The mother of all Confederate monuments looms in Georgia. It’s etched on the side of a 280-some-million-year-old monadnock: Stone Mountain, seven miles around at the base and covering 1,000 acres. The Confederate memorial carving—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis on horseback—is on the north face, comprising 3 acres in area. It’s 400 feet above the ground; it’s the largest bas-relief carving in the world—blah, blah, blah, this thing is big.
The armed, mostly Black protesters who peacefully marched in Stone Mountain Park demanding the removal of the carving on the Fourth of July hit social media hard, but the idea that the carving, big (and legally protected) as it may be, needs to go has been gaining traction in recent years. In 2017, Stacey Abrams, then running for governor of Georgia, called for the carving to be removed. Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, interviewed by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Debra McKinney in 2018, called the carving “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world,” and said it should be brought down.
Looking at the history of this piece of public art, which is rich with twists and turns, it becomes clear that the carving is a monument to many kinds of 20th-century white supremacy—the overt racist violence of the second Ku Klux Klan; the decades-long tolerance of the Southern Jim Crow regime by Northerners, who wanted badly to look the other way in the name of “unity”; and later, the consumption-oriented “Lost Cause” nostalgia that reframed all of Southern history as a playground for pleasure seekers. A removal of this particular monument would truly be a victory. It would be hard to do, both physically and legally, but boy, would it be satisfying.
The idea for the monument came at a time of intense racist ferment in Atlanta and the greater South. In August 1915, a mob lynched Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent, in Marietta, for a murder he probably didn’t commit. In November, William Joseph Simmons led a small group of men up Stone Mountain, to swear allegiance to the idea of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan and to burn a huge cross, where it could be seen from the city. A commemorative postcard from the period emphasized the mountain’s bigness and used its commanding presence to amplify the Klan’s message: “Stone Mountain, Largest Solid Stone in the World, one mile from Base to Summit. On its highest pinnacle the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Organized at Midnight, Nov. 25, 1915.” The movie Birth of a Nation, which had premiered in Los Angeles earlier that year, opened in Atlanta to great acclaim on Dec. 6, 1915—two weeks after the cross burned.
Caroline Helen Jemison Plane, leader of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, put forth the idea for the memorial carving in 1912. Plane told the Philadelphia Public Ledger that her idea was for the UDC to “cease the erection of small and perishable local monuments” (prescient!) and instead “concentrate on one which shall be a shrine to the South, and which all Americans may be justly proud.” Gutzon Borglum, the Western sculptor who was later to carve Mount Rushmore, was hired in 1915 as a consultant to the project. The Venable family, which owned the mountain, gave the United Daughters of the Confederacy a time-limited deed to its north face in 1916. (Sam Venable had been part of the group of people on the summit with Simmons when the KKK was reborn, the year before.) Borglum was appointed sculptor and got to work on his plans.
“The huge nature of the conception staggers the imagination,” wrote James Anderson in a laudatory article about Borglum’s idea for the monument, published in Scientific American in 1921. If Borglum’s full vision were to have been realized, the monument would have symbolically hollowed out the mountain—filling it completely, inside and out, with Confederate memory. Borglum’s plan was to include a thousand figures, each representing “some leader in the Army of the South,” each “fifty feet in height, and distinct to the observer five miles away.” “The whole effect,” Anderson wrote, “will be such that it will appear as if the soldiers came out of the mountain, and that, if the mountain were broken up, by some chance, it would be found full of men.”
The Borglum monument was also supposed to have a Memorial Hall, “carved out of solid rock,” at its base, a “vast womblike space” with a “chamber” for every Confederate state—to preserve Confederate records and commemorate the “sacrifices” of Confederate women during the war. The idea was to completely transform the monadnock—to appropriate some of its ancientness, to secure a permanent place in honored memory for a nation that had lasted for fewer than five years.
As Borglum worked on this grand memorial, Atlanta saw more and more Klan activity. In May 1922, the city hosted the seventh “klonvention” of the organization and hosted thousands of Klansmen (by historian Kenneth T. Jackson’s count) for a series of activities that included “a pilgrimage and barbecue at Stone Mountain.” The Atlanta “klavern” had at least 15,000 members by 1923. Nationally, the Second Klan, after failing to gain much traction for a few years, grew strongholds in Indiana, Colorado, and across the country.
But the racism of mainstream American culture in the 1920s—the culture that surrounded Borglum as he carved—wasn’t just about the Klan. In intellectual culture (histories, historical fiction), white Southern interpretations of Southern history dominated. For many “polite” white people, inside and outside of the South, the idea that the Confederates were somehow also patriots was not a foreign one. When a journalist asked Borglum how he could go from carving a bust of Lincoln for the rotunda of the United States Capitol to taking on this project, Borglum both-sides’d it, saying that he had “the deepest respect for the great men of the other side.”
The sculptor, historian Grace Elizabeth Hale writes, seemed to be “more intent on his own rather than the Confederacy’s glory.” What Borglum wanted was for this monument to get recognition as a great American landmark. In pursuit of that goal, he, and the other members of the association trying to secure funding for the carving triangulated, finding ways to present Confederate history as just another part of American history. To some degree, this worked: The association managed to obtain monies for the project from the federal government, via the sale of commemorative coins designed by Borglum and inscribed as “a monument to the valor of the soldiers of the South.”
This national embrace of the Confederacy was not complete: Historian J. Vincent Lowery found evidence of resistance to the idea of federally funding the Stone Mountain monument, from officials of the Grand Army of the Republic and Daughters of the American Revolution, on the grounds that the Confederate rebels were “traitors.” But it was universal enough to get presidential approval. President Warren G. Harding said of the Borglum monument that it would be a testimony to national reconciliation: “One of history’s most complete avowals that unity and understanding may be brought even into the scene where faction, hatred, and hostility have once reigned supreme.”
Borglum didn’t actually begin carving until 1923. He completed only the head of Lee before getting in a fight with the head of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial Association at the time, Hollins Randolph. The two bickered over payment and timing, but it seems that the power struggle had other roots—Hale writes that Borglum, Sam Venable (the Klan member and owner of the land), and Randolph had all aligned themselves with different Klan leaders on the national level. Klan infighting became endemic in the mid-1920s, as the Second Klan dissolved into corruption and scandal. Those national tensions had local effects, and one of them was the end of Borglum’s association with this project.
Randolph and the SMCMA canceled Borglum’s contract in February 1925. “With his flair for the dramatic,” Hale writes, Borglum smashed his models of the monument, leaving his ax alongside the wreckage, and crossed state lines with law enforcement in pursuit. Safe in North Carolina, Borglum looked on as the UDC, Venable, and the SMCMA fought among themselves about financial mismanagement of the money donated for the project (including the money raised by the purchase of those commemorative coins), flinging accusations of embezzlement back and forth.
The group tried to bury the Borglum embarrassment by hiring a relatively unknown artist from Richmond, Virginia, Augustus Lukeman. He took over, removed Borglum’s head of Lee entirely, and began again. In April 1928, the association held a ceremony to unveil the entire figure of the general. Lowery writes that this ceremony drew thousands to the site, including New York Mayor James J. Walker, who lauded the project as “a beacon light to the youth of the nation” and characterized the Civil War—using a classic rhetorical move of reconciliation—as a “family difficulty.” But by the next year, with a million dollars spent, the project’s funds were depleted once again, and the Venable family (as per their original agreement) took the mountain back from the UDC.
Some onlookers in the 1930s thought that the mountainside, after all that public mess, would never host a Confederate memorial. One visitor Hale quoted said that the half-finished memorial—just Lukeman’s Lee and his horse, Traveler, lonely on that big north face—looked like a “vaccination scar” that made “the face of Stone Mountain immune from ever having a monument there.” The National Park Service wouldn’t even take the site under its administration, because the mountain had been carved (and quarried) so extensively that its status as a natural wonder was considered spoiled.
It took the midcentury civil rights movement, and the white backlash against it, to bring the state of Georgia back to the idea of finishing the carving on Stone Mountain. Segregationist Gov. Marvin Griffin was in office when the state decided to purchase Stone Mountain and the land around it for a park, to the tune of $1.1 million. The Legislature mandated that Stone Mountain should be administered as a Confederate memorial and created a new Stone Mountain Memorial Association to handle the project. The association chose a new sculptor, Walker Kirtland Hancock, of Massachusetts, who used a technique employing thermo-jet torches to carve the granite away quickly. Not quickly enough, though—those in charge wanted to unveil the sculpture in 1961, to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War, but the carving wasn’t mostly done until 1970 and wasn’t completely finished until 1972.
As Hancock worked, the idea of surrounding the carving-in-progress with other Southern things—not as obviously Confederate as the bas-relief, a little more acceptable to the appetites of midcentury travelers—took hold. One legislator remarked on Stone Mountain Park’s intended audience: “A Yankee tourist is worth a bale of cotton and twice as easy to pick.” Those creating the park constructed a “historic plantation” out of buildings brought in from around the state. The kind of Southern history to be found on this “historic” plantation was to be of the classic “moonlight and magnolias” variety. At that point, Hale found, “park publications never used the term ‘slave’ ” except when referring to the “slave quarters,” preferring instead the euphemisms “hands” and “workers.”
From 1963 to 1965, the actress Butterfly McQueen—who played Prissy in Gone With the Wind but had trouble securing acting work in the following years—took a job living on the restored plantation, endowing it with a cinematic, nostalgic Southernness by her presence. Even as McQueen (who chafed at Hollywood’s racism in offering her only “maid” roles) greeted visitors from the kitchen in the plantation at Stone Mountain, Martin Luther King Jr., in his Aug. 28, 1963, “I Have a Dream” speech, invoked the spot on his stirring list of Southern hills and high places that he hoped would soon witness a new wave of human equality: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia …”
Vice President Spiro Agnew dedicated the carving in May 1970, giving a speech that the New York Times called “subdued and nonpartisan”—but would now seem anything but. “Just as the South cannot afford to discriminate against any of its own people,” Agnew said, “the rest of the nation cannot afford to discriminate against the South.” Quoting Woodrow Wilson’s 1920 speech at a dedication of a monument to Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery, back at the time of the original planning of the Stone Mountain carving, Agnew said, “I bid you turn with me your face to the future, quickened by the memories of the past, but with nothing to do with the contests of the past, knowing, as we have shed our blood upon opposite sides, we now face and admire each other.”
Between then and now, the Stone Mountain carving has anchored a park increasingly focused on providing seemingly anodyne family entertainment to people looking for a grab bag of Southern-themed pleasures. Reporting his book Confederates in the Attic in the 1990s, journalist Tony Horwitz attended the laser show at Stone Mountain, which is projected right on top of the three Confederate generals. At one point, Horwitz wrote, the lasers outlined Lee, Jackson, and Davis, bringing them to “life,” and the soundtrack played “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” in rapid succession. Lee “broke his sword across his leg,” and the two halves turned into a map of the North and then South, then merged into one nation, as images of random Americana—the Statue of Liberty; JFK’s grave; even, amazingly, Martin Luther King Jr.—danced across the monolith. “The message,” Horwitz wrote, “seemed to be that there was no message.”
But of course, “no message” is a message of its own. When Georgia voted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state flag in 2001, it threw a bone to supporters of Confederate imagery by reaffirming the protected status of the Stone Mountain carving, which was never to be “altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion.” This is exactly the permanence that the UDC leader Caroline Helen Jemison Plane wanted for this memorial. A change to the law aside, those who don’t want Confederate memory to dominate Stone Mountain any longer might have to get creative to undermine that permanence.
Last weekend, as protesters again demanded the carving’s removal, AP reporters Kate Brumback and Russ Bynum interviewed an Atlanta urban designer, Ryan Gravel, who suggested withdrawing the maintenance budget from the carving, allowing plants to creep through the sculpture, year after year, eventually obscuring and pulling it apart. That would be the ultimate testament to the “perishability” of Confederate memory. And hulking and ancient, Stone Mountain itself, its scar at last obscured, would live on.
For more of Slate’s news coverage, subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts or listen below.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus