The idea is suffused with a simple poetry: A bell would be placed atop Stone Mountain, the massive granite outcropping east of Atlanta invoked by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech — one of the places from which, as King imagined it, a nation no longer divided by racism might “let freedom ring.”
But this “freedom bell” proposal, unveiled this month by a state government authority as a tribute to the civil rights leader, has become mired in complications and controversy, the latest skirmish over Southern symbols prompted by the racially motivated massacre of nine black churchgoers this summer in Charleston, S.C.
Opposition came quickly, and perhaps expectedly, from the Georgia division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, who said that the mountain, which is adorned with a huge carving depicting Confederate heroes, is classified as a Confederate memorial by state statute.
“The erection of monuments to anyone other than Confederate heroes in Stone Mountain Park,” the group said in a written statement, “is in contradistinction to the purpose for which the park exists and would make it a memorial to something different.”
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Perhaps more surprisingly, civil rights groups, including two local branches of the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, are also opposed, largely because a carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis etched into the mountain’s northern face — a display that is larger than Mount Rushmore — would remain.
Charles Steele Jr., CEO of the SCLC, a group King helped found, said the proper solution would be to remove the carving altogether.
“Take this sucker down,” Steele said. He dismissed criticism that removing the carving by sandblasting or some other means might be prohibitively expensive: “That’s no cost when you compare it to the cost of slavery and destroying a whole race.”
The dispute was probably inevitable: Stone Mountain, as King well knew, is no mere geological curiosity. A former Ku Klux Klan stronghold, the mountain — 825 feet high and 5 miles around — is the centerpiece of an eponymous state park that is designated by the state as a Confederate memorial.
It is also in a suburban Atlanta county, DeKalb, that has become one of the most racially and ethnically diverse areas in the South, and these days the 3,200-acre park, with its extensive hiking trails and tram to the mountaintop, has a broad multicultural fan base.
“You come out here at 7 o’clock in the morning, and the place is just packed with people of all shapes and sizes and colors,” said Bill Stephens, head of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, which oversees the park.
Stephens rejects the idea of removing the carving. He said the park was “into addition and not subtraction” and state law prohibited the park from removing the carving or a display of Confederate flags at the base of the mountain.
Stephens, a Republican former state senator who is white, said the idea for the tribute to King grew out of conversations with his group and the private company that operates the park, which began before the Charleston massacre but picked up steam thereafter. The discussions took place as a wave of anger over Confederate symbols was sweeping across Georgia and the South.
Indeed, just before the Fourth of July weekend, when the park hosts a popular fireworks display, an African-American state lawmaker, LaDawn Jones, had called for a boycott of the park to protest the fact that it still displays Confederate battle flags.
The proposal for the King tribute was reported earlier by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Stephens said it would be paired with a new museum exhibit commemorating black Civil War soldiers.
The effort to turn the granite dome into a Confederate memorial coincided with the resurgence of the Klan in the early 1900s, said Timothy Crimmins, a history professor at Georgia State University. The hate group’s rallies at Stone Mountain began in 1915, he said, around the time that the D.W. Griffith film “Birth of a Nation” spread the myth of the Klan as a noble protector of Southern whites. The carving was begun in 1915 and finished, after numerous delays and plenty of drama, in 1972.
But as the complexion of DeKalb County, which includes Stone Mountain, changed over the next few decades, so did public sentiment. The black population in the county has nearly tripled since 1980, with African-Americans now a majority of the more than 700,000 residents. Many object to the tribute to the Confederates.
Some have come to live with the carving and the flags, ignoring them or resigning themselves to the fact that they probably are not going anywhere.
“I don’t like it, but to each their own,” said Camille Coakley, an African-American who was power-walking along the park’s Robert E. Lee Boulevard recently. “I love Stone Mountain Park.”
Others have responded with good humor: A MoveOn.org petition that calls for adding Big Boi and Andre 3000, the members of Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast, to the side of the mountain (riding in a Cadillac beside the three Confederates on horseback) has gathered more than 12,000 signatures.
Coakley is one of roughly 4 million people who visit the park each year, according to park officials, making it the most visited attraction in Georgia. Most day-to-day operations are handled by Herschend Family Entertainment, a private company that runs an Antebellum Plantation tour, museum exhibits and several seasonal events.
The carving of the horse-mounted Confederates, however, which is 90 feet tall and 190 feet wide, is an unavoidable showstopper, and the park operators are faced with the difficult task of acknowledging its centrality while offending as few people as possible.
The main gift store sells some T-shirts that depict the Confederate heroes and some that do not. American flag-themed items are for sale, but not Confederate ones. A mile or so away, the park’s Confederate Hall building is given over mostly to exhibits on geology and ecology.
The park’s Lasershow Spectacular, an Atlanta summer tradition, projects light patterns on and around the three Confederate heroes to a carefully balanced soundtrack of black and white pop stars: R.E.M. followed by James Brown, Ray Charles singing “Georgia” followed by Willie Nelson’s take on the standard.
Ray McBerry, a spokesman for the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans, said this week that the group would consider suing to stop the construction of a King memorial at the park. Steele, along with representatives from the DeKalb County and Atlanta chapters of the NAACP, have met with Gov. Nathan Deal to express their displeasure with the plan.
A spokeswoman for Deal, Jen Talaber, said Tuesday that the governor would seek to arrange a meeting between civil rights groups and the nine-member board of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association and Herschend Family Entertainment, both of which would have to approve the King memorial. Stephens said the board had not yet held a vote on the proposal.
The idea has its black supporters, including Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who told The Journal-Constitution that a Martin Luther King bell atop Stone Mountain would be “wonderful symbolism” that would reflect King’s goal of reconciling “races and opinions.”
There was some grumbling at the park recently. A white woman visiting from Virginia, who was shooting photographs of the carving and declined to give her name, said she opposed any change to the park.
“I’m not racist, but I think it’s ridiculous,” she said.
Several African-Americans at the park said they agreed with Young. Shannon Murray, 39, said the King tribute would be a “fair” addition to the mountain.
“That way I think they’d be representing all of our history,” she said.
Murray had just come from the gift shop, where she had bought her daughter a commemorative T-shirt — the kind, she said, without the Confederates on it.