A family fest at Stone Mountain with a historic detour.

On our weekend trip to visit family in Atlanta, we got the chance to see Stone Mountain Park, a stunning and action-packed natural wonder filled with outdoor activities and learning opportunites. Patrick kept telling me that I absolutely must see the laser-show. Meanwhile, the kids ate up the delicious food prepared by Suebee and Pops while playing with their cousins in the sand pit at the playground. Aunt Ashley’s brilliance came up again when I noticed she had wet the twins’ heads in the water fountain to help them beat the heat. I don’t think Ashley Coryell ever met a mountain she could not climb.
According to Willard Neal, Stone Mountain’s Confederate Memorial is “the world’s largest piece of sculpture, cut into the side of the world’s biggest exposed mass of granite”. The carving itself is 90 feet tall and 190 feet wide, and its completion is fraught with mystery and history. I’ll share a few versions of the narrative, especially since the official guide, Neal’s Georgia’s Stone Mountain, purchased at the park museum, leaves out significant facts about Stone Mountain’s role in Georgia’s history.
In 1909, Mrs. Helen Plane, a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), expressed the thought that it would be a “fine place for a monument”. In 1915, Mrs. Plane had ascended to the position of president in the Atlanta Chapter of the UDC, and she began exploring the prospect of having a 70-foot statue of General Robert E. Lee carved on the steep side of the mountain. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum stayed for a few weeks at the nearby home of Samuel H. Venable, the patriarch of the family that owned the mountain, where he sketched images of Confederate soldiers riding around the mountain.
Borglum presented his drawings to a UDC meeting only to be met with a discomfitting buzz. The ladies could not commit to a sculpture that would require ten years to complete and 10 million dollars to finish. Nevertheless, in 1916, Sam Venable, Mrs. Coribel Venable Kellogg, and Mrs. Robert Venable Roper deeded the face of Stone Mountain and ten adjoining acres to the UDC with the caveat that the property would be returned to its original owners if a suitable monument was not finished in twelve years.
By this point, Stone Mountain was already playing a monumental role in the visions of another nearby group. On November 15, 1925, a group of men wear white robes and hoods met at Stone Mountain to form a new version of the Ku Klux Klan. Leader William J. Simmons was assisted by members of the Knights of Mary Phagan in lighting a cross on fire. Nathan Bedford Forrest II, the grandson of the original Imperial Grand Wizard (or the Incredible Grand Pig-ear, as I like to call him), administered the KKK oath to all those present. Samuel Venable, the owner of Stone Mountain, witnessed the event.

At the risk of seeming nitpicky or unfairly focused on unseamly details, I have to point out that Willard must have gone OUT OF HIS WAY to ensure that the KKK’s early association with the Stone Mountain monument stayed out of his book. A newspaper no less prominent than the Atlanta Journal-Constitution proudly proclaimed the association in the clipping above from the November 1915 newspaper.
The monument was put on the backburner as the US began to fight World War I. In 1923, however, fundraising began again. Mr. Venable gave the KKK an easement with perpetual right to hold “celebrations” at Stone Mountain whenever they desired. In this way, Mr. Venable made Stone Mountain one of the few sacred locations of the Klan in our country. Thanks to Venable’s perpetual love for the Klan, many Klan members still consider Stone Mountain to be a monument to the KKK as well as the Confederacy.
Ultimately, the monument took the form chosen by the UDC and the Klan- a monument to three men whom they hoped would be adored as heroes of the Confederacy. A monument which depicted a battle scene or a set of soldiers would have been more ambiguous and less obviously glorifying than the quasi-Mount Rushmore which was ultimately created. Of the $250,000 raised, part came directly from the Ku Klux Klan but part came from the federal government, which in 1924 issued special coinage with Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson on them.

The Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial, the world’s largest bas-relief

A few chalk drawings on a lower portion of the stone.

A well-drawn bird doodle.

Patrick and Micah sasheyed into the museum as Max and I lagged behind.

The only bad history is the one which avoids a clear picture for fear of a forthright reckoning with the past. In his incomparable “I Have A Dream” speech, Martin Luther King said:

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

In this famous speech, Martin Luther King did not hesitate to declare- “But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” Honestly, I think he would be thrilled to see how the playgrounds, jogging trails, and park spaces of Stone Mountain were covered with people of every possible skin color today.
There’s no need to “whitewash” history anymore. It’s embarassing. Young children learn the names of the men on the monument and see them as heroes, so the context in which this carving was created as well as the audience it was intended to satisfy cannot be left out of the story.
As always, I encourage you to chase your own butterflies where they lead you and explore a little more of Stone Mountain. A few resources to help you on your way: