Georgia’s Stone Mountain, a site that once hosted Ku Klux Klan cross-burnings and remains a home for Confederate tributes, will soon be adding a very different symbol: a tower in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
According to CNN affiliate WSB, the tower will feature a replica of the Liberty Bell and give literal representation to a line from King’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
“It is one of the best-known speeches in U.S. history,” Bill Stephens, the chief executive officer of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, told Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jim Galloway. “We think it’s a great addition to the historical offerings we have here.”
Galloway was instrumental in pushing for the idea.
In the aftermath of the killings of nine African-Americans at Charleston, South Carolina’s, historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, Galloway proposed that Stone Mountain — “a three-dimensional history lesson (that) has pushed a one-sided view of America’s bloodiest conflict,” in his words — be made more representative of Southern history.
Stone Mountain, he observed, is within a predominately African-American community just outside Atlanta. The mountain and surrounding Stone Mountain Park are popular gathering spots for multicultural metro Atlanta, with much-hiked trails to the 825-foot summit and bucolic landscaping.
Stone Mountain Park receives more than 4 million visitors each year, making it one of Georgia’s most popular tourist attractions.
Yet the granite monadnock features a number of Confederate symbols, not least the mammoth engraving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson — the largest high-relief sculpture in the world, according to Stone Mountain Park.
On spring and summer evenings, the carving is lit with a laser show and fire effects.
Stone Mountain has a contentious history. Once privately owned, the mountain was host to the reformation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915. The revival, sparked by both the film “The Birth of a Nation” and the Leo Frank case, included a cross burning, which became part of KKK tradition.
The state of Georgia purchased the mountain in 1958 and banned the Klan rallies. However, Stone Mountain Park “is set up by Georgia law as a museum for the Confederacy,” John Bankhead, spokesman for the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, said in July.
The Stone Mountain Memorial Association is an authority that maintains the park, including the mountain. Stone Mountain Park’s business operations are run by a private firm, Herschend Family Entertainment.
In recent years, the mountain has been the subject of protests. Two years ago, some local residents walked to the top and rang a bell in honor of the “I Have a Dream” speech’s 50th anniversary.
In July, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP called for the removal of all Confederate symbols from the park, which includes a variety of family-entertainment attractions. A state representative called for a boycott over the Confederate symbols.
In August, Stone Mountain was the site of a rally celebrating the Confederate flag. And Monday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans was unhappy with the MLK proposal, saying the tower would be “in contradistinction to the purpose for which the park exists and would make it a memorial to something different.”
The MLK plan has the support of Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, though many details still have to be worked out — including the use of the line from King’s speech, since “I Have a Dream” is copyrighted and controlled by his children.
Still, Stephens is confident that change is going to come.
“It’s been a while in the making,” he told Galloway. “It’s time for additions to the park.”