It’s “white supremacy normalized”: A historian on why Stone Mountain should come down

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A protester holds a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the Confederate carving in Stone Mountain Park on June 16, 2020, in Stone Mountain, Georgia. | Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The largest Confederate monument in the nation was once the site of Ku Klux Klan gatherings.

“Black power, Black love,” hundreds of protesters chanted on July 4 as they marched through Stone Mountain Park, demanding the removal of the Confederate monument just outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The peaceful demonstrators, some armed and wearing bulletproof vests, showed up at the multi-day protest inspired by the ongoing global movement to end police killings of Black Americans. As the country reckons with its racist history, there has been a nationwide push to take down Confederate monuments as symbols of white supremacy. Stone Mountain is no exception.

At nine stories tall, Stone Mountain is the largest Confederate monument in the nation. Once owned by brothers Sam and William Venable, who both had direct ties to the Ku Klux Klan, the monument has been used as a space for cross-burnings and other white supremacist rituals throughout its history. Construction of the monument — which includes bas relief carvings of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — was started in 1916 and completed in 1965, opening to the public on the 100-year anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Today, Stone Mountain is an amusement park, with a railroad and mini-golf, and one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state of Georgia. It’s also, according to the president of the NAACP, “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world.”

Activists have long called for removing the etchings on Stone Mountain. But the question remains: What would it take for the largest monument to Lost Cause mythology to finally come down?

Vox spoke to Hasan Jeffries, an associate professor of history at Ohio State University and a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, about Stone Mountain’s history and whether this moment of racial reckoning in our country will assist in its removal. Our interview has been edited and condensed.

Isabella Simonetti

Can you describe the origins of Stone Mountain, including its direct connection to the Ku Klux Klan?

Hasan Jeffries

Stone Mountain is actually really interesting because the impetus for it is the desire to not only memorialize the Confederacy but also to reassert white supremacy. It is born of that wave of efforts to do just that, and that really sweeps the South around in the first two decades or so of the 20th century.

But what’s so interesting about Stone Mountain is that it’s not completed until the 1970s. In other words, it’s begun and then they don’t have the money to complete it, and it partially exists. And then we get the civil rights movement. So the desire for African Americans to gain their freedom led to whites reasserting — 100 years after the Confederacy fell — the ideas and notions of white supremacy. And then it’s not until the early 1970s that the actual monument is completed, after the height of the civil rights movement and into the post-civil rights black power era.

When we think about Stone Mountain’s history, this isn’t something of a bygone era. This is something that has been reimagined and has benefited from new energy over the last century. So it’s not just, “Hey, what do we do with these old monuments from the past?” Stone Mountain is something that’s very current. It not only occupies a public space, but public money — taxpayer money from Black folks went into its final construction as well as going into maintaining it as a park.

Isabella Simonetti

What does that history illuminate about America’s racist past and present, especially considering an entire amusement park was built around it?

Hasan Jeffries

It becomes this sort of sacred site for the Klan where you have cross-burnings and Klan revivals and all this stuff. This is the birth of the nation’s early 20th century Klan.

It’s also white supremacy normalized, and that’s what we have to wrap our minds around. It’s not just the Klan going there and then the rest of white Georgia is like, “Oh no, that’s not us.” It’s the Klan on Saturday and it’s a picnic on Sunday. It’s an amusement park, it’s a place for festivals. It’s the normalization of white supremacy which makes it so problematic. It was the expression of that idea of violence and terrorism that is receiving the public’s support.

Isabella Simonetti

Since the protests started over a month ago, the movement to get rid of certain monuments has picked up again and several have gone down — even Mississippi is getting a new flag. What do you think will happen to Stone Mountain?

Hasan Jeffries

What will happen versus what I think should happen are two different things. I think the time for having those figures up there is up. I think that’s what we’re learning. There’s no great value coming from that. We know what was there. We know what’s there now. There’s no reason to continue it there. People will say, “Well, this is about heritage.” Well, it’s about the heritage of hate, and it’s as much about removing and changing out of the public space these symbols of hate, these symbols of white supremacy.

It isn’t about erasing the past because you can’t: There’s no such thing as erasing the past. It’s actually about acknowledging what the past was and saying, “What do we want our future to be? And how inclusive do we want our future to be?”

So is there a different level of technical expertise and expenditure that is going to be required to remove those figures off Stone Mountain? Yeah, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it if we’re serious. If the state of Georgia is serious, if we as a nation are serious about recognizing, acknowledging, and believing that Black Lives Matter and that white supremacy should not be the ethos upon which we build our society.

Isabella Simonetti

What would the significance of Stone Mountain being taken down be in the context of the anti-racism movement happening now?

Hasan Jeffries

First, it’s symbolic. No Black people will be lifted out of poverty if you remove those three figures from Stone Mountain. Just like no Black people are gonna be lifted out of poverty by taking down a statue in front of some county courthouse. So in that sense, it’s a modest step.

But it is an important step, and it is an important symbol for what the future ought to be and what the present in fact is. And that step is that we are no longer going to embrace, we are no longer going to celebrate, we are no longer going to tolerate white supremacy in our public square. Because as long as you have those symbols up, you are actually saying that it’s okay, that these beliefs in white supremacy, that there’s a place for that in this society. There’s no escaping that.

This isn’t about free speech. This is about terrorism and celebrating terrorism, saying that it’s okay. And so for Georgia to move in that direction I think is vitally important. Will they move in it? Perhaps in time. We know the demographics of Georgia are changing, the electorate of Georgia is changing, it’s becoming more diverse, it’s becoming more African American, it’s becoming more Latinx in particular, and it’s becoming more progressive. I think that Stone Mountain’s days are limited as it exists today, but what is that time table? Only time will tell. Think about how long it took for Georgia and Mississippi to just take down the damn flag.

Isabella Simonetti

Do you think a lot of people outside of the South are even aware of Stone Mountain, its symbolism and history?

Hasan Jeffries

You can see Stone Mountain as you’re flying into Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. And more than a few pilots I have known in my travels since I have flown in and out of Atlanta Hartsfield Airport will say, “You can see over to your right Stone Mountain, Georgia.” So people are not unaware of it, people are not unfamiliar with it. But that shouldn’t be an obstacle to doing what is right.

Stone Mountain itself is a national wonder. But there’s nothing natural about that graffiti that has been etched onto the mountain. I don’t think anyone’s talking about doing away with the mountain, they’re just saying it’s time to erase the graffiti. It’s time to clean it up.

Isabella Simonetti

In your experience, what would it take for government officials to take down a monument like the one on Stone Mountain? There is the logistical part of removing something so deeply etched and massive, but what would need to change at the government and public opinion levels?

Hasan Jeffries

They’re only gonna respond to public pressure. Public pressure with literally people taking to the streets. South Carolina didn’t take down the Confederate flag from the steps of its state capitol until after the tragic shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and it wasn’t in response necessarily to the shooting. It was in response to people coming out and saying, “We gotta take this thing down now.” Elected officials, they are not going to lead the way, they are only going to respond.

Isabella Simonetti

Why have statues become such flashpoints for controversy during this moment of racial reckoning?

Hasan Jeffries

I think they’re visible targets of white supremacy, in much the same way that African Americans in the 1960s were targeting Jim Crow signs. In a way, it’s easier to gather momentum and gather people physically around a physical structure, a monument, than it is around an abstract concept like systemic racism. But the monument, the language, the name of the team, the name on the school, they are just reflections of symptoms of a larger problem. The bigger project is to address the issue that led people to put that monument there in the first place, and then that let people 100 years later defend its presence knowing its origin and knowing its meaning.

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