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Georgia View: Additions, Not Subtractions

A stroll along our National Mall in Washington, D.C., almost never fails to conjure feelings of pride and patriotism. All within a reasonable walk at just under 310 acres are the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial and Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. The Mall also includes the majority of Smithsonian Museums including the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture among others. The Mall and surrounding institutions share annual visitation of roughly 24 million.

Here in Georgia, we have our own memorials marking the state’s past. The most visited destination, by a healthy margin, remains Stone Mountain Park, hosting roughly 4 million annual visitors. The park sits on the eastern edge of DeKalb County, along the Gwinnett County border, across a sprawling 3,300 acres.

The famous and historic granite relief carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson occupies three of those 3,300 acres. The Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) recently acknowledged plans to make two significant additions to the park, each broadening the historic narrative and storytelling mission of this unique Georgia asset and greenspace.

On Aug. 28, 1963, speaking to an audience of nearly 250,000 and after completing the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of our nation’s most admired and often quoted speeches, I Have a Dream. As King concluded his address, he painted a hopeful picture of a New South and a nation where freedom rang freely from the mountaintops to the molehills. In that speech he specifically expressed hope for freedom to ring loudly one day from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee and also “from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

Putting his reference in perspective, in 1958, after decades of failed attempts to complete a Confederate monument carving on the northern face of the mountain, the state of Georgia purchased the mountain (formerly an active granite quarry) and hundreds of surrounding acres, and carving began again in 1964. Also in 1958, by act of condemnation, the state ceased allowing the Ku Klux Klan to hold meetings and rallies atop the mountain, which they had been allowed to do by the previous owners, the Venable family, since 1915.

King was well aware of these darker moments in the history of the mountain, and even if the eventuality of the carving’s completion (in 1972) was far from a certainty, King knew that the reference to Stone Mountain and the importance for freedom ringing out from the top of that specific place would not be lost on his audience.

On Aug. 28, 2013, 50 years later, a group of about 100 people met atop the mountain to ring a large bell, delivering on the promise of Dr. King’s speech decades earlier. The event launched discussions about honoring and acknowledging Dr. King, his historic address given from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and sharing that dream in the form of a Freedom Bell, the ring and peal of which would be regularly heard from atop Stone Mountain.

In addition to the Freedom Bell, there will also be a new permanent museum exhibit on the park grounds honoring the contributions, sacrifices and casualties of African-American Union and Confederate soldiers who fought during the Civil War.

The SMMA board and its staff are stewards of the Confederate monuments and memorials, protected by state law, and provide the business oversight and direction to multiple partners and the master vendor operating Stone Mountain Park. This work includes making periodic additions to the park offerings as varied as Snow Mountain, Ride the Ducks and annual enhancements to the holiday programming in the Crossroads Village.

These additions will simply give Stone Mountain Park visitors at least two more reasons to spend their time as well as their dimes within the park. Stone Mountain Park has long been a self-financing entity, and it is not envisioned that the Freedom Bell or museum exhibit will require any taxpayer contributions or appropriation. And with 3,300 acres available, there remains ample room for telling considerably more of the story of Georgia’s history, including the Civil Rights era as a very solid addition.

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