Sunday, June 26, 2005

Photo of the Week: Stone Mountain Park, Atlanta GA, 1997

Gentle reader, this is as close to a photo of myself as I'm likely to post on My Stupid Dog. Yes, the figure sitting on that rock is your humble narrator; I've shanghaied a fellow tourist to snap the shutter. Naturally, it's sunset -- and I am at the top of Stone Mountain, the largest chunk of granite in the world.

I shouldn't be here, of course. I shouldn't contribute to the impression that Stone Mountain is a theme park; I shouldn't pretend that nothing bad happened here. For God's sake, I know better.

The second Ku Klux Klan -- that virulently racist brotherhood which controlled Midwestern politics in the 1920s, and held the Black South in an iron grip of terror until the mid-1960s -- got its start here. It held semi-annual cultish rituals at the mountain's base as late as the 1950s.

In 1915, Gutzon Borglum, the future sculptor of Mount Rushmore -- and, at the time, a Klan member in good standing -- was commissioned to design a memorial to the Confederacy, carved in relief on the very face of the mountain. Borglum proposed a gigantic carving of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, with a horde of Rebel soldiers behind them. Borglum finished Lee's head in 1924, but abandoned the project under a cloud of suspicion. A second sculptor fared little better, and work on the mountain effectively stopped in 1928.

It resumed in 1960, with a scaled-back design: The new carving would feature Lee, Jackson and Davis on horseback, but there would be no legion of soldiers. Still, time and budget constraints prevented workers from completing the horses, so all three figures appear mired in an impenetrable morass -- which, when I think about it, seems as good a metaphor for the Old Confederacy as any. Spiro Agnew attended the monument's dedication in 1970, though the sculpture wasn't actually finished until '72.

Stone Mountain Park, the most popular tourist attraction in the state of Georgia, offers the sort of "Dachau-meets-Disneyland" experience only possible, I think, in the American South, where the White majority freely acknowledges the horror of the past, but denies (or actively covers up) its effect on the present. The area around the mountain feels like a civic committee's frantic assertion that everything Is all right now, that the demons of history have been banished, that overdevelopment can exorcise the landscape and wash our sins away.

Stone Mountain, once an altar to race hatred, now boasts a lodge with golf course, a laser light show, a circular railroad, an "authentic" plantation museum, and a tram car to the summit. I can see most of them, though it's hard for me to tell which is the hotel and which is the manor house. Perhaps it's wrong of me to complain. After all, Martin Luther King once dreamed that freedom would ring from here, and today, White and Black children play together in the old mountain's shadow. It's as thorough a rebuke of the old racism as anyone could hope for -- so why am I so uneasy? For that matter, why am I here at all? Look away, look away ....

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