OPINION: Stone Mountain, the tourist draw that repels companies

Parkgoers walk around the Memorial Lawn at Stone Mountain Park on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. The company that runs Stone Mountain Park no longer wants the gig, and it's been hard to find a replacement. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Parkgoers walk around the Memorial Lawn at Stone Mountain Park on Tuesday, April 20, 2021. The company that runs Stone Mountain Park no longer wants the gig, and it's been hard to find a replacement. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

The mission statement for Herschend Family Entertainment, the company that runs attractions like Silver Dollar City, Dollywood and Stone Mountain Park, is “creating memories worth repeating.”

But Herschend is doing its best to make sure memories attached to Stone Mountain do not stick with the company. Its website lists the company’s water parks, aquariums, hotels and even dinner shows that are located across the country. But there is no mention of Georgia’s busiest tourist attraction.

In July 2020, Herschend execs visited Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Bill Stephens, who oversees the park for the state, and dropped a bomb on him: The company wanted out.

The attraction was losing money due to COVID-19, but there was another lingering bother — the stigma that comes with running the world’s largest Confederate monument. “They said that with all of the unrest and controversy, they wanted to move on,” Stephens recalled.

At the time, the country was roiling from the protests caused by the death of George Floyd two months earlier. And just two weeks prior to the meeting, on July 4, protesters from the Not (expletive) Around Coalition came to the park to make a point. They were a militia-like collection of Black people taking a page out of the far right’s playbook: gathering a bunch of people with superior firepower to appear in public and make people nervous.

As CEO of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, Bill Stephens is navigating some troubled waters. (AJC file / Brant Sanderlin)

Credit: Brant Sanderlin

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Credit: Brant Sanderlin

Stephens, a North Georgia mountain boy who was a conservative Democrat working for Zell Miller before he was a Republican state senator, wasn’t terribly surprised by the divorce. He refers to the “two C’s,” the dual afflictions impacting the park — COVID-19 and the Confederacy.

Those C’s were also hurting the park’s hotel/convention center. It is run by Marriott, who also wants out. “We’re not getting the major corporations coming out here” to stay at that center, Stephens said.

Marriott came in 1998, when Herschend, then known as Silver Dollar City Inc., got the contract to run the park’s commercial operations. Herschend is a family-owned, Christian-minded company that doesn’t go for alcohol at its attractions. But it was able to do an end-round of that policy, and get the contract, by partnering with the hotelier, who doesn’t mind serving up a mixed drink. Herschend signed a 30-year contract set to run out in 2028.

My point is that Herschend, a Missouri-born firm that has moved to metro Atlanta, is no leftie org trying to cut itself loose from the Civil War’s losing side. The separation demonstrates how corporations want nothing to do with the toxic debate surrounding the display of Confederate symbols. And Herschend was saddled here with the grandpappy of them all — a 3-acre bas-relief sculpture in granite of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis.

Stephens and the park then put out word they were looking for a new management partner. Six companies expressed interest but, ultimately, only one put in a bid proposal: a newly created firm called Thrive Attractions Management put together by a Herschend exec who’s managed the park for several years.

I called Herschend to get the lowdown on their exit, but no one got back to me.

Meanwhile, Stephens is left navigating the troubled waters of his time. The park’s board has taken baby steps like taking the carving off Stone Mountain’s official logo and is moving the Confederate flags from the base of the busy walk-up trail on the side of the mountain. Things like changing the Confederate street names in the park haven’t happened.

And, of course, there’s the big question of what to do with the carving. Some have called for it to be blasted from the face of the 300 million-year-old monadnock. Although, “it would take a small, tactical nuclear weapon to take it off the side of the mountain,” Stephens quipped.

Ryan Gravel, the architect who dreamed up the Beltline, has suggested that moss, vines and shrubs would take up in the granite figures if the state stopped cleaning them. And folks would lose respect for a Jeff Davis if a bush was growing out of his nose.

In the meantime, the park association is in the process of creating a museum to tell the “real” story of Stone Mountain. That story would tell how Confederate monuments didn’t pop up until decades after the war. It was a time when white Southerners twisted the conflict from being a fight to preserve slavery into the War of Northern Aggression, a tale of a big industrial bully crushing a spunky agrarian population bent on self-determination.

In 1915, Stone Mountain was the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and soon, the idea of the carving was born. That plan fell through a decade later when the sculptor had a falling-out with the locals and moved on to Mount Rushmore. The state of Georgia then waited 30 years until the integration movement was in full swing and then restarted the work on the mountain.

B/W copy of a photo taken in 1948: Hooded Ku Klux Klansmen gather around a huge flaming cross as the Klan held one of its largest initiation ceremonies in its life. In the background looms Stone Mountain. (ACME TELEPHOTO/AJC FILES)

Credit: Acme Telephoto

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Credit: Acme Telephoto

Forget about a heritage and pride, “It was like a giant middle finger to the civil rights movement,” said Keith Hebert, a professor of Southern history at Auburn University.

As a boy, Hebert, who is 44, welled with Southern pride as he watched the laser shows on the rock, with Robert E. Lee gallantly galloping off. Later, he learned the truth of the South creating the legend of the “Lost Cause,” an elaborate tale created to paper over the ugly racist truth of a fight to protect the institution of slavery. It was one of many monuments created to honor white supremacy.

“The carving was motivated by the need to create a public display of power; it’s a monument on an unprecedented scale,” Hebert said. “It tells the story in a largely romantic, heroic fashion. It reinforces the idea that it can’t be that bad.”

Modern-day believers of that fable are now aghast at the new narrative. “Stone Mountain represents a line in the sand,” he said. “People see any different telling of America’s history — or at least the history they were taught, as a threat to their own identity.”

Michael Thurmond, the CEO of DeKalb County, is a published historian who lives near Stone Mountain. He noted how quickly the move to remove Confederate imagery has occurred.

Counter-protesters face off with protesters as several far-right groups, including militias and white supremacists, rally Saturday, Aug. 15, 2020, in Stone Mountain while a broad coalition of leftist anti-racist groups organized a counter-demonstration. (Jenni Girtman/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

“The moment George Floyd took his last breath became an inflection point in our country,” Thurmond told me. “We could not imagine how quickly this would unwind.”

Four years ago, we talked about Confederate monuments, including an obelisk erected behind the DeKalb courthouse in 1908. “I don’t think you take down the obelisk,” he told me then. “The obelisk can be a touchstone for a conversation about how racial intolerance led to decades of separation.”

He said they should erect markers to tell the story of how aging Confederates and their ancestors had concocted a gallant tale. Last year, I watched as a crane uprooted the monument before it was spirited away.

“There has been a shift; it was accepted as history but it now has been exposed as mythology,” said Thurmond, who welcomes the truth-telling museum at Stone Mountain.

He said that the public’s view of the Confederacy has changed in the past few years, before adding, “We need to catch up to where the people are.”

Sometimes, companies are leading the way. Or at least running in front of the outraged crowd.