The story of Stone Mountain, the world’s largest Confederate monument

Jay Busbee
·10 min read
STONE MOUNTAIN, GA - JUNE 16: Organizer Quintavious Rhodes addresses Black Lives Matter protesters during a march in Stone Mountain Park to the Confederate carving etched into the stone side of the mountain on June 16, 2020 in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The march is to protest confederate monuments and recent police shootings.  Stone Mountain Park features a Confederate Memorial carving depicting Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis.  (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Organizer Quintavious Rhodes addresses Black Lives Matter protesters during a march in Stone Mountain Park to the Confederate carving etched into the stone side of the mountain. Stone Mountain Park features a Confederate Memorial Carving depicting Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

It’s 1,683 feet high, with a circumference of 3.8 miles. It’s the largest mass of exposed granite in the world. It’s been the site of everything from family picnics to Klan rallies for nearly a century. It looms, literally and figuratively, over the ongoing Confederate statue debate.

It’s Stone Mountain, and it’s an enormous, indelible monument to the Confederacy.

Located just east of Atlanta, Stone Mountain is an easily identifiable landmark when flying into the world’s busiest airport. An egg-shaped mass that’s only the uppermost tip of a miles-wide swath of rock, its distinctive granite graces everything from the steps on the East Wing of the U.S. Capitol to the Panama Canal to the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. It’s also hosted generations of tourists, drawn both to the awe-inspiring size of the mountain and the gargantuan carving of Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson carved on its face.

The “Memorial Carving,” as it’s dubbed on the park’s website, is 400 feet above the surrounding ground and extends as much as 42 feet into the rock. It’s the largest bas-relief (i.e. carved from surrounding rock) sculpture in the world, 90 feet by 190 feet. Lee is the size of a nine-story building, and an adult could stand up inside the mouth of one of the horses.

Through a 1958 act of the Georgia Assembly, it’s a state-sanctioned monument to the Confederacy. It’s also, in the words of Richard Rose, president of the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, “the largest shrine to white supremacy in the history of the world.”

Even as demonstrators remove Confederate monuments around the nation, Stone Mountain has lurked, the final question in the ongoing effort to recontextualize the acts and sins of the Confederacy. Changing street names and pulling down statues is one thing; how do you begin to address a monument carved out of solid rock?

The Georgia Assembly in 1958 legally deemed the mountain protected under state law “as a Confederate memorial.” Just last year, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp — most recently in the national news for reopening his state only weeks after the pandemic mandated nationwide shutdowns — signed into law a bill protecting monuments in Georgia from removal.

The bill didn’t single out Confederate monuments, plaques and the like for special treatment, but that was its effect — anyone who tears down a memorial will be assessed triple damages for its repair or replacement. And governments that attempt to move such monuments must place them in "a site of similar prominence” — which would be impossible in the case of Stone Mountain.

STONE MOUNTAIN, GA - FEBRUARY 3: The largest confederate memorial in America is carved out of the rock at Stone Mountain Park, as seen on February 3, 2019 in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The site is linked to many Klu Klux Klan gatherings and the state of Georgia's resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950's and 1960's. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
The largest confederate memorial in America is carved out of the rock at Stone Mountain Park. The site is linked to many Klu Klux Klan gatherings and the state of Georgia's resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

"It is true that there are monuments in our history that do not reflect our values," Kemp said during the signing ceremony in April 2019. "We cannot erase them from our history. We must learn from them. These monuments and markers remind us of how far we've come not only as a state but as a country."

Despite the fact that this has been a landmark as long as humans have walked in the Southeast, and despite the fact that it was a tourist stop long before the Civil War, it’s impossible to stand before Stone Mountain and not think of the Confederacy. That was the intent of the men and women who first conceived of a monument on the mountain’s face, and that was the result of a carving that took a half-century to complete.

The project’s first sculptor was Gutzon Borglom, and he envisioned a cavalcade of more than a thousand figures representing the Confederacy. Borglum was fired after disputes with the project’s financiers, and went on to a new project: Mount Rushmore. The work he’d done on Robert E. Lee was blasted off the mountainside, and work began in earnest on the current carving in 1925.

Work on the face of Stone Mountain continued in fits and starts for most of the 20th century, stopped by wars and financial difficulties, but finally concluded in 1972. A vast lawn sits in front of the carving, and flags from all 13 states of the Confederacy, as well as a full range of Confederate regalia, have at times decorated the park in front of the carving.

The mountain also holds the dubious distinction of hosting the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915, as well as the Klan’s first recorded cross burning. Fifteen local white people of the era, inspired by the film Birth of a Nation, sought to re-create the Klan that had existed for a few years during Reconstruction. They did so by burning a kerosene-soaked 16-foot cross, and the next year, initial work began on the carving.

So it’s no coincidence, then, that the mountain has become a rallying point for both defenders of the “Lost Cause” and demonstrators who argue that the Confederacy doesn’t deserve the kind of sanctification that comes from being one of the world’s largest works of art.

There’s a reason Martin Luther King Jr. called out Stone Mountain by name from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in his 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech — “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia” — and there’s also a reason the state of Georgia kept on working on the carving for another decade after that speech.

Generations of Georgians have visited Stone Mountain; the park boasts that it has more than 4 million visitors a year, making it the state’s most popular tourist attraction. The state of Georgia owns the mountain and surrounding park, but the commercial aspects of the park are privatized and handled by the Herschend Family Entertainment.

These days, the park appears to be making a conscious effort to downplay the Confederate aspect. A new logo emphasizes the mountain, rather than what’s carved on its face. The park’s website highlights attractions including a “Dinosaur Explore” exhibit, a train that circles the mountain’s base, the laser and fireworks light show, dining, shopping “and more.”

Indeed, outside of the park’s address — 1000 Robert E. Lee Blvd. — you’ve got to dig deep into the site to even find a mention of the carving. Even a page directly focused on the “Memorial Carving” itself focuses more on the logistics behind the carving’s creation rather than what it’s meant to symbolize.

As recently as last year, according to one YouTube video, the park’s laser light show animated the three figures on horseback while Elvis Presley sang “Dixie” as part of his “American Trilogy.” The figures would “stride” forward, then “turn” and march into the distance:

Stone Mountain has not yet reopened the laser show in the wake of the pandemic shutdown. (Inquiries to the park’s operators about the content of the laser show were not returned.)

“The Confederacy lives in Georgia,” Rose told Yahoo, “although it certainly should have died 155 years ago.”

Change will come to Stone Mountain, but in what form? The carving is obviously impossible to pull down and virtually inaccessible to deface. The options would seem to be demolition, disregard or recontextualization.

Through the National Coalition to End the Confederacy, Rose is hoping to put economic pressure on the state by starting a “No Georgia” campaign. Much as Mississippi changed its state flag to remove the Confederate element, Rose is hopeful that organizations such as Coca-Cola (based in Atlanta) and the SEC (which hosts its football championship in Atlanta) can help pressure the state into altering the carving, one way or another.

“That is my goal,” Rose said. “I learned that from Dr. King: pick the biggest bully on the block, and use the tool of righteousness to slay it.”

Or blast it off the face of the earth. Many critics of the carving have argued for its outright destruction. “The removal of the bas-relief of Confederates from Stone Mountain has been a constant debate since the state bought the property in 1958,” Stacy Abrams, who lost a narrow gubernatorial election to Kemp, tweeted in 2017. “We must never celebrate those who defended slavery and tried to destroy the Union.”

“Instead of dividing Georgians with inflammatory rhetoric for political gain,” then-Lieutenant Gov. Casey Cagle said in response, “we should work together to add to our history, not take from it.”

“Adding to history” has been one semi-serious idea: adding everyone from MLK to revered Atlanta rap duo Outkast to the carving. That wouldn’t quite solve the issue, nor would simply blasting Lee, Jackson and Davis into oblivion.

“It’s fun to talk about adding Outkast or whoever,” Atlanta-based urban designer Ryan Gravel said, “but blasting it off has real challenges, physically, financially and culturally.”

“Blasting may be quicker, but aesthetically, it wouldn’t be the same,” Rose said. “I would like to see it returned to its natural state.” Rose says that stonemasons have said that filling in the monument with similarly-colored concrete could be done at a cost of $800,000 to $1.25 million.

But any attempt to alter the mountain in any way, even by adding elements, will meet with fierce opposition. In 2015, shortly after a white supremacist massacred a Charleston, South Carolina, church, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association proposed placing a bell tower dedicated to King atop the mountain, an homage to his “let freedom ring” quote. But the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans criticized the proposal; the bell tower to date has not been built.

“Would someone come along and say, because we need to have full diversity of opinion, we should put a bust of Robert E. Lee, of Stonewall Jackson, of Jefferson Davis at the King Center?” Martin O’Toole of the Georgia chapter of the SCV told Yahoo. “The intention is not to recontextualize [Confederate monuments], but to destroy.”

In an article in The Guardian, Gravel proposed a slower form of reclamation — simply halting the cleaning of the carving — as well as other initial steps to downplay the significance and prominence of the carving.

“Starting the conversation with blasting it off won’t get anywhere,” Gravel said. “Don’t worship it, but don’t blast it off. Find that space, that middle ground, demonstrate an intentionality to change so we can come up with some better answer.”

Stone Mountain itself will loom over the landscape long after everyone now debating its fate is long gone. The carving on the mountain’s face? That’s a different story with an uncertain conclusion.

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him with tips and story ideas at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.