Vendor drama threatens to overshadow Stone Mountain’s Juneteenth Celebration

City of Stone Mountain seal on the historic railroad depot. Photo by Dean Hesse.

Stone Mountain, GA — A controversy over vendors is undermining Stone Mountain’s Juneteenth Celebration.

The controversy came to a head at a June 7 special called Stone Mountain City Council meeting. During an update about the June 19 celebration, Councilmember Clint Monroe pressed members of the city’s Juneteenth Event Committee about denying a vendor permit to the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, a group that is advocating for removing Confederate symbols at Stone Mountain Park.

Juneteenth is celebrated on June 19 to mark the day in 1865 when a Union general arrived in Galveston, Tex., to inform enslaved African Americans of their freedom. The announcement put into effect the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Abraham Lincoln issued more than two-and-a-half years earlier.

Mayor Patricia Wheeler quickly shut down that conversation at the June 7 meeting, calling on a vote to adjourn. The vote split 3-3, with Wheeler casting the tie-breaking vote to adjourn the meeting over the objections of Monroe and Councilmembers Gina Cox and Shawnette Bryant, who voted against adjourning the meeting.

“We’re not going to get anywhere with the discussion that’s going on,” Wheeler said at the end of the meeting. “We took a vote. We have three nos, and three yeses. I break the tie. We’re going to move forward with this.”

Monroe had hoped to force a vote on the city’s official policy about vendors at the event.

“Technically speaking, the establishment of the policy is in the purview of the city council as a whole,” Monroe said. “No one on city council has ever voted for this new policy.”

When asked after the meeting why she wouldn’t allow a vote on a policy, Wheeler said, “Because it was on the agenda as a committee update only.”

Monroe asked if the real reason Wheeler wanted to end discussion about the Juneteenth Festival is because her opponent in the upcoming city elections, Darryl B. Gresham, asked to vend at the event and got turned down. Wheeler did not respond to questions about Monroe’s claims.

Monroe also wondered if a desire to keep Gresham out of the event also resulted in the Juneteenth Event Committee’s decision to block the Stone Mountain Action Coalition from vending at the event. The Juneteenth Event Committee rejected SMAC’s application, citing a rule against “political” vendors.

Monroe said the members of the city’s Juneteenth Event Committee include Councilmembers Chakira Johnson and Jasmine Little, both of whom voted to end the June 7 special called meeting at Wheeler’s request.

Johnson, who did most of the talking for the committee, said the decision to bar “political” vendors was a “position” of the city and not a policy. She said she hoped the city could briefly set aside the controversy surrounding Stone Mountain Park and instead focus on celebrating the holiday of Juneteenth. The park, it should be noted, is not controlled by the city of Stone Mountain.

“All we are imploring and asking is that we take three hours, that’s only three hours, to celebrate Juneteenth and what it stands for, the freedom of my slave ancestors,” Johnson said. “Most of our council is of African American descent. Can we focus on that as a community and leave everything else behind for three hours?”

Little said the event was not intended to be political.

“We don’t want it to be political,” she said. “We want it to celebrate Juneteenth and we want it to not reflect one individual, one person. We want it to be about Juneteenth. Unfortunately, it’s become a thing where it’s become about one person. It’s all about lighthearted fun.”

On June 2, the Juneteenth Event Committee returned the vendor application form to the Stone Mountain Action Coalition.

In its message to SMAC, the Juneteenth Event Committee said, “Vendors should not be of a political nature and must provide a tangible service to the participants at the event, in the form of goods for sale, a non-political voter registration, food, etc. [The Juneteenth Event Committee] has vetted all vendors to ensure they meet these minimal standards.”

Gresham’s campaign said it received notice that it could not be a vendor at the Juneteenth event a day earlier, on June 1.

Sheri Lake, co-founder of SMAC, said the group sent in its application early and has spent about $100 on producing materials for the event.

“The Stone Mountain Action Coalition (SMAC) is disappointed by the city of Stone Mountain’s decision to deny our application to be a part of its Juneteenth festivities,” Lake said. “We support the city’s desire to celebrate its African American history, particularly given its proximity to Stone Mountain Park. But SMAC also believes in the importance of celebrating Juneteenth while simultaneously raising awareness that the work of reconciliation and healing is not yet done. SMAC’s leadership team is considering its next steps in light of the city’s refusal to grant our application.”

Monroe wonders if the decision to reject SMAC is cover for the committee’s desire to bar Gresham from the event.

“I look at SMAC and say what is this? Collateral damage?” he said.

Gresham, the mayoral candidate, blasted the committee’s decision.

“The Juneteenth event is to celebrate freedom,” he said. “The city of Stone Mountain has banned the Committee to elect Darryl Gresham from this event, which is in clear violation of our rights to peacefully assemble. We consider this action a gross and great error. Additionally, other non-profit organizations have been banned as well from the event.”

City Attorney Jeff Strickland attended the special called meeting and said there’s nothing to stop candidates or SMAC from attending the festival and handing out flyers and other materials.

“Frankly, the availability of a vendor table is not in and of itself some constitutionally protected right,” Strickland said.

Monroe thinks that the city is trying to delay the discussion about the issue until after the event has passed.

“This is censorship pure and simple, a First Amendment violation,” Monroe said. “I can’t believe our city attorney would lead us down this stupid road.”

Writer Patrick Saunders contributed to this story. 

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