A new documentary from the Atlanta History Center grapples with the legacy of Stone Mountain and questions how Georgians can move forward from the ugly past the monument represents.
“Monument: The Untold Story of Stone Mountain” premiered at the Atlanta History Center on Jan. 11 and is now available to stream online. The 30-minute film reflects on the social and political context that led to the creation of the monument, the mountain’s relationship with the Ku Klux Klan, and what to do moving forward through interviews with historians, activists, as well as the daughter of the man who worked on the monument itself.
To some Georgians, it may seem like Stone Mountain has been there forever – the faces of Confederate figures Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson looming over the park. But the carving wasn’t fully completed until 1972 – more than a century after the end of the Civil War – and the documentary reveals the push to finish its construction was spurred by racism.
Work on the carving began in the early 1920s, initially spearheaded by Helen Plane, charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But by 1928, funds had run out with just Lee’s head complete. The mountain sat untouched for years.
In 1954 – as a response to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that ruled racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional – Marvin Griffin made a promise during his gubernatorial campaign to buy Stone Mountain and restart the carving. Griffin was a staunch segregationist, and would serve as governor of Georgia from 1955-59.
“The Stone Mountain that we know today is really a story about Civil Rights and the era of Civil Rights, when Georgia and other states throughout the south and the deep south were going through a period of intense reaction to efforts to transform the segregated south,” said Joseph Crespino, Jimmy Carter professor of history at Emory University, in the documentary. “That was the political impetus that gave rise to a renewed effort to remember a certain version of the Civil War and to commemorate it and to finish this carving that had been started half a century earlier.”
The documentary also dives deep into the myth of the Lost Cause which frames the Civil War as a heroic endeavor not centered on the right to own enslaved people, but rather on states’ rights. Historians in the documentary point to the Confederate states’ desire to find a reason for the loss and devastation of the war. The reason they came up with, according to Atlanta History Center Senior Military Historian and Curator Gordon Jones, is that they didn’t really lose.
“The Confederates say, we did lose militarily, but in the process, we won a moral victory,” Jones said. “So how can you say that there’s anything wrong with that? Just because you won, the Confederates say, that doesn’t mean you were right. This is what we call the myth of the Lost Cause.”
Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes appears in the documentary, and said he was in high school before he learned that the south did not win the Civil War.
“It was a myth, and not the truth of what happened in this state or in the south,” Barnes said.
The film ends on Atlanta History Center President Sheffield Hale reading a 2001 law that codified protection of the monument, declaring that it should never be “altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause.”
“There is no clearer statement of the Lost Cause anywhere than does appear and [is] codified in Georgia law,” Hale said.
After the Jan. 11 premiere of the film, many of the talking heads present in the documentary participated in a Q&A where they talked about how to move forward. In the past few years, conversations around Stone Mountain have only grown in number. In 2016, the Atlanta History Center started its Confederate monuments initiative, designed to help people address Confederate monuments in their communities. The Stone Mountain Action Coalition (SMAC), a movement that aims to create a more inclusive Stone Mountain Park, is currently circulating a petition calling for the park to remove all Confederate symbols, as well as the names of Confederate leaders and KKK supporters from the park by no later than June 19, 2023.
SMAC has supported legislation in the past that would remove government protections for Stone Mountain as a Confederate memorial. After the documentary premiere, some of the conversation centered around how to address the issue of Stone Mountain, particularly in the context of the 2001 law. Cynthia Neal Spence, co-chair of sociology and anthropology at Spelman College, asked people who think of Confederate monuments as heritage to consider their meaning.
“When they say it’s heritage, they really are talking from a place of emotion, and they’re talking about protecting something of meaning for them,” she said. “But yet, when we think about … that meaning, the significance and the impact of these symbols that they choose to hold onto, I believe that they don’t necessarily see them in a larger scope, to see how what they’re holding onto was really a lot of hate.”