Stone Mountain board approves proposals to add historical context to controversial park

Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Bill Stephens, left, and Board Chair Rev. Abraham Mosley, right, preside over a May 24 meeting of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt

This story has been updated. 

Stone Mountain, GA — The Stone Mountain Memorial Association at its May 24 committee meetings voted to advance proposals that would add historical context to one of the state’s most controversial parks.

The proposals were later approved at the board’s 1 p.m. meeting. A crowd turned out for the afternoon meeting, with about half the room saying the proposals didn’t go far enough and the other half advocating that the park keep its monuments in place. No one left the room happy.

Here are the proposals the board approved:

– The creation of a museum exhibit inside Memorial Hall to tell the “whole complicated story” of the controversial carving on the mountain side depicting three Confederate leaders. The carving got started in 1915 and was completed in 1972. The SMMA website says, “The Confederate Memorial Carving depicts three Southern heroes of the Civil War: Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson. The figures measure 90 by 190 feet, surrounded by a carved surface that covers three acres, it is larger than a football field – the largest relief sculpture in the world. The carving is recessed 42 feet into the mountain.”

Stone Mountain is also where the second founding of the Ku Klux Klan, a racist terrorist group, took place in 1915, the same year work began on the carving.

There are no plans yet to remove or alter the carving.

– Moving the Confederate flags at the Stone Mountain Park walk up trail to the base of Stone Mountain at Valor Park “where they will be preserved in a place of prominence.”

– Changing the logo of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association to rid it of the images of the Confederate leaders carved into the mountain.

– Seeking a federal historic designation for the Washington W. King Bridge. The bridge was originally constructed in Athens, Ga., crossing the Oconee River and connected parts of the city with the University of Georgia campus in downtown Athens. Washington W. King and his family were prominent African American bridge builders, a press release from the Stone Mountain Memorial Association says.

“The SMMA board will be appointing a 7-member advisory board, comprised of accredited historians, state and local elected officials, tourism industry leaders, and other park stakeholders to make additional recommendations for updates/upgrades and additions to the 3,400-acre state park,” the press release says.

More changes could be announced at future meetings. Some ideas that have been suggested include changing the names of roads around the park named after Confederate figures.

Rev. Abraham Mosley, chair of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said, “I  know folks have been waiting for some time to see changes at this beloved state park. Additions and changes are coming, but we are on a journey, and we want to get this right. It will be difficult to thread a needle and please everyone, but our Georgia today is a broad tapestry, and I would like to think we can weave us all together in some fashion.”

The Stone Mountain Memorial Association committee at its morning meeting voted to advance the proposal to the board meeting after listening to a presentation by the Sons of Confederate Veterans. The organization encouraged park leaders to embrace the Confederate imagery at the park and make it a central part of the draw for visitors. But times are changing and national companies are not interested in being affiliated with the park as it currently exists.

Marriott, the park’s primary hotel and conference center, plans to pull out of the park next year, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. The AJC also reported that Silver Dollar City-Stone Mountain Park, the company that operates the park’s attractions, notified the board that it plans to end their relationship in August 2022. The AJC notes that Coca-Cola’s sponsorship was recently removed from the park’s website.

The park is facing financial trouble. COVID-19 and controversy surrounding the symbols at the park – it’s hard to say which was the bigger factor — ate into its revenues and it’s reporting a $1.3 million income loss year to date. In a different resolution, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association requested the state Financing and Investing Commission issue $3.5 million in bonds to finance projects at the park.

Stone Mountain Memorial Association CEO Bill Stephens said the full truth about the park should be known.

“The entire history is important,” he said. “People should know the entire history of the carving, the park, the monuments and the things that are here at Stone Mountain Park.”

He said with the relocation of the flags, all Confederate memorials would be within one 50-acre area of the carving. He said the logo has got to go as well.

“A logo should not create division,” Stephens said.  “The one that we have does. We should be inclusive and we should change the logo.”

A large crowd showed up for the board’s 1 p.m. meeting. The board limited public comments during the meeting. John Evans, CEO of Leadership to End All Discrimination, boomed into the microphone that the carving has to go.

“What we want you to do and what we want you to consider is taking down the edifice of the three gentlemen on the mountain,” Evans said. “We don’t need a whole lot of talk about this and about that. We need to take down the flags. We need to change the street names and do what we said we were going to do which is eliminate the confederacy from Stone Mountain Park.”

Mary Stevens, who drove from Marietta to speak at the meeting, said, “I just want everything to stay the way it is.”

“The South was invaded,” she said. “They keep talking about treason and all this stuff. [The North] tried to suppress the South. They didn’t care about freeing anybody.”

So what’s the harm in adding historical context to the park?

“It depends on who adds the context,” she said. “If they do, all sides need to be a part of it, not just one side.”

Rev. Mosley and Stephens held a press conference after the meeting, and Mosley said the fate of the carving itself is still being discussed.

“I’m sure the carving will come up,” Mosley said. “It has already come up. But where we go from there, I don’t know. … We want to tell the whole story, the good, the bad and the ugly. History is not good and pleasant to all of us, but it’s history. Now if the past is holding us back from going forward, then we need to do something.”

Later during the press conference, Stephens said removing the carving would be difficult.

“To remove the carving would take a small tactical nuclear weapon,” Stephens said. “It’s three acres of solid granite. It’s probably not going anywhere. That’s why we’re telling the story about it.”

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