OPINION: History Center’s film on Stone Mountain a view to the present

People gather on the lawn in front of the 90-foot tall carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis at Stone Mountain State Park during the Sons of Confederate Veterans rally Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Photo: Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

Credit: steve Schaefer

Credit: steve Schaefer

People gather on the lawn in front of the 90-foot tall carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis at Stone Mountain State Park during the Sons of Confederate Veterans rally Saturday, April 30, 2022. (Photo: Steve Schaefer / steve.schaefer@ajc.com)

The Atlanta History Center’s new documentary about Stone Mountain has lots of grainy black-and-white film of the Ku Klux Klan rallying atop the big rock.

Then the storyline gets more unsettling. It has color film of a cross burning in 1973, just a year after the Confederate carving was finished, complete with a Klansman saying “Burn, (N-word), burn!”

The past, to twist Faulkner’s quote, wasn’t that long ago.

Stone Mountain is history and at the same time is very present.

Atlanta History Center CEO Sheffield Hale told me the documentary is “timely. There’s a high-level of interest in this.”

The state legislature is now considering allocating $11 million to refurbish a building at the park and create a “truth-telling” museum to narrate the story of the massive carving. And the digital documentary is spreading the story online and, as Hale says, is demonstrating that the history center is not just “terrestrial.”

This ain’t your grandfather’s Atlanta History Center, kids.

The 32-minute documentary tells the story of the origin of the massive carving of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee astride their ginormous horses. It’s the Holy Trinity of the Confederacy. The documentary presents it as a tribute to the Lost Cause, the capping point to the widespread effort across the South after the Civil War to mythologize the losing side’s heroes and goals.

A still from "Monument: The Untold Story of Stone Mountain," a new documentary from The Atlanta History Center.


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And to make sure Black folks knew their place.

It’s expertly crafted with several learned talking heads interspersed with historical footage, soundbites and factoids.

It tells the story of the effort early in the last century to create a Confederate colossus forever to be revered. It was a memorial that wasn’t going anywhere unless you had artillery to blast it away.

The effort to carve the mountain gained steam in 1915 after the movie, “Birth of a Nation,” a ground-breaking film which also was an ode to the Confederacy and the Klan. In fact, it helped revive the white-sheeted terrorists and Stone Mountain was its kicking-off point.

Certainly a shameful chapter. Yet, it is history.

The carving was started by Gutzon Borglum, who later did Mount Rushmore. But it remained unfinished until after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education decision which outlawed racial segregation in schools. The effort to finish the carving was Georgia giving the world’s largest middle finger to the federal government.

Hale said the history center is not advocating the the destruction of the carving or anything like that. It’s just trying to kick off “a real conversation” about the monument, which dominates the park, a place that attracts people from all races.

“That’s the conversation; should we have a 3,000-acre park that’s a monument to the Confederacy?” Hale asked. “It’s not just an artifact from a time of massive resistance (to desegregation). This is backed, by law, by the state.”

At the end of the documentary, Hale reads from the Official Code of Georgia, an act created in 2001. It says, the “heroes” who are “graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved for all time.”

Or at least, that is, until some future legislature comes into office decades and thinks differently.

The 2001 act came about as a compromise in the effort to remove the Confederate battle flag from the Georgia state flag. Former Gov. Roy Barnes, who opined in the documentary, had to agree back then to enshrine the carving into law to remove the stain of the Confederacy from the state flag. A year later, Barnes got run out of office by angry voters.

So, given the current makeup of right-leaning legislature, it seems, the carving is safe for now.

Sheffield Hale, president of Atlanta History Center, shown in the center's Turning Point: The American Civil War. The collection is one of the nation's largest and most complete Civil War exhibitions. BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM

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Beverly “Bo” DuBose is a longtime Atlanta History Center board member who decades ago donated his family’s huge collection of Civil War artifacts to the Atlanta History Center, making it the largest such collection under one roof.

“To tear (Stone Mountain’s carving) down just because it makes someone feel bad or good has no advancing point,” he told me. “In today’s environment, it is politically incorrect. (The effort) didn’t start out that way. But those who finished it, well, that was a different story.”

Either way, he said, it is history.

Today, many Confederate memorials are being curated with markers being erected nearby to tell the story of how the Lost Cause was mythologized. Stone Mountain would certainly need a big marker. Or, a museum.

State Rep. Billy Mitchell, a Black Democrat who represents the Stone Mountain area, has tried to pass a law allowing localities remove such monuments, to no avail.

Of Stone Mountain’s carving, he’d like to see the state stop maintaining it and allow weeds, kudzu and dirt to start covering the granite heroes. “Let nature do its thing,” he told me. “After while, you’d never know they were there.”

Like they say about old soldiers — they could slowly fade away.