As monuments fall, Confederate carving has size on its side

FILE - This June 23, 2015 file photo shows a carving depicting Confederate Civil War figures Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, in Stone Mountain, Ga. The sculpture is America's largest Confederate memorial. (AP Photo/John Bazemore, File)
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Some statues of figures from America’s slave-owning past have been yanked down by protesters, others dismantled by order of governors or city leaders. But the largest Confederate monument ever crafted — colossal figures carved into the solid rock of a Georgia mountainside — may outlast them all.

Stone Mountain’s supersized sculpture depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson mounted on horseback has special protection enshrined in Georgia law.

Even if its demolition were sanctioned, the monument’s sheer size poses serious challenges. The carving measures 190 feet (58 meters) across and 90 feet (27 meters) tall. An old photo shows a worker on scaffolding just below Lee’s chin barely reaching his nose.

Numerous Confederate statues and monuments to American slave owners have come down across the South amid recent protests against racial injustice. Stone Mountain hasn’t escaped notice.

After organizing a protest where thousands marched in neighboring Atlanta, 19-year-old Zoe Bambara held a demonstration June 4 with a much smaller group — her permit allowed no more than 25 — inside the state park where the sculpture has drawn millions of tourists for decades.

“The Confederacy doesn’t celebrate the South; it celebrates white supremacy,” said Bambara, who is Black. “The people on that mountain, they hated me. They didn’t know me, but they hated me and my ancestors. It hurts to see those people celebrated and a memorial dedicated to them.”

Still, Bambara admits she’s at a loss for what should be done with the massive monument, conceived some 50 years after the Civil War ended but not finished until 1972.

The sculpture’s creators used dynamite to blast huge chunks of granite away from the mountain, then spent years carving the detailed figures with hand-held cutting torches.

Erasing the carving would be dangerous, time-consuming and expensive.

The stone is likely too durable for sandblasting, said Ben Bentkowski, president of the Atlanta Geological Society. Controlled explosions using TNT packed into holes drilled in the mountainside would work, he said.

“With the logistics, the safety aspect of it, you’d have a budget certainly north of $1 million, I suspect,” Bentkowski said. “You’ll need insurance for the project, you’ll need hazard pay for people working on the surface of it. It could easily take a year or more.”

There’s also a sizable legal obstacle.

When Georgia lawmakers voted in 2001 to change the state flag that had been dominated by the Confederate battle emblem since 1956, language to guarantee the preservation of the Stone Mountain sculpture was included as a bargaining chip.

The law states that “the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion.”

Ryan Gravel, an Atlanta-based urban designer, noted the law doesn’t mandate maintenance. He suggested allowing nature to take its course, letting vegetation grow over the sculpture from its nooks and crannies.

“I think we’re in a moment where pushing the limits of that law is possible,” Gravel said. “And certainly the scale of the challenge at Stone Mountain warrants that.”

Other ideas — such as adding a bell tower atop the mountain in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — have failed to take hold. And Democratic proposals to strip the protective language from Georgia law have fallen flat with the Republican-controlled Legislature.

Asked whether Stone Mountain still deserves special protection, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp didn’t give a direct answer when speaking to reporters June 26.

“As I’ve said many times, we can’t hide from our history,” Kemp said, while citing the new hate crimes law he signed the same day as a significant step in fighting racial injustice.

Stone Mountain wasn’t a battle site and had little historical significance to the Civil War. But 50 years after the war ended, the exposed surface of the mountain’s northern face sparked an idea among the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

“It looked like a giant billboard,” said Stan Deaton, senior historian for the Georgia Historical Society.

The group hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum — who later would carve Mount Rushmore — to design a massive Confederate monument in 1915.

That same year, the movie “The Birth of a Nation” glorified the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan and Stone Mountain played a key role in its resurgence, marking its comeback with a cross burning atop the mountain on Thanksgiving night.

Budget problems plagued the Stone Mountain project and work on the sculpture languished until the state bought the mountain and surrounding land in 1958 for a public park. Finishing the monument gained renewed urgency as the civil rights movement brought unwanted change to defiant Southern states.

“It became the centerpiece of the park,” Deaton said. “There was never any doubt that the state’s intention of finishing this was of a piece with massive resistance.”

An estimated 10,000 people attended the monument’s dedication in 1970. Another two years passed before its official completion.

Five decades later, the park at Stone Mountain markets itself as a family theme park rather than a shrine to the “Lost Cause” mythology that romanticizes the Confederacy as chivalrous defenders of states’ rights. Its website highlights miniature golf and a dinosaur-themed attraction while downplaying the Confederate carving, Confederate flags and brick terraces dedicated to each Confederate state.

Paula and Michael Smith of Monticello, Georgia, visited Stone Mountain on Monday so their 10-year-old grandson could see the monument for the first time.

“The mountain itself is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and the carving is an engineering marvel,” said Paula Smith, a 70-year-old white woman who dismissed talk of removing or altering the carving as an attempt to “steal American history.”

Jarvis Jones climbs the steep hiking trail on the back side of Stone Mountain several times a week. The 29-year-old Black man said he tries to avoid seeing the carving.

“I definitely understand everyone wants their history to be represented,” Jones said. “But when it comes to the oppression of other people, I think it needs to change.”q