littered with opposition from groups that celebrate their Confederate roots.
Now they have an unlikely set of allies: the NAACP, and the organization King founded in 1957 to combat racism, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
On Tuesday, the Atlanta and DeKalb branches of the NAACP and the national office of the SCLC announced their opposition to a plan to erect a monument to King on the very spot where the modern Ku Klux Klan was resurrected. One of the NAACP leaders derided the monument idea as “so silly” and said it is “barely worth mentioning.”
The groups’ leaders are scheduled to meet with Gov. Nathan Deal on Wednesday to formally voice their opposition and to stress that no symbols of “the Confederate States of America” — from flags to statues to carvings — should be celebrated.
“The proposal to include Dr. King [on Stone Mountain] is simply to confuse black folk about the issues,” said John Evans, president of the DeKalb County branch of the NAACP. “It’s an attempt to gain support from blacks to keep these racist and demeaning symbols.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on Sunday that Deal and the Stone Mountain Memorial Association had signed off on a plan to build a tower atop the mountain in King’s honor. The tower would feature a replica of the Liberty Bell and play off of a King quote from his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
The plan would also include a permanent exhibit on African-American soldiers in the Civil War.
Neither the King monument nor the exhibit would use tax dollars. Instead, they would be funded by park revenue. (The park is state-owned, though privately operated.) It is still too early to determine how much it would all cost.
A spokesman for Bill Stephens, chief executive officer of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said he would not comment on the prospects of any discussions the governor might be having with particular groups.
‘Reminders of a cruel and bloody time’
The Georgia Chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans have objected to the plan, saying Stone Mountain was donated to the state for the specific purpose of celebrating the Confederacy.
In a way, black leaders feel the same way.
They want all images of the Confederacy removed. But short of that, they believe that King’s image should not be associated with the Confederacy. The most famous feature of the 825-foot-tall mountain is a giant carving of Confederate stalwarts Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
In announcing their meeting with Deal, the groups wrote: “The two leading and historic civil rights groups are involved in a joint effort to see the Confederate celebrations and symbols removed from Stone Mountain. They are also calling for the termination of all public monies used to sponsor hateful reminders of a cruel and bloody time in United States history.”
“The Civil War has never ended for Southern sympathizers. This just continues to reinforce white supremacy,” said Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta Branch of the NAACP in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Adding King to it is just adding insult to injury. King was a man renowned for peace and nonviolence and to dedicate something to him in a place with rogues, traitors and war-mongers is wrong.”
On Nov. 25, 1915, a small group, energized by the movie “Birth of a Nation” and by the lynching of Leo Frank, met on top of Stone Mountain and signaled the rebirth of the KKK by burning a cross. The family that owned the mountain gave the Klan exclusive rights to rally there, a right that the state revoked after it took ownership of the mountain in the 1950s.
‘The problem that will never be resolved’
But with its Confederate flags flying, Stone Mountain remained a symbol.
“There is absolutely no question that Stone Mountain, even in 2015, continues to be a rallying site for racists,” SCLC President Charles Steele said. “Seems like nothing has changed since the ’60s.”
This summer, Stone Mountain did become a rallying point — for those hoping to banish the Confederate flag and for those hoping to preserve it — after the massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston by a white man who identified with the Confederacy.
Michael Thurmond, a two-term state labor commissioner and former superintendent of DeKalb County Schools, said Stone Mountain is big enough to accommodate varying thoughts and ideals.
“What is really at the core of this ongoing controversy is not history, but the ‘Lost Cause’ mythology of the Confederacy,” said Thurmond, who is also a historian.“And they are distinctly different. That is the crux of the problem that will never be resolved.
“The park needs to belong to the people of Georgia. Not to a cause or to a group of people, but to all Georgians. All of us. Black, white, brown, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat and independent. Its purpose and significance should be one that encompasses the hopes and dreams of all Georgians. Anything else is unacceptable.”
‘This proposal is so silly’
Joseph Lowery, the longest-serving president of the SCLC, said Sunday that the King memorial on the mountain was an “amazing” idea. By Tuesday, however, he was more reflective, saying he wanted to get more information.
“I hadn’t thought about the Confederate situation, so I see their point,” Lowery said. “I was just thinking about Martin Luther King Jr., and how he deserves to be up there. I wasn’t thinking about ‘Stone Mountain’ and what it means to the Confederacy. I might have to reconsider.”
Rose, of the Atlanta NAACP, stopped short of saying that he will demand that Deal take the proposal off the table.
“We are going to deal with our original premise that we should not be celebrating the Confederacy,” Rose said. “This proposal is so silly, it is barely worth mentioning.”