Stone Mountain’s Confederate symbol row simmers after summer protests

Stone Mountain is Georgia's most visited tourist attraction and is also a lightning rod for controversy. In the namesake city outside the state's Stone Mountain Park, protesters clashed in near downtown in August. Lynsey Weatherspoon/Getty Images

When Chandra Moye decided to open a local souvenir shop in downtown Stone Mountain, she had a decision to make: Would she sell items depicting the popular state park’s famous carving commemorating three Confederate leaders?

Ultimately, the Black business owner kept carving-themed merchandise off her shelves when she launched in March because of what she saw as her corporate responsibility to the community.

“You don’t really want to hurt anybody’s feelings,” Moye said. “But the things you sell have to be what you believe in.”

But she and other local business owners – who are already muddling through a pandemic that has hit retailers especially hard – have had a more difficult time shielding the commercial district from the conflict that the nearby massive Confederate memorial has increasingly brought to this small city in DeKalb County.

Chandra Moye poses for a photo in her store, Rock Steady Souvenirs and Gifts, in downtown Stone Mountain. The business owner says protests and counter protests have scared away customers and hurt the local economy. Photo credit: Aaron Reid

On July 4th, when Moye reopened her store, Rock Steady Souvenirs and Gifts, heavily armed protestors lined up outside instead of the patrons she hoped the holiday weekend would attract. The next month, protestors and counter protestors clashed in the city’s streets after Stone Mountain Park closed ahead of a white supremacist rally.

These confrontations bringing unflattering attention to Moye’s beloved hometown and scaring off customers spurred her to become involved in a new push for Georgia officials to reimagine the state-owned park that is home to America’s largest Confederate memorial but attracts diverse crowds and is located in a majority Black community.

“That’s like having a Nazi monument in the middle of a Jewish community,” Moye said. “Georgia is no longer under the Confederate flag. Why are we waving that at the foothills of the mountain? What are we waiting on?”

Moye isn’t a proponent, though, of blasting away the controversial carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who are horseback with their hats held over their hearts. She, for one, would personally rather see another carving added featuring Abraham Lincoln and generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Her idea represents what she and others say is missing at the park: a more complete Civil War narrative.

“If we want to not honor the Confederacy, well there’s a way to do that – by explaining the rest of the story,” said John Thoms, who grew up visiting Stone Mountain and who regularly exercises there after recently moving back to Atlanta. He said small changes – like renaming streets honoring Confederate leaders – would be a start.

“Why can’t we just finish telling the story of what happened? And frankly, what happened is – I think most rational people would agree – is the right thing,” he added. “Looking back on it 150 something years later, right triumphed, slavery was ended, the country was reunited and we move forward, and it’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.”

Rebel street names protected? 

The controversial memorial carving – an ambitious project originally led by the sculptor who would go on to chisel Mount Rushmore – was publicly dedicated in 1970 after decades of setbacks. But the site also famously served as the setting for the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan more than a century ago.

Today, visitors drive up on Jefferson Davis Drive and pass Stonewall Jackson Drive and Robert E. Lee Boulevard on their way to the popular walk-up trail, where they will trek past flags of the Confederacy. Hikers on some trails pass Venable Lake, named for a former Klan leader and former owner of the mountain. And then, of course, there is the carving spanning three acres on the side of the towering monadnock.

Started in the early 20th Century, Stone Mountain Park’s Confederate memorial was finished and dedicated in 1970. It is the largest bas relief sculpture in the world. Photo courtesy of SteamFan on Wikimedia Commons

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s board members, who are appointed by the governor, is expected to consider a proposal, although no details have been publicly released.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported that the governor’s office is involved, but a spokesman for Gov. Brian Kemp declined to comment on what might be in the works. Messages left for the board’s chairman, Ray Stallings Smith III, were not returned. A monthly board meeting set for Tuesday has been pushed back to next month.

“The issue at hand is the state law that would have to be looked at that protects the carving at least and some people think it protects the other issues in the park as well,” Stone Mountain Park spokesman John Bankhead said Friday, referring to street names and the Confederate flags on display.

The association was formed in 1958 – four years after the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education ruling – and charged in law with maintaining “an appropriate and suitable memorial for the Confederacy.”

State lawmakers came back in 2001 and agreed to strip the Confederate battle flag from the state flag but also demanded stronger protections for the carving “for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.”

Now, a grassroots group called the Stone Mountain Action Coalition is pressing the board to do what it can, like let vegetation grow unimpeded until it diminishes the grand view of the carving, halt any carving maintenance and remove the Confederate references in the park – like the street names – that may not be protected by state law. The group has also asked the association to endorse an anti-racist statement condemning white supremacists and other hate groups that have adopted the Confederate flag and carving as symbols.

The group’s call for sweeping change was met with scorn from at least one of the state’s Republican leaders, U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, who is challenging Kemp’s U.S. Senate appointee, Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

“Where does it end? Liberals will never stop trying to erase our history,” Collins tweeted last month, saying he opposes any changes to Stone Mountain.

Ryan Gravel, who is best known for his pioneering work with Atlanta’s BeltLine and who is part of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, made the case for change in an op-ed in the Guardian over the summer.

“The sculpture is an irreparable scar on an ancient mountain with a long history of habitation and use by indigenous people,” Gravel co-wrote with historian Scott Morris. “More blatantly offensive, however, is the sculpture’s undeniable reverence for hate and violence and the honor it bestows on the generals, who, by definition, were American traitors.”

The coalition plans to hold a “prayer for our park” event Tuesday beneath the Confederate flags that fly near the base of the mountain.

Sally Stanhope, who is a volunteer with the coalition and an educator at the Atlanta History Center, said the group envisions “transformational change” at the park that goes beyond putting a bell tower on the summit.

After the mass shooting at a Black church in Charleston by a white supremacist in 2015, there was talk of adding a bell tower to the park as a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a dream speech” that references Stone Mountain.

“I hope that we’re past the point that we just want to put on a Band-Aid and silence the larger issue, which is that we have 150 years where people systematically created symbols to white supremacy to legitimate systemic inequality,” Stanhope said in an interview.

The coalition sees an opportunity to transform the park into a place of reconciliation, Stanhope said.

“Part of the urgency is just that not only are we in a moment that people want and need to really confront our past – we’re at that moment – but we’re also in a moment that if Stone Mountain chooses to do nothing, violent protests will continue,” Stanhope said.