About 200 members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans gathered at Stone Mountain on Saturday for an observation of Confederate Memorial Day, despite calls for the state-owned park to shut them down.

Instead, a little more than 100 counterprotesters descended down the wide lawn in front of the mountain’s gigantic bas relief carving of Confederate leaders, shouting and jeering, forcing the SCV speakers to struggle to be heard over the din.

“These protesters are against our Christian faith. They are anti-Christ,” SCV member Kenneth Buggay said in a fiery closing prayer shouted over a chorus of boos from the counterprotesters about 50 yards away. “We have been fighting this war since 1861. We will be victorious.”

The Confederate rally has been the target of controversy since the Stone Mountain Memorial Association approved the SCV’s permit application in March. The mountain and surrounding park are enshrined in state law as a memorial to the failed Confederacy despite having no direct connection to the Civil War.

“Nothing historic with regard to the Civil War happened at this park,” Gerald Griggs, Atlanta attorney and president of Georgia branch of the NAACP, said Saturday. “So there’s no need to memorialize traitors to the American democracy. "

Porchse Miller with the NAACP leads protesters in chants in the village of Stone Mountain before a rally at the park. (Photo: Ben Hendren for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Ben Hendren

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Credit: Ben Hendren

Stone Mountain’s connection to white supremacy and the defense of racial segregation is more direct, however. The Ku Klux Klan was reborn at the top of the world’s largest granite monolith in 1915 and the Klan held regular cross burnings there for decades. It also has become a flashpoint in the fight over the removal of Confederate monuments and the display of the Confederate battle flag.

The SCV positions itself as a heritage group, interested only in preserving the memories of their ancestors who fought in the war, although it wraps those memories in the Lost Cause mythology of the Civil War disregarded by most historians of the period. The group disputes that it is racist, but in the weeks leading up to the rally, opponents pointed to the keynote speaker, Marietta attorney Martin O’Toole, as evidence that the group embraces white supremacists.

O’Toole has deep and long-standing ties to white supremacists. O’Toole is on the board of the Charles Martel Society, which publishes a racist pseudo-academic journal with articles questioning the Holocaust and promoting disreputable theories about the genetic intelligence of Black people. Critics say the publication provides academic cover for white nationalism.

In his remarks, O’Toole noted the hostility of the protesters and called on the crowd to adopt a strategy of “internal exile,” withdrawing completely from modern society and associating only “with like-minded persons.”

Martin O'Toole speaks to the crowd during the Sons of Confederate Veterans rally at Stone Mountain Park Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Photo: Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

“Do not be part of the modern culture. Do not trust your children’s minds to strange thoughts and strange people,” he said, referring to public schools as “holding cells” where children were subjected to indoctrination and a love of diversity.

Sam Dickson, a longtime white nationalist activist and attorney, was among those who attended the event, accompanied by his friend Randy Sheppard. Sheppard said he and Dickson are longtime friends of O’Toole going back to their days as pro-segregation activists at the University of Georgia in the 1970s.

“There are more of us than you think, people who think like us,” Sheppard said. “White nationalists, pro-Confederate, pro-white.”

Tim Pilgrim, Georgia Division commander for the Confederate group, said he has known O’Toole for many years, but he said he doesn’t know about his political opinions or his association with white nationalists.

The SCV display included period costumes, a cannon and dozens of Confederate battle flags.

Thomas Fleming poses for photographs before the start of the Sons of Confederate Veterans rally to mark Confederate Memorial Day at Stone Mountain Park on Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Photo: Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: Steve Schaefer

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Credit: Steve Schaefer

While the event was loud and contentious, it was largely peaceful. Law enforcement officers from the park, DeKalb County and the Georgia State Patrol kept the two camps separated as helicopters and drones hovered nearby. The rally ended with the SCV caroling “Dixie” against the backdrop of chants and profanity from the counter-protesters.

Herschend Family Entertainment, which runs the commercial attractions at the park, shut down for the day, leaving some visitors to the park who were unaware of the rally and protest disappointed. The natural areas of the park, including the trail up the mountain, remained up and a light crowd used the park for hiking and jogging.

Dunwoody resident Brian Smith marched with the counterprotesters, carrying a sign that said “remove the hate.” He fumed that such an event could take place in the state park.

“I’m just sad that I have to be here,” Smith said. “Nobody wants to be truthful. This mountain is a symbol of hate. It’s a symbol of people that supported segregation. ... It’s just a stain on the state of Georgia. A state-funded park that’s supports this kind of evil.”

In recent years, the park had chosen to close its gates rather than play host to such events, citing a general threat to public safety as its legal reasoning.

In 2019, the SMMA denied a permit to white supremacists who wanted to rally on Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta. When the group vowed to show up anyway, the park closed rather than host it.

In 2020, the park again closed its gates rather than host a rally organized by far-right militias, sending the groups and counterprotesters into the neighboring village of Stone Mountain where they faced off, with many on both sides carrying firearms, mace and other weapons.

But the Rev. Abraham Mosley, the Black chairman of the SMMA board, said the Sons of Confederate Veterans has a right to assemble.

Members of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP led a counterprotest Saturday against a Confederate heritage group that gathered for a rally at Stone Mountain Park.

The DeKalb County NAACP and the Stone Mountain Action Coalition previously had issued calls asking the board to reconsider its decision.

Stacie Smith, a member of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, described the state park as a “beautiful nature preserve” that’s been stained by bigotry. She said her mother was a Jewish Holocaust survivor who escaped Poland. Now when she visits the park and sees the Confederate flags and monument, she sees them as Nazi flags.

“It’s just painful to me that there are symbols of hate that are littering this beautiful piece of Earth that is really for all of us,” she said. “I just want everybody to be able to come here and not feel assaulted or violated.”