Red, Blue & You: A Stone Mountain for All

The potential for Stone Mountain is limitless, but only if we untether ourselves from the mistakes of the past.

Johnson Tharon Square 200Stone Mountain is one of the most iconic natural features in Georgia. Sitting just over a dozen miles outside of Atlanta in DeKalb County, the park is among the most visited tourist attractions in the state and Southeast, attracting over four million visitors per year pre-pandemic. This quartz monzonite dome rises to nearly 1,700 feet above sea level and is a truly unique geological feature which has few companions anywhere in the world.

Despite its rich natural history and ecology, Stone Mountain Park is also known for its association with some of the darkest parts of not just Georgia history, but American history. Stone Mountain is home to the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world, one which is dedicated to three of the most prominent figures in Confederate history – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

Stone Mountain has become something of a mecca to a concept known as the “Lost Cause,” which is the pervasive myth that the cause of the Confederacy was both just and not centered on slavery. This mythology has been built up around the Confederate States for decades, one that celebrates a heritage of segregationists and slaveowners under the false pretenses of honor and pride. The fact that this monument is located in one of the states with the highest Black populations in the country is no coincidence, either.

Despite high levels of pre-pandemic attendance, the racial reckoning that has taken place in this country over the last few years has had a dramatic impact on Stone Mountain Park. Last year, the organization that managed many of the attractions, shops and convention space, Herschend Family Entertainment, pulled out of the park citing “protests and divisions.” Only one firm put in a bid to replace them, Thrive Attractions Management, which was created by a Herschend company official and is now operating those parts of the park.

Stone Mountain Georgia 3714147 1280Even the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) CEO Bill Stephens has acknowledged that some businesses no longer want to hold their conventions at the park’s hotels due to the ongoing controversies. While there have been small steps taken in the last few years, including a shakeup of SMMA membership, relocating Confederate flags and the rededication of an iconic bridge to the Black man who designed and built it, W.W. King, there is no escaping the shadow of the 90-foot-tall, 190-foot-wide carving.

One change that did pick up some bipartisan traction this year was a request from SMMA to fund a “truth-telling” exhibit at the park, the content of which is still being planned. Their request totaled $11 million, and it ended up in the final budget passed by the legislature this year.

Some state legislators are looking to go even further. Rep. Billy Mitchell, the chair of the DeKalb County delegation, introduced HB 794 this year alongside Capitol veteran Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver and freshman Rep. Omari Crawford. The bill would remove the official designation of Stone Mountain Park as a Confederate Memorial. It would also remove “Memorial” from the governing body’s name.

It is essential that we remember our history. The legacy of the Confederacy lives in the South, reflected in the systemic racism that still permeates the region. We should be talking about our history, the key figures in it and how it continues to impact us today. However, we can and must have those conversations without mythologizing the people who played a part in causing those problems.

We can reclaim a beautiful natural feature, one that welcomes all people regardless of race. We can tell a story that shows how far we have come, one that helps us avoid making the same mistakes in the future. The potential for Stone Mountain is limitless, but only if we untether ourselves from the mistakes of the past.

There is much to be proud of in Georgia’s history and the leaders who shaped our state into what it is today. Since our founding as a colony in 1732, countless people have come and gone whose values and accomplishments we can recognize in reverence. We can and should have conversations about who our state’s heroes truly are so that our monuments reflect the best of those who came before us.

Stone Mountain is home to our history, and there is no reason that cannot continue to be the case. A lot has changed since the carving’s completion 50 years ago. It might be time for us to change as well.

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