From New Orleans to Charlottesville, Confederate monuments are dropping from their pedestals. But no memorial is quite as problematic as the centerpiece of this Edenic retreat on the outskirts of Atlanta.
You could not ask for a nicer park. There are forests and waterways, playgrounds and picnic spots, hiking and biking trails, and a 36-hole public golf course that — when autumn strikes the foliage — is like playing inside a kaleidoscope. In winter, there’s man-made snow for tubing on man-made hills. In warmer months, a nightly laser show.
But at the heart of matter is The Carving: the world’s largest bas-relief sculpture, scooped and polished into the massive upwelling of quartz and granite that gives the park its name. Ghostly against the gray stone, larger than half a football field, the work depicts three heroes of the Confederacy, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis, astride half-rendered spirit horses.
Like most Confederate memorials, The Carving wasn’t conceived by the Civil War generation, which knew better than to glorify bloodshed and ruin. It was a 20th-century creation, reflecting Jim Crow, a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and “massive resistance” to integration.
Indeed, the monument and the Klan share an origin story. In 1915, an elderly Confederate war widow named Helen Plane — worried that smaller monuments around the South might prove ephemeral — recruited sculptor Gutzon Borglum to create a gargantuan tribute on the bare rock of Stone Mountain. That same year, in the same circles, interest in the dormant KKK was fired by the release of a wildly popular movie, “Birth of a Nation.” Trailblazing filmmaker D.W. Griffith was inspired in part by the historical writing of America’s Southern-born, pro-segregation president, Woodrow Wilson. The president, in turn, extolled Griffith’s picture after a screening at the White House.
To mark the film’s arrival in Atlanta, white supremacists gathered at Stone Mountain to burn a cross and relaunch the Klan.
From those flame-lit beginnings, carving and Klan rallies continued at Stone Mountain through years and decades. After Borglum left the project — he later carved Mount Rushmore — other sculptors picked up the work in fits and starts. It was finally completed in the 1960s, amid the backlash against federally enforced desegregation.
Today’s Atlanta would never countenance the project. Vibrantly diverse, the city is emblematic of the flourishing unleashed by the ideal of equality. The old South, cherishing Confederate reveries, was blind to its own morbidity. The life that we see across the region — tourists streaming to Orlando, Charleston and New Orleans; commerce pulsing through Manassas, Charlotte and Dallas; students flocking to Austin, Gainesville and Durham — is only possible because the South was shaken awake from the nightmare of apartheid.
So what’s to be done with this mountainous anachronism? State Sen. Stacey Abrams, a leading Democratic candidate for governor, has called for removing the sculpture, somehow — “a blight on our state,” she calls it. But blowing it up might vaguely echo, for some people, the Taliban at Bamiyan. And besides, Georgia law requires its preservation, “as a tribute to the bravery and heroism” of Confederate citizens.
As owner of the park, the state of Georgia instead appears to have followed a policy of elision and neglect. For example, “Confederate Hall” on the park grounds has been transformed into a nature center. Subsidiary tributes are few. On a recent visit, I saw only one rebel flag — in a historical display of the banners that have flown over Georgia.
Markers commemorating each Confederate state had gone yellow with age and foggy with outdated evasion. The war was fought over “rights and property,” not slavery. The South was victimized by a “Union invasion.” A glaring error that must have been noticed a thousand times — the name of esteemed Lost Cause writer Douglas Southall Freeman rendered as “Southwell” — remains uncorrected year after year.
Local visitors take much the same approach. The park was busy with walkers, joggers and bikers when I was there — and most of them were African American. But I was the only person looking at The Carving.
Between destroying the monument and ignoring it, might there be a way to redeem it? Those neglected markers could be reconceived to tell a deeper, more honest, more important story. It is not enough simply to act bravely and decisively. Righteousness can be misapprehended. Passions can be passionately wrong. Some of history’s best lessons come from cautionary tales.
And in the fading light I imagined a quotation carved in letters 50 feet high that could redefine the entire place. Words spoken by Atlanta’s most celebrated son from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. .?.?. From every mountain side, let freedom ring!” Future visitors might read these prophetic words and perceive the ghostly figures below in a new light: as men riding away from battles they never should have fought.
DAVID VON DREHLE writes a twice-weekly column. He was previously an editor-at-large for Time Magazine and author of four books.