DeKalb’s CEO on the complicated legacy of Stone Mountain

Stone Mountain has a complicated legacy. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM

Michael Thurmond lives in the shadows of Stone Mountain, the massive gray monolith honoring a triumvirate of Confederate leaders. To say he has a complicated relationship with the mount, now under renewed scrutiny along with other Rebel symbols, is an understatement.

Three of four residents in the town that surrounds the granite dome, the same town where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn, are black. So is Thurmond, an accomplished politician who became DeKalb’s chief executive in January and doubles as a Civil War historian.

He said he “cringes” to hear monuments misrepresented. Gettysburg and Chickamauga are true Civil War memorials honoring the battlefield dead, he said, and so are the historical markers between Atlanta and Savannah marking the Union march to the sea.

But the wave of statues and memorials built decades after Appomattox? He said many are little more than paeans to the Lost Cause, the revisionist history that cast the Confederacy as heroic and slavery as an afterthought. To him, the state-owned memorial, first envisioned in 1915, fits the bill.

“It was a way to sanitize history. It created a notion that slavery wasn’t what was fought over,” Thurmond said. “If you look at the narrative carved in stone, it’s very clear the celebration is about a narrative about a mythological view of the Civil War.”

And yet: It’s now one of the state’s top tourism attractions, one of the most vibrant places in metro Atlanta, a place for picnickers and weekend warriors and families to gather. So on his first day as DeKalb’s top official, he set out to reclaim that brand for his county.

“The narrative that birthed the carving of Stone Mountain is not the narrative that will be promoted by this county,” he said. “Stone Mountain is a place where people of all races, creeds and colors come every day.”

He won’t take a side on Stacey Abrams’ call to remove the faces of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from the edifice, perhaps because it’s a non-starter. State law prohibits changes to Stone Mountain, and there’s no appetite among legislative leaders to nix it even if Abrams wins the governor’s office.

But he does have some broader suggestions. The park’s directors have improved Stone Mountain by adding more historical exhibits over the years, he said, but additional context is needed.

“The narrative has to become more inclusive. The idea of the mountain belonging to the KKK or the neo-Nazis – no, it belongs to the people of Georgia,” he said. “It doesn’t belong to the Confederate veterans or the NAACP. We all have an investment here.”

And he suggests that Gov. Nathan Deal and other state leaders make another significant change. There are 10 listed members on the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board that governs the site. None are black.

“I’d hope very soon,” he said, “we would get at least one African-American appointed to the board.”

RELATED

The Georgia law that protects Stone Mountain, other Confederate monuments

Stone Mountain and the bargaining behind Southern history

Opinion: Stone Mountain carving is heritage … warts and all

Abrams calls for removal of Confederate faces off Stone Mountain

Reader Comments 0

179 comments
JimmyGlenn Greenway
JimmyGlenn Greenway

As a born and bred Georgia Boy from Georgia born Parents and their Parents with Direct family roots in Georgia going back to 1730. It should NEVER have been there in the first place. It is a Shameful disfigurement of a beautiful work of nature with the images of Treasonous Traitors. Get Rid of It. The Southern Confederacy is NOTHING of which to be proud. It was Shameful and Evil!!!

Linda Morgan
Linda Morgan

Leave Stone Mountain alone. Nobody that doesn't like it has to go there.

Truett Goodwin
Truett Goodwin

I recommend Michael Thurmond to the Board of Directors.

Christopher Sorensen
Christopher Sorensen

The media is making people think what they want we live in a free country

Kevin Kern
Kevin Kern

Michael Thurmond doesn't have a clue.

Deena Deal
Deena Deal

I love the idea of turning Stone Mountain into a park that celebrates the whole story of the Cival War. I say add to the carvings not destroy. A tribute to the African American hero's of the war would be a good start. One group that is ignored are the southern black woman that operated as spies, scouts, couriers, & guides. They made a real difference in the war as did many black men who infiltrated the south as slaves, cooks, ballets, & drivers. One, William A Jackson was President Jefferson Davis's own coachman. I have not named the ladies & others because they are numerous, but their stories should be told. Frederick Douglass was a great statesman who certainly earned a spot on the wall. Harriet Tubman, the best known of the ladies, Mary Elizabeth Bowser whose photographic memory earned her place, Mary Touvestre who stole the plans for the CAR Virginia, etc,etc,etc

Deena Deal
Deena Deal

Ooooops my phone changed valet to ballet

boxerchick65
boxerchick65

I couldn't have said it better. Great ideas!

Gloria Noles
Gloria Noles

Leave it alone. When we all die, the mountain will still stand tall for future generations.

Norm Cooper
Norm Cooper

I have said this and written about this so many times, lost count. For 86 years Slavery was legal in this country under what we call the American Flag, the blue field with stars and with 13 stripes alternating red and white. For only 4 years was Slavery legal under a Confederate Flag. 86 under the American Flag. 4 years under the Confederate Flag. ..... Robert E Lee was a respected military man and honest man. General Grant was a drunk on one of the 5 worst presidents in our history. So, people want to hide confederate flag and leave the racists american flag, and they want to take down statue of Lee but leave up Grant?

Norm Cooper
Norm Cooper

I have said this and written about this so many times, lost count. For 86 years Slavery was legal in this country under what we call the American Flag, the blue field with stars and with 13 stripes alternating red and white. For only 4 years was Slavery legal under a Confederate Flag. 86 under the American Flag. 4 years under the Confederate Flag. ..... Robert E Lee was a respected military man and honest man. General Grant was a drunk on one of the 5 worst presidents in our history. So, people want to hide confederate flag and leave the racists american flag, and they want to take down statue of Lee but leave up Grant?

Lee VonderHaar
Lee VonderHaar

This is the USA! Why do we need Africans on the board?

twas brillig
twas brillig

Are you A NATIVE AMERICAN? You total ignorant hypocrite. Most of this nation is made up of immigrants. 

Harvey Davis
Harvey Davis

Tomorrow I will be at Lenox Square helping to remove the images of former slave owners from our society. Just look for me in the food court, take those photos of slave owners out of your wallet and put them in my hand.

rasolifexa
rasolifexa

Do you use a paypal account ? because you can add an extra 1000 a week in your pay check just working from home for four hours every day... look at this page●▬▬▬▬www.dreamcash4.com▬▬▬▬●


LoriandMike Tucker
LoriandMike Tucker

Wow and to think that no one knows their history. The confederate states also had free black soldiers as well as the war was fought so states had the right to govern themselves..Why not ban cotton that t-shirts and everything is made of because that's what the slaves picked .We definitely need better education in this country and don't forget 93% of blacks that are murdered it is by other blacks. We should leave Stone Mountain as it is

Franko Ku
Franko Ku

Another black man views: 

IN DEFENSE OF GENERAL LEE  By Edward C. Smith

https://www.facebook.com/ingrahamangle/posts/10155699054334726

Edward C. Smith

Saturday, August 21, 1999

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company


Let me begin on a personal note. I am a 56-year-old, third-generation, African American Washingtonian who is a graduate of the D.C. public schools and who happens also to be a great admirer of Robert E. Lee's.


Today, Lee, who surrendered his troops to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House 134 years ago, is under attack by people -- black and white -- who have incorrectly characterized him as a traitorous, slaveholding racist. He was recently besieged in Richmond by those opposed to having his portrait displayed prominently in a new park.


My first visit to Lee's former home, now Arlington National Cemetery, came when I was 12 years old, and it had a profound and lasting effect on me. Since then I have visited the cemetery hundreds of times searching for grave sites and conducting study tours for the Smithsonian Institution and various other groups interested in learning more about Lee and his family as well as many others buried at Arlington.


Lee's life story is in some ways the story of early America. He was born in 1807 to a loving mother, whom he adored. His relationship with his father, Henry "Light Horse Harry" Lee, (who was George Washington's chief of staff during the Revolutionary War) was strained at best. Thus, as he matured in years, Lee adopted Washington (who had died in 1799) as a father figure and patterned his life after him. Two of Lee's ancestors signed the Declaration of Independence, and his wife, Mary Custis, was George Washington's foster great-granddaughter.


Lee was a top-of-the-class graduate of West Point, a Mexican War hero and superintendent of West Point. I can think of no family for which the Union meant as much as it did for his.


But it is important to remember that the 13 colonies that became 13 states reserved for themselves a tremendous amount of political autonomy. In pre-Civil War America, most citizens' first loyalty went to their state and the local community in which they lived. Referring to the United States of America in the singular is a purely post-Civil War phenomenon.


All this should help explain why Lee declined command of the Union forces -- by Abraham Lincoln -- after the firing on Fort Sumter. After much agonizing, he resigned his commission in the Union army and became a Confederate commander, fighting in defense of Virginia, which at the outbreak of the war possessed the largest population of free blacks (more than 60,000) of any Southern state.


Lee never owned a single slave, because he felt that slavery was morally reprehensible. He even opposed secession. (His slaveholding was confined to the period when he managed the estate of his late father-in-law, who had willed eventual freedom for all of his slaves.)


Regarding the institution, it's useful to remember that slavery was not abolished in the nation's capital until April 1862, when the country was in the second year of the war. The final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation was not written until September 1862, to take effect the following Jan. 1, and it was intended to apply only to those slave states that had left the Union.


Lincoln's preeminent ally, Frederick Douglass, was deeply disturbed by these limitations but determined that it was necessary to suppress his disappointment and "take what we can get now and go for the rest later." The "rest" came after the war.


Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the few civil rights leaders who clearly understood that the era of the 1960s was a distant echo of the 1860s, and thus he read deeply into Civil War literature. He came to admire and respect Lee, and to this day, no member of his family, former associate or fellow activist that I know of has protested the fact that in Virginia Dr. King's birthday -- a federal holiday -- is officially celebrated as "Robert E. Lee-Stonewall Jackson-Martin Luther King Day."


Lee is memorialized with a statue in the U.S. Capitol and in stained glass in the Washington Cathedral.


It is indeed ironic that he has long been embraced by the city he fought against and yet has now encountered some degree of rejection in the city he fought for.


In any event, his most fitting memorial is in Lexington, Va.: a living institution where he spent his final five years. There the much-esteemed general metamorphosed into a teacher, becoming the president of small, debt-ridden Washington College, which now stands as the well-endowed Washington and Lee University.


It was in Lexington that he made a most poignant remark a few months before his death. "Before and during the War Between the States I was a Virginian," he said. "After the war I became an American."


I have been teaching college students for 30 years, and learned early in my career that the twin maladies of ignorance and misinformation are not incurable diseases. The antidote for them is simply to make a lifelong commitment to reading widely and deeply. I recommend it for anyone who would make judgment on figures from the past, including Robert E. Lee.


[Dr. Smith is co-director of the Civil War Institute at American University in Washington, D.C.]


Bobby Haney
Bobby Haney

Leave it alone,,,,want to keep deviding the divided ,this liberal has had enough ,leave it alone.

Norm Cooper
Norm Cooper

Those who want to take down confederate symbols because of their history, then we should also consider all the MLK monuments. He did NOT represent all Americans, only one race. For Shame. And, his race is NOT abiding by his message. They clog streets and disrupt traffic, burn cities and destroy homes and cars and buildings of innocent people, they murder cops by assassination. THAT was NOT what MLK stands for, so since his RACE is ignoring his message, he is irrelevant and therefore should be condemned to the dustbin of history.

twas brillig
twas brillig

Yah let's just lump every single person from "his race" into one category. Get out of your closet dude, and meet the majority of African Americans who are good loving HUMAN beings and want peace and love in this world. 

Marcus Dame
Marcus Dame

Generally considered the worst run County of the 27 in Metro Atlanta; def want to hear from the CEO. And, hey, if the minority can't rule -- we had better just circumvent representative government all together...

Norm Cooper
Norm Cooper

As should the MLK monuments. He did NOT represent all Americans, only one race. For Shame. And, his race is NOT abiding by his message. They clog streets and disrupt traffic, burn cities and destroy homes and cars and buildings of innocent people, they murder cops by assassination. THAT was NOT what MLK stands for, so since his RACE is ignoring his message, he is irrelevant and therefore should be condemned to the dustbin of history.

Norm Cooper
Norm Cooper

He has little patience for stupidity. Thus, he has no patience for Kitty. Got it.

Jeff Mills
Jeff Mills

Better check the papers on stone mtn. Clause: if stone mnt. Comes under threat it WILL be returned to private owned family, it was only donated to the state, not sold, as with any other museum donation it can and should be returned

Bones Rhodes
Bones Rhodes

--- actually, YOU need to check them:  nobody donated anything  -  except the taxpayers of Jawgah when the Legislature in 1958 approved the $1,250,000 to BUY it from the various heirs of the Venable family that had owned it for a couple of generations.  The Legislature then CONDEMNED the site to remove the agreement that the original Venable had given the KKK which allowed them to have perpetual rights to have gatherings at the site.

Joel Rea
Joel Rea

Georgia is run by racist crooks. I'm shocked that Georgia legislators weren't in Charlottesville.

Matt Peacock
Matt Peacock

Come on down further south and you'll find real crooks

Beth Oatley Rushing
Beth Oatley Rushing

It has to stay, when they changed our flag this was part of the deal and is now the law " the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion and shall be preserved and protected for all time as a tribute to the bravery and heroism of the citizens of this state who suffered and died in their cause."

Carol Farriba
Carol Farriba

The most racist group in the United States today are blacks.

Bones Rhodes
Bones Rhodes

----- while the stupidest person in the United States today is Carol Farriba

Patrick Fleeman
Patrick Fleeman

Yeah just carve a bunch of snowflakes, unicorns, rainbows and jingle bells. That should suit a bunch of libs. I hope I never see the day that stone or rock offends me. Maybe President Trump should take all the welfare money that he's saving and invest it in a ward with a shrink to go along with it for these ppl. \U0001f923 Pathetic I tell you!! Pitiful!!

Gloria Noles
Gloria Noles

Good point. At least one would be unhappy about something. No statue or rock has ever bothered me unless it needed clothes.

twas brillig
twas brillig

Poor baby Mr. Patrick. Does the idea of facing the fact that your ancestors were slave owners fill you with so much guilt that you must lash out like a little child?

Stephen Tzarphati Bailey
Stephen Tzarphati Bailey

There are no White Members in the Congressional Black Caucus either...I want to change that.

Tom Hall
Tom Hall

Stone Mountain Park IS and can only be Confederate Memorial Park! That

Bones Rhodes
Bones Rhodes

---it is owned by the state: purchased by the state in 1958 using tax payers' money:  it can be any damn thing the state of Jawgah wants it to be as long as it is a legal usage.

John Smith
John Smith

That's because Dekalb's CEO is a racist bigot.