Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is asking schools to stop using the 1619 Project, a curriculum aimed at reframing US history around the date of August 1619 when the first slave ship arrived to what would become the US. CNN's Brianna Keiler spoke with the project's founder Nikole Hannah-Jones to get her reaction.
1619 Project founder responds to Mitch McConnell
03:16 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the new podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.

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In the closing lines of his most famous speech, Martin Luther King Jr. called for freedom to ring out from every mountaintop in the United States, listing famed ranges from the Alleghenies to the Rockies to “the curvaceous slopes of California.” “But not only that,” he added, “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

Nicole Hemmer

It was a bold commandment. In 1963, Stone Mountain, a quartz-and-granite dome erupting from the earth in northern Georgia, was already well-known as a towering monument to White supremacy. Even as King spoke, workers there were preparing to chisel the likenesses of Confederate generals into the rockface. When that work was completed in 1970, Stone Mountain boasted not only the largest Confederate memorial in the country, but the largest bas-relief artwork in the world.

On Monday, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association voted to make the site a little less racist, relocating the Confederate flags that line the park and pledging to “tell the truth” about the site’s history. (Efforts to make the site a lot less racist by removing the monument altogether, as civil rights leaders like Stacey Abrams have suggested, are currently not allowed under state law.)

It is fitting that Stone Mountain is in the news now, as we mark the centenary of the Tulsa massacre, an orgy of anti-Black violence followed by a deliberate erasure of the historical record. On their face, the two may not seem related. But together they help clarify the way right-wing grievance politics, which have reached a fever pitch in recent weeks with attacks on everything from critical race theory to mask mandates, function. Those grievance politics not only depend on a false narrative about power and history, but also on ignoring the suffering and oppression of others.

Both entitlement and erasure are key to how grievance politics work: entitlement, because it infuses a sense of unjust loss, and erasure, because it makes that sense of loss singular and heightens the sense of injustice. This is not a new dynamic. It lives in the 150-year history of the Lost Cause, in an ongoing century of claims that Christianity is under attack, in 50 years of fist-shaking about affirmative action as “reverse racism.”

Nowhere is this history clearer than Stone Mountain, long a site of White supremacist activity, where that weaponized sense of loss and displacement has played out again and again for more than a century. In 1915, members of the Ku Klux Klan gathered atop the mountain to burn a 16-foot cross and celebrate a new generation of the Klan, one that would gain popularity and political influence well outside the South. That same year, C. Helen Plane – one of the founding members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which went on a Confederate-monument-building spree in the first half of the 20th century – began lobbying for a Confederate monument to be etched into the side of Stone Mountain.

Plane commissioned the sculptor responsible for Mount Rushmore, who was also involved with the Klan, to carry out the work. The federal government got involved, too, minting a commemorative coin sold to raise funds for, as the back of the coin read, a “memorial to the valor of the soldier of the South.” The UDC failed to raise enough funds, and it was only in the 1950s that massive resistance to the growing civil rights movement galvanized further work on the Stone Mountain monument.

Decades later, the site would play an important role in Patrick Buchanan’s presidential run. In February 1992, as he challenged President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination, Buchanan made a pilgrimage to Stone Mountain. It was not just a political ploy: Buchanan had long praised the Confederacy, visiting the grave sites of relatives who fought for the South and railing against the Voting Rights Act, which he called “an act of regional discrimination against the South.”

It was also a piece of his broader campaign, one built around emotive, racialized grievance. He railed against immigration on the Mexican border, insisting that immigrants were taking Americans’ jobs and changing their culture. He argued against affirmative action and “racial quotas,” arguing that Black people were being granted favors by the government at the expense of White Americans. His politics were often described as part of a culture war, but his attacks were as much about economics and entitlement as about culture.

Which makes the campaign stop at Stone Mountain, a shrine to the lie of the “Lost Cause,” particularly important. The politics of the Lost Cause – that Confederate soldiers had fought bravely, that the war had been about states’ rights, that life had been better under slavery for both the enslaver and the enslaved – was the country’s original grievance politics, an attempt to rewrite history to make the cause just, the defeat tragic and the restoration of antebellum values urgent. Stone Mountain serves as a monument to false history, built on a site where an organization devoted to terrorizing Black people regularly convened.

To first erect a false history, then decry its demolition as historical erasure is to continue to stand in the way of telling a truer story. Repackaged in 2021 as “political correctness” and now as “cancel culture,” variations of grievance politics continue to play a central role in American life.

It’s there in the hand-wringing over the 1619 Project and concerns that a triumphalist view of US history might be challenged in classrooms and newspapers. It’s there in the insistence that Christianity is under attack by everything from health care legislation to trans equality laws.

And it’s there in the fight over Stone Mountain as well. In a telling statement defending the decision to modify rather than eradicate the monument, the Memorial Association’s CEO said, “You can’t cancel history. We don’t think that it should be canceled.”

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    This is where the history of the Tulsa massacre is instructive. The 1921 racist pogrom, which took place at the same time the UDC was gathering funds for the Stone Mountain monument, destroyed not only a community but generations of wealth. And then it was carefully erased: the law enforcement records related to the massacre disappeared; the story that helped incite the massacre was removed from the local paper’s archive.

    Grievance politics has always relied on a central claim: that the aggrieved have a special claim to be at the center of the American story and to control the direction of the country. That is why challenging false histories and highlighting suppressed ones poses such a threat. To look at the real history would mean to acknowledge that grievance politics hasn’t been about righteousness or freedom or patriotism, but about the retention of power by the few at the expense of everyone else.