In the wake of the Mother Emanuel shootings, Southerners across the region faced a moral reckoning with history. As photos emerged of the slight young murderer with his blond bowl cut, the symbols of his deep-seeded hatred proudly on display, any questions regarding the motives behind the massacre were quickly resolved. The flags of the white supremacist Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa could be dismissed as foreign oddities of “backwards” regimes, lost to history and only understood after a quick Google query. But what of the Confederate Battle Flag?
It continued to fly at state houses across the South. The monuments to its heroes adorned not only their lawns, but the green spaces of Southern universities, and public parks. For perhaps the first time in generations, white Southerners had to confront their own role in preserving homegrown racist ideals as well as the privilege that once allowed them to remain indifferent to the “power” of these symbols.
Georgia’s Stone Mountain Park is one such symbol of Southern white supremacist heritage. In 1915, the site played host to the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan. In 1925 the United Daughters of the Confederacy and local Klan leaders, the Venable Brothers, began fundraising to commission the carving of the world’s largest bas relief sculpture – a monument to Confederate heroes, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson. While the Great Depression and World War II brought the project to a halt for more than 30 years, a sadly unsurprising renewal of public interest and the urging of then Georgia Governor, Marvin Griffin, saw the project fully funded and completed by 1964 – the same year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law.
Since 1983 crowds have flocked to Stone Mountain on summer weekend evenings for the “Night on Stone Mountain Lasershow Spectacular.” With its cheesy soundtrack and somewhat campy, outdated “technological” display, you could easily miss the deeper implications the show has for how White Southerners have rewritten the story of their Confederate past.
While Violet Allenson isn’t originally from the South, she taught public school in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and Louisiana for over twenty years. Here she shares her own experience with confronting once unquestioned traditions.
My experience with racism and the beloved monuments of the Confederacy occurred on a year-end field trip to Atlanta with a group of fifth and sixth graders. I was the only white person on either of the two buses we rode on to Atlanta. That wasn’t a problem for me. Most of my teaching experience had been in majority black schools with majority black faculties. We toured the Coca Cola Museum, a museum of natural history, the Ebenezer Baptist Church, the Martin Luther King Museum, and Stone Mountain. Almost all of the sites were engaging and informative. Stone Mountain, well, it was disappointing for my colleagues and it should have been for me as well.
Located south of Atlanta, Stone Mountain has the likenesses of Confederate heroes President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee, and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson carved into the side of the mountain. As Elvis croons through his American Trilogy of Dixie, All My Trials, and The Battle Hymn of the Republic, these Confederate heroes come to life. Even in defeat they are held in reverence with no mention of slavery or the many other atrocities perpetrated by their ideology. I knew what Stone Mountain was all about, but, in my naiveté, I did not consider the emotions and feelings of my colleagues.
Upon our return to the hotel, once the kids were settled in, some of the other chaperones came to me and asked what I had thought about the Stone Mountain visit. Lightbulbs finally started going on in my head. How could I have thought that that part of the field trip would be appropriate to any group of African Americans? It was kind of a slap in the face! I had not planned the field trip, but I knew right then that the Stone Mountain monuments should not have been part of our itinerary.
And yet, the notion that we might forget the history of the Civil War if we eliminate the monuments seems ludicrous at best. No one is hiding the past in the South. Neo-Confederates are seemingly trying to register a win for their heritage – a win that cannot and should not happen. The cause was a flawed one. Poor farmers and the like were duped into thinking secession would give them an elusive social status. The win they sought imbued Jim Crow philosophy.
My views on this subject have irritated friends and family, but they haven’t been where I’ve been. I remember the conversations with my colleagues and how they felt that history may have forgotten them and their ancestors. I can no longer keep my head in the sand.