For the longest time, my only knowledge of Stone Mountain was from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
Over time I’d learn that that huge rock was the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, when 16 men climbed to the summit on Thanksgiving eve and set fire to a wooden cross; that for decades klansmen in white robes met atop the mountain.
In my mind, these were unflattering pieces of history, like slavery and secession and, more recently, like the massacre last summer of nine black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., that sparked increasing scrutiny of Confederate symbols and calls for the carvings of Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis to be sandblasted from the mountain.
I hope that doesn’t happen. Removing our history, however painful, is as wrongheaded as sanitizing it.
Monuments mark time in our collective history. Monuments are fundamental to our sense of place. Monuments are links to our roots. They underpin our sense of cultural identity. And they create bridges between our past and future and between generations.
When my daughters were growing up, I took every opportunity to share with them those links in history. The good. The bad. And the ugly. All reminders of how far we’ve come.
Museums and history centers are good places to store it all, but too often opportunity to frequent such places is limited to those who can afford it.
Not even state Sen. Vincent Fort, D-Atlanta, who has come out against preserving Confederate symbols, disagrees with that.
As a historian of Southern culture, he believes the placement and discussion of “slavocracy “symbols in museums or other academic settings is appropriate. But he said such symbols ought not to be taxpayer funded or placed in public spaces.
“Confederates who fought to preserve slavery, many of whom were slave owners themselves, should not be honored using public resources,” he said.
I spoke to Sheffield Hale, president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, about this recently and like me he’s been struggling with this movement for some time.
Rather than banishing monuments Hale believes we should use them as teaching opportunities, a way to address the underlying issues that often divide us.
“Rather than censoring the past, we must understand the complexity of our history,” he said. “The past has much to teach us about who we are, and where we are”
And so when Hale says let’s preserve monuments, it isn’t because he thinks we’ll all of a sudden forget about Jefferson Davis. It’s because he thinks, “We’ll forget why monuments to figures like Davis were put up in the first place and the troubling message that those who erected them sought to reinforce and affirm through stone.”
That doesn’t include, by the way, raising the Confederate flag. Unlike Confederate monuments, the Confederate flag is a symbol that is raised each day. That makes it, Hale said, a current political statement instead of one representing the perspective of people 70 years ago.
Of the hundreds of Confederate monuments that dot the South, the vast majority were erected at the height of Jim Crow, between 1895 and 1920, and placed in the most public places. There, everyone had to see them and be reminded of who was in charge, Hale said, not only of a one-sided historical narrative but of their lives.
And yet there is very little if any physical evidence left from the landscape of Jim Crow, he said.
“The water fountains are gone, the signs are gone, colored waiting rooms, white waiting rooms. These statutes are it. The fact that they exist and they are like an open sore gives us a reason to have this discussion.
“On the other side of that, I totally respect how painful these monuments are to many African-Americans. What we’re saying is, think about them in a different way and see if you can convert them from objects of veneration to teachable historical objects. Taking them out doesn’t change the history.”
And by the way, keeping them in place isn’t about celebrating them either.
“History is not about celebration,” Hale said. “It’s about examining everything good and bad that happened and learning something. In America we like to venerate things. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just not history.”
Atlanta isn’t the only community grappling with this issue. A federal court in New Orleans has cleared the way for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces in that city. There is a proposal to remove the “Silent Sam” Confederate monument on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Nor is the controversy limited to monuments. Here and in Houston, groups have voted to rename schools linked to the Confederacy.
Rather than remove statues, Hale and his staff have developed a customizable online template that they hope will aid in keeping the monuments in place and spark conversations about them.
The center launched its webpage — www.AtlantaHistoryCenter.com/Monuments — on Feb. 1.
Community leaders and citizens can use the tool to detail the origin, original intent and context of monuments in their communities. There is also an historical resources page, which suggests books, websites and news sources useful for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic.
“The great story of this nation is not that we have always been enlightened by current standards, but that we have evolved in our treatment and acceptance of one another,” Hale said. “An honest examination of our history requires us to confront a painful, ambiguous past – an examination that for many is difficult, challenging and distressing. That examination can also be provocative, stimulating and inspiring.”
That’s what history does. We cannot change it. But we can learn from it.