ATLANTA (AP) — Art, monument or embarrassment?
The “Confederate Memorial Carving” in a state park outside of Atlanta is once again stirring controversy, as Georgia officials try to decide what, if anything, to do about a huge sculpture that memorializes three of the South’s Civil War heroes but causes offense to blacks and others.
Chiseled into a side of Stone Mountain, the carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, General Robert E. Lee and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson spans three acres and is the largest high relief sculpture in the world — even larger than Mount Rushmore.
Controversial since its 1970 unveiling, the sculpture has drawn renewed scrutiny since the massacre of nine black worshippers at a church in South Carolina last month.
The white man charged in the slayings, Dylann Storm Roof, had posed with the Confederate battle flag in photos that were posted online before the attack. Authorities say he was motivated by racial hatred.
The Atlanta NAACP called this month for the carving’s removal along with dozens of Confederate monuments on government property around the state. Atlanta’s city council this week urged Gov. Nathan Deal to study additions of famous Georgians such as Martin Luther King Jr. to the Stone Mountain carving.
“At some point in Georgia’s history, people found it necessary to honor this particular period,” Atlanta councilman Michael Bond said. “We’re saying: Georgia is more than that. Let’s honor what’s best about our history there as well.”
That would take action from Georgia’s General Assembly due to a state law protecting the carving from any changes without legislative approval. Members don’t return to the Capitol until January.
Change seems unlikely. Deal and state lawmakers from both parties have declined to say much on the subject this summer while a few are strongly opposed.
House Speaker David Ralston’s spokesman said he has not mentioned the topic. Requests for comment to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s spokesman and President Pro Tempore state Sen. David Shafer were not returned. Deal’s spokesman Brian Robinson said Deal hadn’t looked at the Atlanta city council’s resolution yet.
In the meantime, cities and neighboring states have rejected their own monuments to top Confederate officials. South Carolina lawmakers approved taking down the battle flag from their state Capitol grounds over the objections of supporters who say the symbols represent Southern history.
That argument isn’t winning over some professional history buffs.
“The idea that somehow you’re going to erase history is ludicrous,” Stan Deaton, a senior historian with the Georgia Historical Society said. “There are no monuments to the Third Reich, but I’m pretty sure there are books falling off the shelves about Hitler, WWII and Nazis.”
Paul Hudson and Lora Mirza, faculty members at Georgia Perimeter College, studied the site’s history to write their 2011 book, “Atlanta’s Stone Mountain.” They personally don’t want to see changes to a work they consider both art and historical artifact.
According to their research, a Civil War widow involved in the Atlanta chapter of United Daughters of the Confederacy dreamed up the carving around 1909. It took more than 60 years and three artists to complete the carving 42 feet deep into the side of the solid granite mountain as money ran out or world wars sidelined work.
The carving “was a time warp by the time it was completed,” Hudson said, decades after first being proposed. “It started during Jim Crow and ended with the civil rights era.”
The park now operates without state funding due to an arrangement between the state authority that oversees the memorial portions with a company that runs amusement rides and other attractions.
State Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick, a 32-year-old black Democrat from nearby Lithonia, said she doesn’t want to take time away from other issues to debate the monument.
“I, fortunately, don’t have the stories of Jim Crow or segregated schools … I think we can find a way to not sugarcoat (Confederate history), tell what happened and be transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly,” she said.