OPINION: Building bridges with government-sponsored truth-telling

By Jim Galloway

Last week’s rededication ceremony at Stone Mountain Park was a subtle event, particularly when compared to the ostentatious Confederate carving that rises up to the east.

A few dozen onlookers, black and white, had gathered on a dappled bit of ground to one side of a 131-year-old covered bridge that spans a thin ribbon of the park’s lake. The bridge has been a quiet presence on the property for nearly six decades. Only now was its real history receiving an accurate, government-sponsored telling.

In that sense, the now-unhidden history of the beamed and shingled structure could be considered a metaphor for what may lie ahead for the whole of Stone Mountain Park. Or at least, what should lie ahead.

The bridge once stood over the Oconee River, connecting a cloistered University of Georgia campus to the delights of real life – including a famous local brothel. Finally sidelined by a flood, the College Avenue bridge was sold for a dollar and relocated in 1965 to a patch of ground declared sacred to the Confederate cause by an act of an all-white state Legislature.

But it turned out that the bridge was more than a sentimental keepsake of rural Georgia. It was built in 1891 by Washington W. King, a free Black man and engineer who had been trained by his bridge-building father, Horace King. The patriarch of this family had been born a slave but purchased his own freedom prior to the Civil War with his talent.

The bridge has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the only spot in the park to bear that seal of legitimacy. But this ceremony was about more than the brass plaques that will stand at both ends of the bridge. The gathering was a quiet declaration that Stone Mountain Park, now an island in a sea of Black communities, must make room for histories other than the one composed during the days of Jim Crow and white supremacy.

“And so, we come back this day to rededicate this bridge. But more important, we come to send a message,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, once a member of the park’s governing board. “That the people of Georgia will own this park. And this park will exist and be maintained not for one, not for two, not for thee, not for you,” Thurmond said, finger pointing in different directions, “but for all of us. All of our histories will be celebrated, will be protected.”

Current members of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board sat in front of Thurmond, as did descendants of Horace King the bridge-builder, from New Mexico and Pennsylvania. So was Horace King the UGA football star from the ‘70s – one of the first five Black athletes to win a UGA football scholarship, who later played for the Detroit Lions. The latter Horace, who now lives in Alpharetta, would like to know if there’s a family link to the former.

For years, these currents of the African-American past have pushed against a shadowy mix of Confederate fact and “Lost Cause” fiction – made more difficult because, as with that covered bridge, so much of Stone Mountain’s history remains out of sight. And for a reason.

In 1915, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan and a decades long season of lynchings in the South began with the burning of a cross at the top of the mountain summit. That same year, or perhaps a year earlier, the push for a carving to celebrate the Confederacy had begun – and would continue in fits and starts for the next four decades.

An expanded effort began in the 1950s, as Georgia and other Southern states fought the imposition of integration by federal courts. State cash to finish the carving and purchase the surrounding acreage for a massive park was pushed through in 1958 by Gov. Marvin Griffin.

Tourism was one motive. But Griffin specifically linked the completion of the carving and construction of the park to his top administrative priority – the preservation of Georgia’s legal walls separating black and white in schools and nearly everywhere else.

The carving “would be a powerful factor in uniting the people of Georgia in these perilous times,” he wrote in a statement sent to newspapers across the state in 1957.

To cut down on expenses, the park – which would be segregated in its early days – was largely landscaped with prison labor.

A flyer from the period cites a raft of possibilities for the carving, including a lone, savior-like figure of Gen. Robert E. Lee – “a Christian without hypocrisy, and a man without guile. He was Caesar without his ambition, Fredrick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward.”

Lee, of course, would ultimately share his place on the rock with Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. W.W. King’s covered bridge had already been at the park for five years when the carving on the side of Stone Mountain was finally dedicated on Mother’s Day weekend in 1970.The crowd was surprisingly sparse – about 10,000 rather than the 100,000 anticipated.

Vice President Spiro Agnew was the main speaker, filling in for President Richard Nixon, who ducked the event. As did many Georgia officials, including U.S. Sen. Richard Russell.

The Rev. Billy Graham also sent his regrets. Instead, giving the benediction was the Rev. William Holmes Borders, a prominent African-American minister – a fact noted last Friday by the Rev. Abraham Mosley, the first Black chairman of the Stone Mountain board.

Left unmentioned: Border’s appearance in 1970 prompted a sharp protest from James Venable, Imperial Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and one of the former owners of the park property. The presence of a Black preacher on the stage, Venable said, was “not in good taste and repugnant to a sense of respect due the memory” of Confederate veterans.

Hopefully, these and other true facts about the origins of Stone Mountain Park will someday be on display within sight of Lee, Jefferson and Jackson.Yet change has been achingly slow. An unfulfilled promise to shift a brace of Confederate flags at the base of the trail leading to the mountain summit is now 16 months old.

But the memorial association has approved the creation of a new “truth-telling” exhibit at the park’s on-site museum. A contract for the display was seen as possible as early as this week, according to Bill Stephens, CEO of the memorial association and advocate for these changes and more at the mountain. However, on Tuesday Stephens said board members now want to make site visits to see existing work of the companies vying for the Stone Mountain exhibit.

Diplomacy has been paramount. The application of realpolitik to the accuracy-loving discipline that is history has often left both sides uncomfortable.

And so, at Friday’s ceremony, the King covered bridge served as a metaphorical path between a sanitized Lost Cause and the grittiness of the Civil Rights years. Thurmond, the DeKalb CEO, led the audience across. A native of Athens, Thurmond had passed through that very same bridge – then in a somewhat rickety state — many times in the back of his father’s vegetable truck.

“It’s the scariest ride you could ever imagine. ‘Cause I always knew that one day we were going to end up at the bottom of the Oconee River,” Thurmond said. Even as a metaphor, 60 years later, crossing that bridge remains frightening for many.

“Thank God for W.W. King, who knew we couldn’t exist living on one side of the river, casting aspersions to the other side,” Thurmond said. “The only way we will ever progress and that we will ever grow, and be better than who and what we were, is that we have to build the bridges.

“And once we build the bridge, we’ve got to have people with enough courage to walk across it, to meet each other halfway and to shake hands,” Thurmond said.

But in case anyone had missed the gist of his message, the DeKalb CEO repeated himself. Who owns Stone Mountain Park? he asked – then answered himself.

“The people of Georgia. Our park. United.”

Jim Galloway, a former political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired in 2021.