Tensions flare over Stone Mountain group’s exclusion from Juneteenth event

The city of Stone Mountain has announced Round 2 of funding for small businesses and non-profits.
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The city of Stone Mountain has announced Round 2 of funding for small businesses and non-profits.

There will be nearly 30 vendors at Stone Mountain’s first Juneteenth celebration, but one exclusion led to a heated debate among city leaders.

A special called meeting Monday was derailed when Councilman Clint Monroe questioned why an activist group was denied a vendor table at the planned June 19 celebration, which honors the freedom of slaves.

The Stone Mountain Action Coalition, a grassroots group that advocates for changes to Stone Mountain Park’s Confederate iconography, was denied space to formally participate in the event. Monroe said the exclusion goes against the intent of Juneteenth, saying it’s effectively stifling free speech.

“Freedom for the slaves is absolutely useless unless you also have citizenship,” he said during the meeting. “That means the right to free assembly, a First Amendment issue, the right to petition the government, a first amendment issue, (and) the right to be organized at a political event if they wish to...”

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Mayor Pro Tem Chakira Johnson, who also leads the Juneteenth Event Committee, said they intended to keep political activism out of the event. She said the controversies at Stone Mountain are discussed in plenty of protests, so the Juneteenth event should stay focused on celebrating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans.

“We know that our city is in the shadow of Stone Mountain, and we know everything that that means,” Johnson said. “However, the position that the committee is taking is that for three hours on June 19, can we just focus on the Juneteenth celebration?”

Bona Allen, who is on the Stone Mountain Action Coalition’s leadership team, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that they are not a partisan organization and want to focus on the area’s history. He said it’s difficult to justify separating Stone Mountain Park, with its massive carving of three Confederate figures, from the history of slavery.

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“We feel like we have the right to be there,” Allen said. “We should not be precluded from being there because we’re just trying to make that little piece of the world more inclusive and more welcoming to all. I think that’s the purpose of Juneteenth.”

He added that the organization meets all of the city’s criteria to participate and applied on time. However, City Attorney Jeff Strickland said the activist group isn’t owed a table at the event under the First Amendment.

“Frankly, the availability of a vendor table is not in and of itself some constitutionally protected right,” Strickland said, adding that members of the group will still be able to attend like anyone else.

Mayor Patricia Wheeler shut down the conversation after roughly 20 minutes of debate, calling for a vote to adjourn the meeting. The six-member council ended in a split vote, so Wheeler broke the tie to end the meeting.

Since it was a special called meeting, Wheeler said members of the public were not able to comment. It’s unclear how many people were watching the meeting or would have attempted to comment. Wheeler said they would pick up the discussion at their next work session.

“SMAC’s leadership team is considering its next steps in light of the city’s refusal to grant our application,” the organization said in a statement.

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At the beginning of the meeting, Johnson provided a few more details about the June 19 event, which will take place along Main Street. She said the city has lined up 10 sponsors with nearly $3,000 in funding. The event will have 29 vendors, and the committee is no longer taking applications.

The event will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. and will feature a proclamation from the mayor, a reflection on Juneteenth and a tribute to civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis. Drummers, dancers, a DJ and a choir from Shermantown, a historic Black neighborhood within the Stone Mountain Village, will also perform.

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