Monday, December 5, 2016

Should Stone Mountain be Defaced?

Ten days ago I wrote about the rebirth of the KKK, which took place on top of Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving Day in 1915. The very next year, the owners of the mountain deeded its north face to the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Soon plans were underway to carve an impressive Confederate monument into that side of the massive mountain. 
A magnificent carving
The Stone Mountain Monumental Association was formed in 1916 and soon designated Gutzon Borglum, a member of the KKK, as the carving sculptor of the envisioned memorial.
However, after years of work on Stone Mountain, in 1925 Borglum left the project because of a dispute with the Association. Two years later he began carving Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, continuing that work until his death in 1941.
Another sculptor was employed for Stone Mountain, but work was suspended in 1928. Thirty years later the state of Georgia purchased the mountain and work on the monument was once again resumed in 1964. 
The dedication ceremony for the mostly-finished Confederate Memorial Carving was held in May 1970 and the finishing touches were finally completed in 1972.
As you see in the picture, three Confederate heroes--Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson on their horses--are magnificently depicted in the sculpture.
A malevolent shooting
As is widely known and sadly remembered, about a year and a half ago Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man shot and killed nine people, including the senior pastor, at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
After it became evident that Roof was a white supremacist and pictures of him with the Confederate flag were made public, there began to be calls for that flag to be removed from the South Carolina Statehouse.
On July 9, 2015, Gov. Nikki Haley, who may be the next U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., signed the bill to remove the Confederate flag. She then approvingly watched it being lowered the following day.
In response to the Charleston shooting, however, some anti-racists, especially the NAACP of Georgia, called for a much more dramatic counter-measure: sandblasting the Confederate Memorial off Stone Mountain. (See this news story.)
An imperative defacing? 
What is a fitting response to the proposal to deface Stone Mountain?
On the one hand, as indicated above, the carving on Stone Mountain is magnificent. It is a work of art. It honors three important men in the history of the Southern states. Destroying such a monument might be seen by some as equivalent to ISIS deliberately destroying the cultural heritage of Iraq and Syria—such as is summarized here.
On the other hand, the men depicted in the monument were leaders in a war to preserve slavery. That horrendous war took the lives of more than 620,000 combatants—at least 360,000 in the Union and 260,000 in the Confederacy. An unspeakable tragedy!
It is men and women, not stone monuments and skillful sculptures, that are sacred and of inestimable worth. So why should men who were so central in causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings continue to be glorified by the preservation of one splendid work of art?
True, destroying the Confederate Memorial Carving will not restore the precious lives those whose were killed in the Civil War. 
Think, though, what defacing such a magnificent work of art would say: war and slavery are evils and the primary leaders in the vile war to preserve slavery will no longer be honored!

Here is the link to “On Cross Burnings and Stone Mountain,” a 2014 blog article (with pictures) by Civil War historian Brooks D. Simpson.


  1. And then tit for tat of other "offensive" memorials of the polarities... Where would it stop? In a land weak on love and mercy from any side, this would just be more fuel for someone's fire. Leave historic markers alone, and be thoughtful before building more.

    1. Personally, I would be for removing all memorials that glorify war--but that, of course, is not going to happen.

      But I can't think of any monument that both glorifies war and another evil such as slavery.

      What would be seen from the other side something that is offensive? I suppose many traditional Southerners would see the Lincoln Memorial, perhaps, as offensive.

      But does anyone now want to equate Lincoln's opposition to slavery as being equally "immoral" to, say, Jefferson Davis's leading in the fight to keep slavery legal?

  2. For full disclosure, I have to admit that the Seat family into which I was born has Southern roots.

    My great-grandfather had a first cousin who was named Robert E. Lee Seat when he was born in March 1866--and they are both buried in the cemetery adjacent to my father's home church northwest Missouri.

    The grandparents of William Seat and Lee Seat (as he was generally known) grew to adulthood in Tennessee about 75 miles from Pulaski, Tenn., where the original KKK was formed just about the time of Lee's birth.

    The great-grandparents of William and Lee probably had slaves in Tennessee, and they definitely did in Virginia before migrating to Tennessee around 1800.

  3. I sent this blog article to a personal friend who is an educator living in the Kansas City area. Here is her response, which I appreciate greatly:

    "Thanks for sharing this piece with me. I enjoyed reading it. Not only am I from Atlanta, but more specifically, I lived in Stone Mountain, Georgia, from 9-12 grades.

    "Just a bit of background: Stone Mountain used to be a predominately white area. In the 80s black families began moving in and white flight resulted in the area becoming a predominately black (African American, African and Caribbean) area. My graduating class of Redan High School in 1989 was probably the last class with a white majority student population.

    "So the confederate legacy and Klan heritage of that area is mixed with a new racial reality. Stone Mountain is a confederate landmarks surrounded by a sea of blackness -- which is very interesting.

    "Personally, I think removing Confederate flags and erasing confederate symbols and icons takes the focus away from the real problems -- hatred, fear and violence. I say keep the carving, but create a museum at the base of the mountain, accompanied by historical placards along the running paths that encircle the mountain that are dedicated to tolerance, love and equality. Perhaps create a museum to the area dedicated to white flight, black migration and the expansion of cities. I think there has been enough destruction; I think it is time to build around hateful symbols and transform them into something positive."

  4. I find it worth noting that motivation to begin work on completion of the project did not occur until 1964 during the early beginnings of the modern civil rights movement. I find that fact particularly damning. It was 20th century folks who perceived white hegemony being threatened who cared enough about the project to finish it.

    I don't want to see the sculpture destroyed. But I certainly endorse the idea of a museum in the vicinity that shines a metaphorical bright light on the long history that motivated its carving.

    1. Thanks, Clif, for mentioning the time frame of the completion of the Stone Mountain Carving.

      The rejuvenation of the Klan in the 1950s and 1960s is sometimes called the Third KKK (the first formed in 1866 and the second in 1915).

      It was four Klan members who were responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham in 1963.

  5. Hmm, that's a tough one. Hate to see the destruction of art, hate to see pro-slavers presented as heroes. I'm ashamed to say that my first thought was the addition of horns to their heads, or at least a large inscription saying "Never Again." But I have to say, I think Leroy's friend who recommends the educational museum at the base has the best idea.

    1. Thanks, Fred, for your comments, too.

      The problem with countering the massive monument with a museum is that the monument can be seen from miles and miles around, but the contents of a museum would be seen only by those who choose to go there--and who would fork out the money for a ticket.

      I am certainly not opposed to the idea of a museum being constructed there (but who would do it and who would pay for it?), but I don't see how it could possibly balance the impact of the Carving.

      And it is most unlikely that the white supremacists who still use Stone Mountain as a gathering place and a place of inspiration would be deterred in the least by a museum being constructed at its base.

  6. I, too agree with the educational repurposing of the mountain. Erasing it would not only ignore the wisdom of Santayana, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it;" it would also be much too much like the Taliban destroying the ancient mountainside carving of Buddha. For this reason the concentration camps still stand in Europe, and the Japanese internment camps in the United States. May Gitmo someday be a museum, too.

    Even in the ancient world, when Julius Caesar sought to rule Rome by "the clemency of Caesar," he restored the statues of Sulla and Pompey, even though Sulla had been the dictator who terrorized the young Caesar years before, and Pompey had just died while fighting a great civil war against Caesar. Caesar may have done this as much out of smart politics as high morals, but if both apply, why not consider the precedent?

    1. Good analogies, and precedents!

    2. Santayana's words are certainly important ones, and I can see how they apply to preserving the concentration camps (gas chambers) in Europe, and the Japanese internment camps in the U.S.
      But those reminders of the past are in no way glorified.

      The Stone Mountain Carving, by contrast, glorifies the leaders of the war for slavery and white supremacy. It could be argued that it fosters remembrance of the past to inspire similar actions at the present time in order to preserve white supremacy.

  7. I've been to Stone Mountain and watched the summer evening light shows on the carving. But I think the Stone Mountain carvings are a cultural atrocity, and something should be done. The museum idea makes a great deal of sense. However, I would take a different tack than does Leroy. I see the carving as an important icon of history and culture rather than some grand piece of art. For that reason, I'm against destroying it, just as I was against the destruction of Lenin statues in Eastern Europe or, perhaps, even of Saddam Hussein in Bagdad (although I've not thought about the latter till now). I heard sometime in the last year or two of some movement to add a statue or bust of some such thing of Martin Luther King, Jr., to Stone Mountain. I thought that might be a good idea, and along with the museum a good idea. But my final conclusion is that, as with statues of Lenin, Stalin, Hussein, and whoever else, the carving should be carefully cut out of the wall and placed in a museum. And it would be best if the museum were devoted to the celebration of the end of slavery and the advances of civil rights. The Confederate battle flay, in my view, should not be flying anywhere in the United States. It, too, is a cultural atrocity. But it should remain in history museums.

    1. Anton, using cost-benefit analysis, I would oppose the additional engineering and implementation expenses of removing the carvings intact. Let them stay where they are, just as the Nazi concentration camps remain where they were originally located. Be frugal in constructing educational/interpretive exhibits and or museums, and maybe eliminate the light shows. If intentional neglect and weathering take their toll, let that be their ultimate destiny!

    2. It is not only the cost that makes your suggestion questionable, Anton. The size of it would make it nearly impossible to move.

      The entire carved surface covers 1.57 acres. The carving of the three men measures 76 by 158 feet and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain.

  8. Very interesting conversation here, and I would like to point out that every current and past American taxpayer is and has been complicit in funding contemporary American wars and veterans' expenses of past wars. And every American president has refrained from prosecuting previous presidents of war crimes. I am not ready to advocate removing all statues and memorials of American presidents. And I would like to remind us all of Buffy Sainte-Marie's "Universal Soldier" song, which gives some grace to Lee and Jackson, who were professional soldiers:

    1. Thanks, Phil, for all your comments--and for sharing the interesting song.

      While I hate war and think that it should be opposed, I would not want to say that Lincoln or Grant or Eisenhower (and other Presidents directly involved in war) were war criminals.

      I oppose the glorification of the men carved into the side of Mount Rushmore because they were not only leaders in a war but because they were leaders in the effort to preserve slavery.

      Sure, as Buffy sang in her song, Lee and Jackson may have been where they were because of the widespread support they received from people across the South. But, still, that does not justify their actions or make their cause just.

  9. My esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson has sent the following comments by email (and permission to post them here):

    "We’ve just gone through a similar debate here in Louisville vis-a-vis removal of a confederate monument erected on the campus of the University of Louisville. It in no way matched the Stone Mountain sculpture as a work of art. The main argument for keeping it was its representation of Southern history. The city of Brandenburg eagerly sought it to fill our their annual re-enactment of the Civil War.

    "I felt a little ambivalent about the issue while personally thinking we should give preference to the people who suffered because of the culture it obviously lionized. An argument can be made for keeping it perhaps as a way of facing up to a painful chapter in our history. I think the challenge there would be to find some way to educate people who came to see it along lines you suggest: Lee, Davis and Jackson were heroes in that culture we earnestly wish had never happened, but we can’t look on them as heroes and models for the culture we earnestly want to become. That would require skilled teaching."

  10. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

    "I have seen the sculptures on Stone Mountain and they are impressive. But instead of blasting them away, perhaps the faces of some former slaves, abolitionists, or civil rights leaders should be added. One Georgia native was Martin Luther King. Other possibilities include Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and even John Brown. (Lincoln's likeness is already on Mt. Rushmore.)

    "Much of world history is the story of the struggle for the recognition of the full dignity of every human being. Sadly, the struggle is not yet resolved."

  11. I would like to amend my comments above with a couple of extensions that came to me in the middle of the night as I was lying awake in bed. One, Mount Rushmore is itself controversial. Watching Ken Burns special on National Parks I learned that the Sioux park ranger then in charge of Mount Rushmore had been so disturbed by the thought of being associated with the monument that he consulted with tribal elders about whether to accept the job offer. Jointly they decided that as long as it was there, it was better to have him in charge than not. He certainly was a great witness for Ken Burns. Also concerning Mount Rushmore, it has inspired a new mountain monument nearby of Chief Crazy Horse, who now will circle the Little Bighorn battlefield for all eternity. The original sculptor previously helped on Mount Rushmore. See here for a link:

    My second thought concerns war memorials. My parents moved to northern Virginia while I was in high school, and so I saw many war memorials in Washington during those years. I found them strangely disturbing, perhaps even a bit hostile. Then many years later I returned, and first saw the then new Vietnam Memorial. I was overwhelmed. I cried. I am not a veteran, but I lived through the hellish uproar of the war at home The sight of those dark walls with the names of over 50,000 dead was simply stunning. I never saw another war memorial the same after that. I had learned the strange energy that animated them. Perhaps we might call it "Soldier Lives Matter." It was something I did not quite get from earlier visits to Gettysburg or Arlington, there the deep message was disguised by the fact that monuments of great wars are dominated by the great wars. There was no great war to hide Vietnam. In Kansas City we have Liberty Memorial, in honor of the first great war, now known as World War I. I first went into it a few years ago for a musical performed in its auditorium, "Oh! What a Lovely War!" From a distance a great tower is topped by a huge torch, but to enter it you must go behind the torch and descent below ground level to enter doors designed to look like bunker doors. Inside is a large display of a field of thousands of poppies. Each poppy flower stands for 1,000 soldiers dead. In the musical, leaders of the various warring parties treat the whole thing as a game, casually sending millions to their deaths. As I watched, I thought of all the grief still flowing from that terrible war: Communists, Nazis, the Cold War, even atomic bombs. So terrible, so long ago, still so damaging. Then I saw on the news a few days later that the last American veteran of World War I had just died. He was still living while I watched that ancient farce of civilization. It was not so long ago, after all. At Stone Mountain the Civil War still lives on. When George W. Bush's Iraq Was descended in a travesty of sliding excuses for starting the war, after Bush announced that this is not Vietnam, the ancient general who lead North Vietnam's army so long ago wrote an oped in the New York Times castigating the United States for its exceptional assumption that it could just go in and make little countries do whatever the United States wanted. From Thermopylae to Afghanistan, old wars never die, they do not even fade away. Good war monuments will warn us of this. As the old folk song goes, "Teach your children well, their father's hell . . ." For a link to the song, go here: