Stone Mountain: A Monument to Terror

Carving of Lee, Jackson, and Davis at Stone Mountain. Photo: Charles Babcock, 2021.

Near the center of DeKalb County, 16 miles east of Atlanta, sits the largest Confederate monument in the world. Stone Mountain, Georgia, is home to a 90-foot granite face carving of Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Unlike the statue at the home of A.H. Stephens, Vice President of the Confederacy, which I wrote an article about here, there were no Civil War battles near Stone Mountain and none of the men appearing in the carvings were from Georgia. In recent years, with the increased awareness of police brutality against black Americans, the monument has come under immense pressure to be destroyed. There are those who defend the carving as “history”, but that claim is disingenuous and reflective of those who do not care or understand the actual history of the Confederate carving. To rectify the issues that some citizens have with the monument, the board that oversees the Stone Mountain Memorial Association voted in May to relocate any Confederate flags away from the main hiking area and has considered a new park logo that does not include an image of the carving. They also have taken steps to build a museum at the base of the mountain to explain its history and construction.1 While these steps seem to be in the right direction in educating those who visit the site, it was most likely financial pressure that spurred this rather than public outcry. Stone Mountain’s CEO, Bill Stephens, says that while the park is still the most popular attraction in Georgia (drawing around 3 million visitors per year), many businesses no longer want to hold their conventions in the park’s hotels. The global Covid-19 pandemic and a statewide boycott pushed by the NAACP and other civil rights organizations has also affected the park’s economy. To further understand the argument for and against keeping the statue in place, it’s crucially important that we understand the history of the monument, before the construction of a museum with exhibits that, let us be brutally honest, few will walk through and read.


Stone Mountain formed 300-350 million years ago during the complete formation of the Blue Ridge Mountains and part of the Appalachians. Magma that swelled from the Earth’s crust solidified to form granite five to ten miles below the surface. The mountain’s summit sits at 1,686 feet above sea level and 825 feet above the surrounding area. Clear freshwater pools that form on the summit by rainfall are home to clam and fairy shrimp. The wooded area along the hiking trail that leads to the summit contains more that 120 wildflowers. Most of these flowers are native to the Southern Appalachians, with some being rare or federally protected.

Stone Mountain Park. Photo: Charles Babcock, 2021.


The Confederate sculpture on the north side of the mountain was cut 42 feet deep into the mountain and measures 90 feet high, 190 feet wide, and 400 feet above the ground. Stone Mountain was a sacred site of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), and they held rallies there as far back as the 1870s. When D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Klan film The Birth of a Nation was shown in the White House during the Woodrow Wilson administration, it reinvigorated the Klan into what historians dub The Second Klan. On November 25, 1915, led by two elderly members of the original Klan, a group of hooded charter members of the new Klan met at the summit of Stone Mountain. They laid out a Confederate flag on an altar, opened a Bible, and burned a 16-foot cross.

KKK Rally Flyer. Nov. 25th, 1915. VCU Libraries.

This became the official beacon for the reforming of the Klan in the 20th century. Taking part in the revival was James R. Venable, grandson of the KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest. Venable later became the Imperial Wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He owned land at the base of the mountain, which would later become inherited by his son, Sam Venable. The practice of cross-burning gatherings ended in 1962, when the Klan held a mountaintop burning in response to the NAACP convention in Atlanta. Seventy troopers attempted to stop several hundred Klansmen gathering at the base of the mountain, but Klansmen beat them back armed with billy clubs, flashlights, and stones. The police negotiated a truce with the local Klan Grand Dragon, under which 20 Klansmen would climb the mountain for a “religious ceremony” in exchange for a ceasing of further violence. In 2015 and again in 2020, Three Percenters and members of other white supremacist organizations held a rally on Stone Mountain, waving Confederate Flags and shouting racial epitaphs. Counter protesters pushed back against the display but were met with brute force from Stone Mountain police units.

Confederate Flag Supporters Climb Stone Mountain. Photo: John Amis/AP Photo, 2015.


In 1916, C. Helen Plane, a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), a pseudo-historical Lost Cause ideology group, advanced a project to place a stone carving on the side of the mountain. She chose the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who would go on to design and create Mount Rushmore, for the project. When the two initially met, Plane refused to shake Borglum’s hand. Plane said, despite him being a member of the KKK, “he was, after all, a Yankee.” She introduced Borglum to Sam Venable, who owned the mountain. Borglum’s original plan included five groups of figures, the three men on the carving today along with Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest and riders of the KKK behind Davis, Jackson, and Lee. Venable deeded the north side of the mountain to the UDC in 1916, under the condition that it complete a “sizeable Civil War monument in 12 years” and that the KKK would have perpetual rights to hold meetings on the premises. Finances slowed the completion of the project, so in 1925, Plane met with President Calvin Coolidge to get federal aid for the project. The 1926 U.S. Congress and President Coolidge approved the U.S. Mint to issue a 1925 Commemorative silver half dollar, bearing the words “Stone Mountain”, as a fundraiser for the monument. It was the largest issue of commemorative coins by the U.S. government up to that time.2 With financial means gained for the project, work began again, but quickly halted when Borglum, unhappy with the money they had paid him, took dynamite to the carving, and fled to North Carolina. North Carolina’s governor, Angus McLean, refused to extradite him, but he could not return to Georgia. They obliterated the face of Lee that Borglum had partially destroyed from the mountain in 1928. The next sculptor to take the project was Augustus Lukeman in 1925 with a different, more miniscule design. They halted work in 1928 after fundraising was once again becoming problematic. In 1941, segregationist and Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge formed the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA), but the project was once again delayed, this time because of World War II.

Stone Mountain Memorial Half Dollar Commemorative Obverse Reverse

After the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the birth of the Civil Rights movement in 1958, the Georgia State legislature, spurred by segregationist Governor Marvin Griffin, approved the purchase of Stone Mountain by the state at the price of $1,125,000.3 In 1963, they chose Walker Hancock to complete the carving and began work in 1964. In 1963, they opened a replica plantation at the base of the mountain, where exhibit creators described slave quarters as “neat” and “well furnished”. The also referred to slaves as “hands” or “workers” and Gone with the Wind inspired the historicity of most of the exhibits.4 Today, they have renamed the plantation Historic Square. Stone Mountain Park officially opened on April 14, 1965, purposefully 100 years to the day after Lincoln’s assassination. Sculptor Roy Faulkner finally completed the carving in 1972. Faulkner opened the Stone Mountain Carving Museum in 1985, but it was closed shortly after, and they moved the extensive archival collection to Emory University.

KKK Initiation Ceremony on Stone Mountain. July 23, 1948.


When discussing the future of Stone Mountain, we should not overlook its significance as a monument to the preservation of white supremacy. There are currently around 2,100 public Confederate symbols, 704 of them monuments, in the United States. So far, states removed 168 Confederate symbols, 94 monuments during 2020. That number is an increase from the 54 monuments removed between 2015 and 2019.5 Over half of the Confederate monuments in the U.S. are in Georgia, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. But there are monuments that stand in states that did not exist or take part in the Confederacy during the Civil War, like Iowa, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and even Washington state. There are those who are openly, unapologetically racist and continue to fight for Stone Mountain to remain, like Georgia State Rep. Tommy Benton, who asserted that Confederate leaders were comparative to the Founding Fathers and said while he did not agree with all the methods of the KKK, “they made a lot of people straighten up.”6 Many other critics of removal argue that removing or renaming tributes to Confederate figures amount to erasing history. I, like most historians, completely reject this concept. It is time for the symbols to go and we need to find more reasonable and engaging ways to teach this period of history. The American Historical Association states that to remove a monument, “is not to erase history, but rather to alter or call attention to a previous interpretation of history.” The AHA also asserts that states erected most of these monuments “without anything resembling a democratic process.”7 These monuments do not teach history, they celebrate oppression, tyranny, and racial violence. States and communities built the vast majority of these statues and monuments during the Jim Crow era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They erected another wave of symbols between the 1950s and 60s in response to the Civil Rights Movement. In most cases, the UDC coordinated or led their placement, which has a history of racist and repulsive ideology on the role of black Americans. They are political statements to intimidate and coerce black Americans, built to reflect the politics of the time. Confederate monuments, especially the larger ones like Stone Mountain, only serve as a reinvigorating rally point for extremist ideals in our society. There are conflicting reports about the cost of removing the Stone Mountain Carving. Stone Mountain CEO Bill Stephens said that “removing the carving would take a small, tactical nuclear weapon.”8 The assessment by the NAACP highly disputed this though, showing that removal would cost between $800,000 to $1 million and restore the mountain to its original granite composite form. Even more complicated is the Georgia law that prevents the destruction of the monument. It would take a majority vote from a Republican controlled Georgia legislature. When the Georgia General Assembly voted to remove the symbol of the Confederacy from the state flag in 2001, it included a provision in the bill that, “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.”9

Protesters at the Confederate carving in Stone Mountain Park on June 16. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images, 2020.

Michael J. McAfee, curator of history at the West Point Museum, said “There are no monuments that mention the name Benedict Arnold. What does this have to do with the Southern monuments honoring the political and military leaders of the Confederacy? They, like Arnold, were traitors. They turned their backs on their nation, their oaths, and the sacrifices of their ancestors in the War for Independence. … They attempted to destroy their nation to defend chattel slavery and from a sense that as white men they were innately superior to all other races. They fought for white racial supremacy. That is why monuments glorifying them and their cause should be removed. Leave monuments marking their participation on the battlefields of the war, but tear down those that only commemorate the intolerance, violence, and hate that inspired their attempt to destroy the American nation.”10

Time is up for the Stone Mountain Carving but not for Stone Mountain itself. The sizeable number of joggers, hikers, and those who enjoy the beautiful scenery from atop its summit can still enjoy the pristine view. It is a wonderful but tiring hike to the summit, and spending time in nature is never a bad thing. The racist imagery that defiles the north face of the mountain need not tarnish the surrounding natural landscape and the view of Atlanta in the distance any longer. As the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his infamous I Have a Dream speech, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia…”11

  1. “Confederate Imagery On Stone Mountain Is Changing, But Not Fast Enough For Some,”, last modified June 21, 2021,
  2. David B. Freeman, Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain (Mercer: Mercer University Press, 1997)
  3. “Stone Mountain. A Monumental Dilemma”. Intelligence Report. Southern Poverty Law Center (164): 18–22. Retrieved 2021-09-23.
  4. “Historic Square”. Stone Mountain Guide. Archived from the original on December 4, 2020. Retrieved September 22, 2021.
  5. “Nearly 100 Confederate Monuments Removed In 2020, Report Says; More Than 700 Remain,”, last modified February 23, 2021,
  6. Chris Joyner, “Ga. Lawmaker: KKK Made ‘people Straighten Up’,” Ajc, last modified January 28, 2016,
  7. American Historical Association, AHA Statement on Confederate Monuments (August 2017)
  8. “Confederate Imagery On Stone Mountain Is Changing, But Not Fast Enough For Some,”, last modified June 21, 2021,
  9. “State Law Protects Stone Mountain,” DTN Progressive Farmer, last modified July 5, 2020,
  10. “Empty Pedestals: What Should Be Done with Civic Monuments to the Confederacy and Its Leaders?,” HistoryNet, accessed September 27, 2021,
  11. “‘I Have A Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety,”, last modified January 18, 2010,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *