Opinion: Stone Mountain carving is heritage, warts and all

The carving at Stone Mountain should stay.

It should be preserved for future generations of Georgians to visit and to marvel at, not out of veneration for the ugly cause that it was intended to glorify, not because of some claimed artistic value, but because the carving has itself become an essential piece of our history.

To use a loaded term, it has become heritage.

Not Confederate heritage, not white nationalist or racists’ heritage. Our heritage. And if you have a hard time accepting that notion, stop to consider the story that the sculpture will still help to tell our descendants 50 or 100 or 500 years from now. That’s the kind of time frame in which such decisions must be debated.

That scene of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson — a scene so important to some that they literally hacked it into the single most prominent feature in the Georgia landscape — stands most obviously as a permanent reminder that white Georgians enslaved black Georgians, that many white Georgians amassed great wealth through the brutal enslavement of their fellow human beings. It reminds us that slavery was so important to them — economically, socially, psychologically and otherwise — that they were willing to destroy the American nation and send their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers off to die by the tens of thousands so that they could keep others in bondage.

It is also a monument to the power of myth, to the lies that people tell themselves and each other to hide the ugliness beneath. It is no accident that it is carved into the mountain where, in 1915, the KKK was reborn. The man who donated his land to the project was head of the national KKK. The original sculptor was a KKK member. The head of the local chapter of the Daughters of the Confederacy, the woman who helped envision the project, wanted it to serve as an explicit monument to the Klan.

“I feel it is due to the Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain,” she wrote at one point to the original sculptor. “Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?”

Future generations will not have a means to adequately appreciate the heroic story of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., raised up out of Georgia, without the carving at Stone Mountain to serve as his monumental antipode, to document the enormity of what he and his movement were up against. It is one thing to tell future children of Georgia about the power and influence of the re-established KKK, about the widespread support that this domestic terror group of lynchers and murderers enjoyed; it is another to show them the monument carved in the KKK’s “holy place,” a project officially championed by the state of Georgia, on property owned by the people of Georgia, and completed as late as 1970.

Yes, I agree, that’s a complicated argument. It is easier and simpler and more emotionally gratifying to say it should just be removed, but removal would itself be a form of whitewashing of our history every bit as deceptive as the carving itself. While the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP is right to condemn the carving itself as “a glorification of white supremacy,” that glorification happened.

If it has become an embarrassment, good. Let it serve us always as an embarrassment, and as a reminder of the false stories that we can tell ourselves. Sandblasting it away would be an act of cosmetic surgery on our history, when it still has much to teach us.