US park celebrating the pro-slavery Confederacy faces a reckoning

Stone Mountain Park in the US state of Georgia is facing changes, partly due to the park’s new Black chairman.

Confederate flag supporters gather at the top of Stone Mountain after hiking up during a 2015 rally [File: David Goldman/AP Photo]

Stone Mountain Park, Georgia, United States – A state-owned park that hosts the world’s largest monument to the Confederacy – the failed rebellion by pro-slavery states that led to the American Civil War – is considering sweeping changes amid criticism and plummeting revenue that may have resulted from the controversy.

Central to calls for change is a gigantic carving on the north face of Stone Mountain, about 25km (15.5 miles) northeast of Atlanta.

Carved into solid rock, 122 metres (400 feet) above the ground, the work depicts three of the Confederacy’s most well-known figures riding together on horseback: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two generals, Robert E Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, who led troops in a rebellion against the United States from 1861-1865 that cost the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans.

As the largest bas-relief carving in the world, the figures themselves stretch 28 metres long (91 feet) and 58 meters (190 feet) wide.

The world’s largest bas-relief carving is located in Stone Mountain Park, in the US state of Georgia. It depicts three Confederate figures: Confederate President Jefferson Davis and two generals, Robert E Lee and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson [Cristina Moody/Al Jazeera]

The work, which was completed in 1972 after nearly five decades of construction, has served as a flashpoint of controversy around the role of symbols on public land that celebrate those who fought to perpetuate slavery in the United States.

The mountain was also the site of the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The owner of the property, Sam Venable, a member of the Klan, allowed gatherings of the white supremacist group here for decades. A lake on the property still bears his name.

Today, the stone carving overlooks a memorial lawn and gardens that honour the Southern states that seceded from the Union, with markers that describe the role each played in the war. Roads like Jefferson Davis Drive, Robert E Lee Boulevard and Stonewall Jackson Drive intersect the park. Hikers who walk to the top of Stone Mountain must pass a row of Confederate flags positioned near the base of the trail.

The continuing display of these symbols has inspired calls for an overhaul, which were amplified in 2020 amid worldwide protests against the treatment of Black people in the United States. The demonstrations inspired communities across the South to remove or relocate relics and celebrations of the Confederacy, which many say celebrate white supremacy and only tell a narrow story about the South.

“The Civil War represents a tiny fraction of Southern history, and yet it dominates our commemorative landscape,” said Adam Domby, an assistant professor of history at the College of Charleston in South Carolina and author of The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory.

“The history of the South is not just the history of white men. More importantly, the history of the South isn’t just four years in the 1860s. It goes much farther and includes Native Americans, African Americans and people of all sorts of races. It’s not just war.”

But soon, change may be on its way to Stone Mountain.

Stone Mountain’s first Black chairman

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which oversees the park, is considering a slate of reforms this month. In April, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, appointed Reverend Abraham Mosley, pastor of Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in Athens, Georgia, as chairman of the association, the first Black man to hold the position in its history.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, the 75-year-old Mosley outlined his vision for making changes to the park. He called for adding new street names within the park, like “Liberty,” “United,” and “Freedom,” but stopped short of calling for removing the streets named for Confederate leaders.

He hopes to build a “liberty bell” pavilion at the top of the mountain to echo Martin Luther King’s call in his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” to “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

Mosley also supports renaming “Confederate Hall” on the property to “Memorial Hall,” and adding exhibits that describe contributions from Black and Native American people in the South and that recognises the property’s white supremacist beginnings.

“We need to tell the whole story,” Mosley said.

Confederate flags fly alongside the US flag in Stone Mountain Park [Cristina Moody/Al Jazeera]

Mosley wants to move the Confederate flags that fly at the base of the mountain’s main hiking trail closer to the carving so that those who want to visit the park without being exposed to Confederate symbols would not have to see them.

Regarding the carving, however, Mosley opposes changing the law to have it removed, covered or defaced.

“I’m not for changing the carving. It’s history. That’s one of the largest carvings in the world. It’s the past. The past is the past. I’m concerned about today,” Mosley said.

“I’m not too much concerned about no carving on the mountain. I think that carving identifies Stone Mountain. If that carving was off, what would you see? A big rock.”

Proposals stir debate

In April, the association heard a formal plan for making changes to the Confederate symbols in the park. Association CEO Bill Stephens announced a series of proposals echoing Mosley’s support for adding new signage and exhibits but made no suggestions for addressing the carving itself, which, under Georgia law, may “never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured” and that it be preserved for “all time”.

However, the proposals, which still face a vote from the board, have not satisfied either side of the debate.

Reverend Abraham Mosley is the first Black chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association [File: Ron Harris/AP Photo]

The changes would not go nearly far enough, said Derrica Williams, a founding member of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, which advocates for making the park more inclusive.

“Honestly, it’s a slap in the face … It was an insult,” Williams, who attended the meeting where Stephens delivered the plan, said.

“The prominent display of all these Confederate memorials is a consistent reminder to all of us who should be able to enjoy that park without exposing ourselves to the darkest period of this country’s history,” said Williams, who is Black.

The Coalition has called for a long list of changes, including renaming the Confederate-named streets, pulling down Confederate flags in the park and relegating them to museums, and adding contextual signage.

“My tax dollars pay for a park to continue to celebrate a period in this country’s history that thought I was less than a 100 percent human being,” Williams said. “I’m paying to be disrespected.”

Members of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group of mostly white men with ancestral ties to soldiers who fought for the South during the Civil War, were also present at the April meeting, where they voiced opposition to changes to signage or removal of Confederate symbols.

“We’re not that pleased with what he said,” said Martin O’Toole, a spokesman for the group’s Georgia chapter. “Contextualisation is simply an excuse to attack something they can’t destroy.”

More than just a Confederate park

To be sure, the most prominent Confederate memorials only make up a small portion of the sprawling 3,200-acre (1,295-hectare) park.

The property also has a theme park, a 4-D movie theatre, a golf course, and a campground. On Saturday nights, the park puts on a popular “Lasershow Spectacular” displayed over the monument that features Star Wars characters, a 1980s music montage, tributes to Southern states and a salute to the American armed services.

Parkgoers take in the view from atop Stone Mountain. The Atlanta, Georgia, skyline can be seen in the distance [Cristina Moody/Al Jazeera]

But entertainment and hospitality companies that operate those facilities are planning to leave to avoid associating with the controversy, with one major vendor citing “protests and division”, as a reason for going.

The park also serves as a playground and recreation area for locals, who are increasingly non-white. DeKalb County, where the mountain is located, is more than 50 percent Black, with growing populations of Latino and Asian populations. The city of Stone Mountain adjacent to the site is nearly 80 percent Black.

On a recent weekend evening, Daphane and Allen Gochett, a Black married couple who live nearby, sat together with a picnic and a bottle of wine to celebrate Mother’s Day. They visit the park often, they said, but shudder when they walk past the Confederate Battle flags lined near the entrance of the walking trail.

“It’s a nice place to visit, but you have to erase it out of your mind,” Allen Gochett said.

“I would like to see a change,” Daphane Gochett added. “I don’t like seeing the flags fly. How can I heal if I’m still being reminded of my ancestors’ hurt or the hurt I’m going through today with my people?”

“You can’t heal if you keep being reminded. You can’t move forward.”

Source: Al Jazeera