Celebrating Jeff Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson. Who could object?
I remember the first time I saw Stone Mountain in Georgia. My sister lived in Atlanta in the late 1990s, I was visiting, and I'd already gone to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center (which disappointed), the Ebenezer Baptist Church (cool), and MLK's childhood home (intriguing for imagining a young MLK running around). I'd walked the walk along Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue, and had seen—hadn't I?—the old SCLC office, next to some liquor store in a rundown section of town. I'd shaken my head over that. Shouldn't there be upkeep? Shouldn't that be preserved?
All of that I did on my own. Then one day, as a group, we did Stone Mountain, 20 miles outside Atlanta and referenced in MLK's “I Have a Dream” speech. From the get-go, I felt like I'd landed in an alternate reality or enemy territory. I suppose I had. There was this big bas-relief sculpture carved into the mountain of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. “It's a Confederate Mount Rushmore,” I thought. But it was the walkway in the park that really got me. Different slabs indicated, as if they were points of pride, when each Confederate state seceded from the union. Here went South Carolina, there went North Carolina. This is when Virginia took up arms. And Georgia.
Civil War history? Not exactly. The relief sculpture was first conceived by Mrs. C. Helen Plane, charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, in 1916, 50 years after the end of the Civil War, during the excitement following the release of D.W. Griffith's “The Birth of a Nation” and the subsequent rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. All that rewriting going on. At the time, the mountain was owned by the Venable brothers, William and Samuel, the latter of whom was involved in the KKK, and they leased the north face of the mountain for the sculpture. Work started in the 1920s, stopped, stuttered. Decades went by. It gained momentum again during the civil rights movement but it wasn't officially completed until 1973, by which time the state of Georgia owned Stone Mountain. Not sure when the secessionist walkway was built. Either way, the thing is recent history.
I've always wondered over almost any kind of memoralization or romanticization of the Confederacy. “The Night They Drove Ol' Dixie Down”? Isn't that really about the end of slavery? So why does The Band make it seem sad? Why the Confederate flag on the Gen. Robert E. Lee for the good ol' boys of “Dukes of Hazard”? Isn't this a symbol of ... defection? Treason? It felt like a disconnect. It felt like the true meaning of the thing was always passed over, swept aside, handled with a wink.
Not anymore. Maybe we can thank Trump and the white nationalists for this. Maybe it's the one thing in this long awful year we can thank them for.