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Opinion

It’s Time to Demolish Stone Mountain’s Racist Monument

In the 1970s, crews finished carving a tribute to the Confederacy into Stone Mountain. Fifty years later, it's time to scrape it off.

Three hundred million years ago, the Earth heaved and what we now know as the Blue Ridge Mountains started climbing toward the sky. Magma oozing up between tectonic plates cooled into an aberrant mound of granite nesting in the subtle roll of the interior Mid Atlantic. And age after geologic age, that’s all this solid granite blip was—a rock with the same matter-of-fact existence as every other rock. 

Humans applied the meaning. In pre-Colonial times, it was a sacred site for the Creek and Cherokee tribes, among others. Then, 116 years ago, it became something else entirely.

On Thanksgiving, 1915, a group of white men ascended Stone Mountain’s 1,686-foot summit, opened a Bible, and burned a 30-foot-tall cross. The blaze would have been visible for miles in every direction. This was the coming out party for the new Ku Klux Klan.

Two years later, on the 50th anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s surrender to Union forces, a few citizens of Georgia looked at the privately held mountain and saw another way to stick their thumb in the eye of the victors—the same victors who had let their former enemies leave the battlefields with weapons and horses and return home for the spring planting, which would be a lot more work without the forced labor of enslaved people.

The post-Antebellum Georgians conceived of a grandiose homage to their fallen heroes and way of life and commissioned a bas-relief sculpture—the largest in the world—to depict their leaders, Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. The mountain, once a waypoint of inert stone, was now desecrated and politicized.

Fifteen miles west stands the city of Atlanta, with its 50 percent Black population. Every Labor Day for 50 years, from 1915 to 1965, Atlantans looking out toward Stone Mountain could see a flame sitting atop the granite hill as the Klan burned another cross, before the state put a stop to the spectacle. In 1963, Atlanta Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for freedom to ring from Stone Mountain. A year later, work on the Confederate memorial resumed until its completion and dedication in 1970.

The monument stands to this day, protected by a Georgia law that says no one may alter the figures. And, with an annual draw of 4 million people, Stone Mountain Park is the most visited place in Georgia, complete with games for kids, trails, and a summit hike. But now it’s time for the sculpture to come down.

Stone Mountain hikers
Photo: Samuel Mann

In his book Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer famously wrote that mountains make poor receptacles for dreams. So then how do we think about monumental sculpture? From Stone Mountain to Mt. Rushmore, they are intended as a bulwark against time. They call out from silent rock, Don’t forget me. It is folly and insecurity—perhaps the two defining characteristics of humanity—projected as far into eternity as our minds and means know how. But they mar the mountains. As Georgia activist Stacy Abrams said of Stone Mountain during her unsuccessful gubernatorial run in 2020, it is “a blight upon our state.”

Of course it is; it was never intended as anything else, even though it was funded in part by the federal government in an act of magnanimity and reconciliation. It is also a blight upon our country, and from a backpacker’s perspective, a blight upon our mountains.

People will claim today (as they always have) that Stone Mountain is part of Southern heritage. But it is not. Heritage is the values and history passed from one generation to the next so as to inform a better future. Heritage is bringing forth the good as a reliable touchstone. And anyway, we know the heritage we’re really talking about here.

But it should not have to be the heritage of the Black residents of Atlanta who could see the cross burning from the highest mountain around, who understand the sculpture’s implied threat, and who feel that this place does not welcome them. It is not a heritage in service of the present or of value to the future, and so it deserves a place in neither. We can and must return Stone Mountain its dignity by erasing the last grab at an antiquated and heartless way of life. And we must invite all visitors to come, feel excited, and share in the destruction of a monument in an act we can certainly view as part heritage and part healing.

The people of the United States—all the people—aren’t free until none live beneath that sculpture. The mountain isn’t free until it’s cleaned of that stain, washed of its politicization, and returned to the same matter-of-fact existence as every other rock. 

May Stone Mountain stand in that ancient way for another 300 million years, immune to the folly and insecurity that define our path through history, though it will forever bear the scar from a national, moral, and spiritual wound that has only begun to heal.