Stone Mountain, Mount Rushmore, Donald Trump, and the KKK
By Guest Columnist MARK PENDERGRAST, an Atlanta native and author
When I was a child growing up in Atlanta, one of my favorite family outings was the hike up Stone Mountain, a monadnock which rises dramatically to the east of the city. A huge granite “pluton” formed over 300 million years ago, it offers an easy, gradual hike up the southern slope, though we had to take care not to fall over the steep northern edge when we reached the top (there was no guard rail then, as I recall).
Also at the time, on that steep side there was a long-incomplete bas relief of three Confederates on their horses – President Jefferson Davis, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, and General Robert E. Lee. It was finally finished in 1972, when I was a young adult. As the child of civil rights activists, I wasn’t happy about the carving, but I hadn’t delved into its history. I finally did that as I was researching City on the Verge, my 2017 book on Atlanta. By that time, I had lived in Vermont for many years, so this was a kind of Roots project for me.
The mountain had once been owned by the Venable family, who were major supporters and members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan. In the wake of the lynching of Leo Frank, in 1915, the Klan was reborn in Georgia after the racist film, Birth of a Nation, swept the country, complete with appalling quotes from President Woodrow Wilson. Its relaunch occurred atop Stone Mountain with the burning of a gigantic wooden cross visible from downtown Atlanta.
There is a long story behind the Stone Mountain sculpture. Gutzon Borglum, who went on to carve Mount Rushmore, was first hired in 1915 to chisel Stone Mountain. His grandiose plans included a sculpture of many Confederate heroes, including Nathan Bedford Forrest, a founder of the original Ku Klux Klan, along with a vast array of other soldiers and generals. Borglum was himself a member of the resurgent KKK. He also agreed to include a Ku Klux Klan altar in his plans for the memorial to acknowledge a request of one of the funders, a Daughter of the Confederacy, who wrote to him: “I feel it is due to the KKK that saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”
But, despite the U. S. mint striking a commemorative 50-cent piece, featuring Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, to support the project, there wasn’t enough money. The egomaniacal but talented Borglum’s demands were too much, and he was fired in 1925. His acrimonious departure left only the face of Robert E. Lee on the mountainside (as far as he had gotten), and that was soon dynamited away so that subsequent sculptors had to begin anew, finally completing the current ode to the Confederacy decades later.
Borglum went on to other monumental sculptures, including the four heads on Mt. Rushmore, from 1927 to 1941, the year of his death. He also completed numerous other sculptures (including individual heads of Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson)., It is consequently ironic that Donald Trump should have chosen Rushmore for his pandemic-defying July Fourth fireworks display and racist comments. And of course Rushmore’s carvings include slaveowners George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
But what about Stone Mountain? Black soldiers who fought against fascism during World War II (in segregated units) came back home to the same old Jim Crow situation. In late 1945, the Ku Klux Klan surged into the spotlight (or firelight) yet again with a rally atop Stone Mountain, featuring a 300-foot-wide cross lit by fuel oil, visible from 60 miles away, “to let the n****** know the war is over and that the Klan is back,” as one attendee said. Dozens of Atlanta policemen joined them.
In May 2015, I climbed Stone Mountain for the first time since my childhood, along with Shannon Byrne, who lives nearby and created the extraordinary iamthemountain.org website. For years, she has been highlighting the beauty and international value of the mountain, its ancient geological and human history, and the struggle over its racist past and trappings.
Stone Mountain, a geological and natural wonder, has never been able to entirely shake its history, however. Just a month before my climb, Byrne had interviewed two white men and a woman carrying Confederate flags to the top. One of the men told her, “This flag stands for a lot of brave men and women who stood up for what they believed in.” Byrne asked if they believed in a continuation of slavery. “They may have,” he admitted, but that didn’t bother him. The woman said, “I had 25 men in my family fight and die against Yankee tyranny.” Both interviewees lived in Atlanta. “We don’t care if it upsets a lot of Black people,” the woman exploded, “or white people or purple people.”
A month after my hike, a white supremacist killed nine black parishioners during a prayer service at the Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, S.C., which reignited calls to remove Confederate flags. Stone Mountain’s management refused to do so, citing a state law. But it proposed building a tower atop the mountain with a replica of the Liberty Bell to honor Martin Luther King’s “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia” reference in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech. On November 14, 2015, a group of gun-toting white protesters with Confederate flags marched up the mountain. One Cobb County participant, who started a group called Rebel Yell, said, “F*** civil rights, this is a Civil War mountain.” Then Gov. Nathan Deal backed off from his support of the MLK monument, which was not erected.
Shannon Byrne is hopeful that now some of her concerns will finally be addressed. She emailed me recently: “Now, holy s***, people are ready to listen and to make actual changes! In fact, change really MUST follow after years of the park being a flash point for extremists (on all sides). You certainly called it, that Atlanta was a ‘city on the verge!’ And you must appreciate how surreal it feels for me to have been working on something for this many years, often viewed as a threat to tourism and industry and property values, and then to suddenly and finally see people actually beginning to arrive at some of the same powerful realizations—and coming together less afraid! It is quite validating. And the project has been such a labor of love and become so personal to me.”
She made another important point: The mountain itself is “an innocent gift of nature, once a part of the Native American’s Hightower Trail, that was, quite simply hijacked by hate more than once. Maybe we really should allow the Nobel Center to plunk itself down there and rededicate the park to peace” – an idea floated in 2019 and endorsed by Andrew Young and Jimmy Carter, among others, though they did not specify Stone Mountain as its home.
Regardless, will the mountain’s huge, infamous sculptures be allowed to stay put, even as Confederate statues and symbols are being removed across the country? Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (once a potential Democratic vice-presidential nominee) wants the Stone Mountain sculptures to be removed, and some day perhaps that will happen. It would perhaps be a fitting capstone to 2020, the year of George Floyd’s murder.
On the other hand, a massive dynamiting project would add more injury to a mountain that has already been extensively quarried and desecrated. Perhaps it would be better to leave the sculpture but feature its real racist history inside the park’s museum and on prominent signage on the path up the mountain. And organizations such as Atlanta’s Park Pride could help preserve the mountain as a true resource for the community.
Note to readers: Mark Pendergrast is the author of “City on the Verge: Atlanta and the Fight for America’s Urban Future,” and other books.