L.C. Thornton, a tall black man in a ball cap and sunglasses, trained his camera Saturday across a sea of waving Confederate flags attached to the beds of hundreds of pickup trucks and SUVs.
“Normally, I’m a birder. I take pictures of birds and wildlife,” said Thornton, a Stone Mountain resident and Vietnam veteran. “I just came up to see who would show up out here and how many people show up out here.”
A mostly white crowd from across Georgia and surrounding states spent most of Saturday in a parking lot at Stone Mountain Park, protesting what they believe is an attack on their Southern heritage. Police did not offer an estimate of the crowd size, but it appeared to be about 600 to 800 people. The rally drew groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the neo-Confederate League of the South, but for the most part it was just individuals convinced they were under attack.
“This is about erasing us,” said Jimmy, a representative of the League of the South who refused to give his last name. “This is about our First Amendment rights, our Second Amendment rights — every amendment you’ve got.”
Civil rights groups have called for the eradication of Confederate symbols on public property since the June 17 mass shooting by an avowed white supremacist in Charleston that claimed the lives of nine African-American churchgoers. After the shooting, politicians in South Carolina moved quickly to take down a Confederate flag that had flown on state Capitol grounds since 2000, when it was removed from atop the Capitol itself.
In Georgia, attention has focused on Stone Mountain.
Jimmy’s speech to the crowd through an overmatched PA system drew appreciative whoops from the crowd, especially when he quoted Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America and one of the three figures carved on Stone Mountain. But he never said the word “secede,” even though secession of the Southern states is the central goal of his group.
“I feel like the people here are smart enough to put two and two together,” he said.
The Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have demanded the 90-by-900-foot bas-relief sculpture of Davis and Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson be removed. Two weeks ago, the Atlanta City Council passed a resolution asking the carving be amended to include other historical figures, such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or President Jimmy Carter.
Since the Charleston shootings and subsequent complaints about Confederate symbols, there have been 132 Confederate flag rallies across the United States, most in the Southeast. Organizers predicted attendance of 5,000 or more for the Stone Mountain rally, but those predictions fell far short. Still, it was one of the larger rallies so far.
Park officials put the protesters in a large parking lot across from the park police station and away from where they might interfere with hikers or visitors to the park’s other attractions. Heavily armed members of a militia group calling itself the Georgia Security Force III% walked the rows of parked cars, providing security for the rally, although park police were visible throughout. U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Lithonia, was among the curious who came by the rally. Johnson did not address the crowd or identify himself.
John Bankhead, spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said organizers gave the park an early heads up about the rally, but he stressed the park was not involved with the groups.
“We don’t endorse it,” said. “The park is open to the public. Anybody that can pay the $15 fee can come into the park, and they have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
The rally was peaceful for most of the morning, largely because few people from the other side of the issue bothered to show up. But tempers frayed as a handful of people began to take the pro-flag group to task.
One protester shouted at the crowd, ripping an old version of the Georgia state flag and stomping on it in front of the group, which howled in anger. Then, ringed by police officers, the protester, who declined to give his name, waded into the crowd, screaming and thrusting the shredded flag skyward.
Aurielle Marie said she showed up at the rally Saturday afternoon after a string of racial epithets were hurled at her as she walked in the park. Marie wasn’t buying rally-goers’ “heritage, not hate” mantra, particularly after learning that some black women with their children at the park also allegedly were being harassed by name-callers.
“It is, in fact, hate not heritage, the same as the KKK or the Nazis,” she said.
But numerous flag supporters said they only wanted to support their heritage and particular brand of Southern culture.
“We’re not racists. We’re not out here fighting for slavery,” said Steve Cook, a Sons of Confederate Veterans member from Atlanta.
Cook said he recognizes that racist groups use the flag, but he said he has no control over them.
“It’s a shame that we can’t reclaim our flag,” he said.
Billy Armistead of Covington said he attended the rally to honor the memory of his relative Lewis A. Armistead, who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. For him, the flag stands for heritage.
“We’re here to support our heritage,” he said. “We’re not racist. We’re doing a peaceful thing.”
Across the parking lot, Allan Croft, a bearded Dalton resident, debated Southern history with a group of young black men.
“Yeah, we didn’t want our daughters to marry you and we didn’t want our children to go to school with you,” he said. “But you’ve got to realize something, your parents didn’t want it, either.”
Croft blamed integration and the civil rights movement on “Communist Jews” and said accused Charleston shooter Dylann Roof “should have went to the synagogue, because that’s the enemy of all of us.”
Saturday’s rally put Stone Mountain and Atlanta in an unwelcome spotlight amid continued strained race relations around the nation.
Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center said his group had been monitoring the build-up to Saturday’s rally, noting especially the influence of the League of the South and various militia groups.
Kenneth Noe, a professor of Southern history at Auburn University, said Stone Mountain is a logical focal point, as it has long been an important place for people in the Southern heritage movement. But the recent calls to alter the mountain’s iconic carving have raised the memorial’s profile, especially among fringe elements within that movement.
Noe said there are strong historical connections between Stone Mountain and white supremacists, segregationists and neo-Confederates.
“For 40 years, it had these pretty obvious Klan overtones,” he said.
The mountain’s former owner, Samuel Venable, took an active role in reviving the Klan, which re-established itself in 1915 with a cross-burning on Stone Mountain’s peak. Within five years, the Klan had an estimated 5 million supporters nationwide and was a formidable terror organization for decades.
The iconic carving was conceived around the same time, with sculptor Gutzon Borglum’s original design featuring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee leading his troops and KKK members. Borglum was fired from the job and another sculptor hired, but by 1928 only Lee’s head was finished.
The project remained shelved until the 1950s, when interest picked back up amid the growing civil rights movement and a massive Southern white backlash.
The state purchased the land for $2 million in 1958 and Gov. Marvin Griffin signed legislation creating the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which would shepherd the project to completion in 1972.
Potok said the mountain’s historic connections with the Klan make it a poor choice if the protesters are sincere about their goals.
“It’s really remarkable that these people go to Stone Mountain to prove that it’s ‘heritage, not hate,’ and this is the birthplace of the second era of the Klan,” he said. Regardless, he said the rallies are “unbelievably counterproductive” if their goal is gain wider acceptance of the flag. It really does the opposite, he said, cementing the notion that it is a flag of white extremists.
Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta NAACP, said his organization did not counter-protest the rally out of fear their members “would be met with violence from anyone who flies the flag of hate.” However, he said the organization finds the carving “particularly galling” considering Atlanta’s historical prominence in the civil rights movement.
More than that, he said, the carving on state-owned land emboldens people willing to kill as a result of their “fixation on white supremacy.”
“Another life should not be lost because the state condones and endorses these symbols of hate,” he said.
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Staff writers Tammy Joyner and Daniel Funke contributed to this article.