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Stone Mountain Confederate Monument: Background information when reading Memorial Drive

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Memorial Drive

by Natasha Trethewey

Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey X
Memorial Drive by Natasha Trethewey
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  • First Published:
    Jul 2020, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2021, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Lisa Butts
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Stone Mountain Confederate Monument

This article relates to Memorial Drive

Print Review

Stone Mountain Confederate Monument In Memorial Drive, Natasha Trethewey explores how racism was a common and formative experience as she grew up in the South in the late 1960s and early '70s. This theme is established as she recalls driving to her mother's former apartment, located in Stone Mountain, Georgia, 20 miles northeast of Atlanta. The city is home to a national park that contains the largest Confederate monument in the country, which Trethewey describes as "A lasting metaphor for the white mind" and "the nostalgic dream of Southern heroism and gallantry."

Indeed, the monument, which is carved into the monadnock (isolated rock formation) known as Stone Mountain, began as the dream of a Confederate widow and charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), C. Helen Plane. In 1914, Plane began organizing support among her UDC sisters for the project, and the group chose sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who later carved Mount Rushmore, to create it. Stone Mountain's land was owned by a man named Sam Venable, who was a friend of William Simmons, the founder of the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan. (The KKK had been dormant as an organization for nearly 50 years before this revival.) Simmons announced the rebirth of the Klan atop Stone Mountain on November 25, 1915 and marked the occasion with a cross-burning. Borglum was unable to complete the monument in the 12 years allotted to UDC by Venable, and the project was abandoned.

Work resumed in 1964 amid (perhaps as a result of) the Civil Rights movement, with Walter Kirkland Hancock chosen to lead the project, and the monument was completed in 1972. It features representations of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. Stone Mountain Park — which opened to the public in 1965 on the 100th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's assassination — is Georgia's most popular tourist destination, attracting four million visitors each year. But it has also attracted a considerable amount of controversy and outrage, especially in recent years.

In 2015, after the shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina by white supremacist Dylann Roof, the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) called for the monument to be removed. In the aftermath of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 (during which protesters clashed with white supremacists, one of whom drove a car into a crowd, killing a woman and wounding 19 others), then-Georgia House of Representatives member Stacey Abrams called for the removal of the monument on Twitter, declaring, "[T]he visible image of Stone Mountain's edifice remains a blight on our state." Then-Lieutenant Governor of Georgia Casey Cagle responded by declaring Abrams' statement "inflammatory rhetoric" made "for political gain," demonstrating firm opposition to the calls for removal.

On July 4, 2020, amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests against systemic racism and police brutality, demonstrators gathered at Stone Mountain to denounce the monument. Vice President of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP Gerald Griggs remarked on this occasion, "I think that there's a groundswell of support throughout the state to revisit this conversation." Another demonstration in August 2020 attracted defenders and protesters of the monument — some of whom were armed — and featured a brief physical altercation.

In May 2021, the Stone Mountain Park board of directors voted in favor of a resolution to add an exhibit to the park's museum that will supposedly tell "the whole story" of the monument, but activists believe this is a superficial solution, as the monument itself will remain unchanged.

The monument has been protected since 2001 by a state law declaring "the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion." Thus a legislative reversal or amendment would be required for the monument to be removed or changed.

Stone Mountain Confederate Monument

Filed under Society and Politics

Article by Lisa Butts

This "beyond the book article" relates to Memorial Drive. It originally ran in September 2020 and has been updated for the June 2021 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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