Stone Mountain

Editor’s Note: George Shepherd is Professor of Law at Emory Law School in Atlanta. The opinions expressed here are his own. Read more opinion articles at CNN.

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In last week’s memorial service for George Floyd, the Rev. Al Sharpton noted that the recent demonstrations against abusive policing were caused not just by Floyd’s death after a white officer kneeled on his throat. Instead, it was the last straw after centuries of oppression. Mr. Sharpton noted, “Because ever since 401 years ago, the reason we could never be who we wanted and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck.”

George Shepherd

One weapon to suppress African Americans: monuments to white supremacists. Soon after the Civil War, Southern whites began reasserting their dominance. During the following 80 years of Jim Crow segregation, their methods included glorifying confederate leaders.

Most of the large monuments began to appear in the early 20th Century, long after the war ended in 1865. The goal was not to preserve “Southern heritage,” as the monuments’ defenders now claim. Instead, the goal was to install white-supremacist icons that would intimidate African Americans and enforce whites’ supremacy. Historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage, for example, has written that the monuments “were sometimes explicitly linked to the cause of white supremacy by the notables who spoke at their dedication” and that white industrialist Julian Carr “unambiguously urged his audience to devote themselves to the maintenance of white supremacy with the same vigor that their Confederate ancestors had defended slavery.

The history of the giant carvings on Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, is instructive. Planning of the carvings began only in 1914. Substantial funding for the project came from the KKK, which met on the mountain’s top to burn crosses and the project’s first directors and promoters were Klan members. The original plan was to depict General Robert E. Lee leading Confederate soldiers and Klan members up the mountain. Many other Confederate monuments were erected during this period, helping consolidate Jim Crow’s racist hierarchy.

A second wave of white-supremacist monuments appeared in the late 1950s. After the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools in 1954, Southern states vowed a program of “Massive Resistance.” Part of the resistance was installing more white-supremacist icons. This was when the State of Georgia purchased Stone Mountain; finished the huge carvings – bigger than the presidents on Mount Rushmore – of two Confederate military leaders, Stonewall Jackson and Lee, and the political leader, Jefferson Davis; and added the Confederate battle flag to Georgia’s state flag.

Like so many Confederate monuments, the carvings on Stone Mountain were not an innocent artifact of Civil War history. Instead, they were a middle finger both to African Americans and to the federal government that was trying to end discrimination. Stone Mountain was such an evil icon that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. invoked it in his “I have a dream” speech.

Statues and monuments have always carried great symbolic weight. When UK protesters demonstrating against Floyd’s killing dumped a statue of a 17th-century slave trader in the sea on Sunday, they were following the examples of activists who pulled down statues of Joseph Stalin in Russia; Saddam Hussein in Iraq and British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes in South Africa and the UK, among others.

In the US, the Stone Mountain carvings continue to be shrines to white supremacy. To walk up the mountain, an African American must bear the indignity of passing the Confederate stone giants, driving along Robert E. Lee Blvd. past Stonewall Jackson Drive, parking next to Confederate Hall, and marching past four different Confederate flags, including the stars-and-bars battle flag,at this state park. Part of the cost of admission to Stone Mountain’s laser show is prostrating yourself on a picnic blanket at the feet of the Confederate colossi.

A country that is serious about moving beyond its evil history would behave differently. In Germany, many government buildings from the 1930-40s have smudges on their fronts. These are the places where the swastikas, all of them, have been removed. German towns no longer contain Hitler Street or Goring Plaza. All of the statues of Hitler and his henchmen have been destroyed. Germans have rejected arguments that Nazi symbols, street names, and statues should be preserved for purposes of German history and heritage.

The same is true even of the Berghof, Hitler’s mansion in the Bavarian Alps in Germany, where he spent much of World War II, and where he met many historical figures. After the war, the building was destroyed to avoid it becoming a Nazi shrine. The same with the Fuhrer Bunker in Berlin, where Hitler died. The site is now a parking lot.

German government policy is that the country’s only monuments marking the Nazi era are not to the perpetrators, but to the victims. As one walks through German cities, one encounters “Stolpersteine”: markers the size of small paving stones that memorialize the stories of Holocaust victims who lived there. This is how it should be: memorials should exist for evil’s victims, not for evil’s perpetrators. A country cannot begin to cleanse itself of evil while maintaining shrines to those who committed it.

As in Germany, all Confederate monuments should be removed. Ideally, they should be removed by state and local governments, not demonstrators; if governments remove them, rather than protestors, society’s rejection of the monuments and the evil that they represent is clearer. The removals would follow the recent lead of cities such as Baltimore, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Ala. and Richmond.

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    African Americans should not have to encounter each day the equivalent of state-endorsed swastikas. Museums should be established not to explain the Stone Mountain carvings and other Confederate memorials, but instead to explain the scar on Stone Mountain that will exist after the images of the white-supremacist leaders are blasted away. Like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C., an apt memorial for the Confederacy is a scar, not an heroic statue. True healing will begin only when the pressure of racist monuments is removed from African Americans’ necks.

    This column has been updated to correct the location of Hitler’s Berghof mansion.