A monument to MLK will crown Stone Mountain

On the summit of Stone Mountain, yards away from where Ku Klux Klansmen once burned giant crosses, just above and beyond the behemoth carving of three Confederate heroes, state authorities have agreed to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Specifically, an elevated tower — featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell — would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

“It is one of the best-known speeches in U.S. history,” said Bill Stephens, the chief executive officer of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. “We think it’s a great addition to the historical offerings we have here.”

The “freedom bell” will, in fact, sound from the mountaintop. How often, or when, hasn’t been determined.

Also in the works at the state-owned, privately operated park: a permanent exhibit on African-American soldiers in the Civil War.

Both the monument and the exhibit would be financed with park revenue — chiefly parking and entrance fees. No appropriation from the state Legislature would be required. Full funding sources, project scope and budget are yet to be determined. The park is operated by Silver Dollar City-Stone Mountain Park, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Georgia firm Herschend Family Entertainment.

Gov. Nathan Deal has green-lighted the projects, and a formal rollout is likely to come sometime before the holiday season. (A Deal initiative to place an MLK statue on the grounds of the state Capitol remains in the works, delayed by the death of the sculptor originally chosen for the job.)

“I’ve gotten the appropriate buy-in from the powers that be,” Stephens said. That includes several prominent African-Americans — though he isn’t yet prepared to say who.

Because King’s 1963 speech is copyrighted, permission of King’s heirs will be required. “Discussions have taken place with the King family and are taking place now,” Stephens said. “Their initial reaction is very favorable. But we haven’t completed those discussions yet.”

Both the monument and exhibit are answers to a renewed debate over government-sponsored Confederate displays in the South, sparked by this summer’s massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.

In the aftermath of the killings, demands that the Rebel symbols be removed from the park, one of Georgia’s most popular tourist attractions, were met with counterdemonstrations by flag-waving Confederate enthusiasts.

But behind the racially charged argument was this point from critics that struck home: As a three-dimensional history lesson, Stone Mountain has pushed a one-sided view of America’s bloodiest conflict — one that hasn’t changed much since the 1960s and ignores its impact on nearly half of this state’s Civil War population. That is, the portion that was in chains.

It’s a cultural needle that requires careful threading.

By state law, Stone Mountain serves as a memorial to the Confederacy and its fight to preserve slavery in America. And so the Rebel battle flag will continue to fly near Confederate Hall. Street names such as Jefferson Davis Drive and Robert E. Lee Boulevard won’t be touched. Suggestions that the 3-acre carving of Davis, Lee and Stonewall Jackson be sandblasted off the side of the mountain have been rejected out of hand.

“We’re into additions and not subtractions,” Stephens said.

But while Stone Mountain will continue to serve as a Confederate touchstone for many white Southerners, it must do so as a profit-making entity within a local community that has become predominantly African-American. This summer, state Rep. LaDawn Jones, D-Atlanta, called for a boycott of the park over the Confederate battle flag issue.

It failed, in large part because Stone Mountain is such a valued recreation asset for the largely black neighborhoods that surround the park. In that sense, an MLK monument atop the mountain is simply an acknowledgement that history requires willing consumers and a context that includes their view of the world.

This particular corner of the South has become a place where a Confederacy in isolation is no longer commercially viable.

There is some irony in the fact that Stephens, a former state senator from North Georgia, has overseen this addition to Stone Mountain symbolism. During the 1990s, he was the press secretary for Gov. Zell Miller. It was Miller who, in a failed bid to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag, complained that Georgia put too much stock in a certain four years in the middle of the 19th century.

Stephens said the idea of an MLK monument at Stone Mountain has been percolating for several years. Two years ago, a group of DeKalb County residents walked to the summit for an Aug. 28 bell-ringing to mark the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the massive March on Washington.

“That started conversation,” Stephens said. But it progressed only in fits and starts.

The head of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association was kind enough to cite an Insider column in July as another conversation-starter. "That was a signal we were on the right track," Stephens said. "But it's been a while in the making. It's time for additions to the park."

Stephens hopes to have the monument in place by next summer. Standing in front of the carving on Stone Mountain’s northern face, park visitors on the ground won’t be able to see the MLK marker, which will be dominated by an arch 18 feet tall.

But Stephens said the monument’s location on the summit has been selected with the Confederate carving — and bit of symbolic storytelling — in mind.

A cable-car ride now takes mountaintop visitors close to the massive work, brushing past the nose of Jeff Davis, the only president of the Southern rebellion. Next summer, as the car rises above the mountain’s curve, the next picture presented to the eye will be a monument to a man silenced by a rifle shot that, many would argue, was fired in the same war — just 103 years later.

Though small by comparison, the MLK marker would serve as a somber bookend to the Confederate narrative.

Perhaps just as important, the monument would be a fitting answer to those old KKK connections to Stone Mountain. In the early 1900s, the push for a carving on the mountain and the re-emergence of the Klan in Georgia went hand-in-hand, according to the most extensive history of Stone Mountain, a 1997 book by David Freeman titled “Carved in Stone.” At the time, some suggested that Klansmen be represented in the carving — along with Confederate soldiery.

There was a reason King included Stone Mountain in that 1963 speech. Klan rallies at the summit had been banned only five years earlier, with the state’s 1958 purchase of the acreage.

Will this end the South’s argument over a shared and disputed heritage? Most assuredly not. When describing that exhibit for African-American soldiers in the Civil War, Stephens repeatedly stressed the phrase “on both sides.”

By the end of the war, nearly one in 10 Union soldiers was African-American — nearly 200,000 in all. Forty thousand died, and 16 received the Medal of Honor. Among historians, estimates of black soldiers fighting for the South range from a handful to a few hundred — although thousands of slaves were involved in the construction of defensive works across the Confederacy.

And so the discussion will continue, but on ground that will continue to shift. We give the last word to Harry Truman: “The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.”