Stone Mountain is the world’s largest monument to white supremacy. The enormous landform – the centerpiece of a state park that draws more than 4 million visitors a year, some 15 miles northeast of Atlanta – is marred by a massive carving commemorating the hateful legacy of the Confederacy.
The carved surface depicts Confederate leaders Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in a reverent light across three acres. The men sit on horseback, hats over their hearts, in a tableau that cannot be interpreted as anything other than a celebration of the Confederacy and the values – white supremacy and the enslavement of Black people – for which it stood.
Moreover, the history of the mountain and the Confederate memorial is intimately tied to hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the racist response to desegregation efforts in the 20th century. Work did not begin on the carving until 1923, long after the Civil War ended, and required three attempts and almost 50 years to complete. The final effort was launched in 1964 as a backlash to Brown v. Board of Education and the civil rights movement. The park’s official grand opening was pointedly celebrated on April 14, 1965 – 100 years to the day that President Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theatre – but the carving was not completed until 1972.
There’s no question that Stone Mountain is a relic of an ugly past – a past that very much continues to haunt us to this day, as this year’s mass protests over the murders of Black people by police and vigilantes have made painfully clear. Across the country, statues and other pieces of Confederate iconography are gradually being removed from public display, a long overdue – and still incomplete – step forward after years of inaction.
Now, a growing number of people are calling for the Stone Mountain carving to be removed. Over the July 4 weekend, a large group of mostly Black protesters made headlines when they marched on the memorial bearing arms in a peaceful demonstration to demand just that.
At the Southern Poverty Law Center, we’ve long argued that Confederate symbols have no place in public spaces. Stone Mountain is no exception.
The Klan’s sacred stone
Stone Mountain’s history – both the site itself and the memorial that blights it – has for more than a century been entwined with the Ku Klux Klan.
On Thanksgiving night 1915, William J. Simmons led a group of 15 Klansmen to the summit of Stone Mountain, where they set up a flag-draped altar, opened a Bible and burned a 16-foot cross in a Klan initiation ceremony. The hate group had previously swept the South during Reconstruction but fizzled in the 1870s. Simmons’ Stone Mountain ceremony marked its second coming. The resurrected KKK would soar in popularity over the next few decades, primarily targeting Black people, but also people who are Jewish, Catholic or from other countries, among others.
Additionally, Klan money helped fund the Stone Mountain monument, and the first of its three head sculptors was a Klansman, as was the owner of the mountain, Samuel Venable. Venable, whose family bought the site in 1887 to run a quarry, granted the Klan rights to hold meetings there in perpetuity – and for decades it did.
Helen Plane, a Civil War widow and charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, spearheaded the first attempt to carve the Stone Mountain memorial. She, too, was a Klan sympathizer. After Gutzon Borglum was chosen as the monument’s sculptor in 1915, Plane wrote him with a design suggestion. “Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?” she asked.
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