Stone Mountain, the Confederacy, and White Supremacy: How ‘Honoring the Past’ Can Hide a Violent Present

Taking a break today from the Canada series to talk about current events: the large protests in support of the Confederate Battle Flag taking place in Stone Mountain, GA this weekend.

The Confederate monument at Stone Mountain, GA: photo courtesy of Stone Mountain Park


I’ve written before about the use of Confederate monuments to support a message of white supremacy, and that topic has certainly been one of great debate in recent weeks. This weekend, we’re being ‘treated’ to a fantastic example of how this occurs, at times without the participants even being fully aware. Yesterday (Saturday, August 1), hundreds of supporters of the Confederate Battle Flag symbol gathered at Stone Mountain, Georgia, to rally against what they see as an attack on Southern heritage and southern pride. The location makes sense to many of them: the ‘Mount Rushmore of the Confederacy’, a giant relief sculpture of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, the three most commonly displayed Confederate leaders. So does the context: in the wake of the June terrorist attack by Confederate supporter Dylann Roof on the historic Charleston Emanuel AME Church, which killed nine worshippers in an act described by its perpetrator in clearly racist tones, there have been calls for the removal of the Confederate flag from government sponsored sites.

What’s missing from most of the accounts of the gathering – as well, I’m sure, from the minds of many of its participants if not the collective memory of the South – is the history of the date, the site, and the symbol, intertwined. For hidden under this gathering, brought upon by events that seem immediate, is a deep connection to white supremacy and its hold over the South.

Few people realize that the worst period for American race relations was not before the Civil War, but after it. The early 20th century was full of racial violence brought about by changes in law, work, science and history, all of which helped to prop up some of the most monstrous moments and movements in our nation’s history. As migration swept the country – immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, seen as threatening to many, was at its peak, while the start of World War I marked the beginning of a half-century long migration of African Americans into Northern cities – a corresponding movement to ‘protect’ traditional American settlement kicked into high gear. In the South, Jim Crow segregation laws were set in stone after a few decades of development following Reconstruction. Southern white society needed its black labor force (for a variety of reasons) but the demands of racial hierarchy meant that there was no corresponding respect for their labor. Instead, a deeply restrictive regime of laws and practice kept African Americans powerless and immobile, until World War I unleashed a torrent of migrants seeking wartime factory jobs in the North. Those jobs were opened up by a combination of need for wartime production and a sudden shutoff of European immigrant labor, mostly from Italy, Greece, Russia, and other areas of Southern and Eastern Europe: Jews and Catholics, seen often as dangerous alien influences, whose migration had reached its peak just before the war.

The combination of these migrations breathed new life into American xenophobia. In February of 1915, that xenophobia helped popularize the new film industry with the release of D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece, The Clansmen, later retitled (for its New York audience) Birth of a Nation. The film told the story of Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War, as a morality tale, full of ignorant, thuggish blacks and rapacious, sinister Northerners who, it said, dismantled the honorable old Southern society in the wake of a devastating war that they had each helped to cause. The heroes of the story were a group of brave Southerners who were willing to risk their lives in defense of this heritage. That group was the Ku Klux Klan.

The KKK had been formed almost immediately in the aftermath of the Civil War as a method of retaining white supremacy as African Americans – former slaves – began to gain political and economic rights. It participated in a campaign of terror into the 1870s, punishing blacks who attempted to vote, or who were able to gain influence and wealth in business. Rape and lynchings – extra-legal hangings and killings – became the most potent weapons of white supremacy in this period, and helped the South regain control over Reconstruction, eventually ending it by the late 1870s. Southerners called this bloody movement against justice ‘Redemption’, and the KKK was its beating heart, along with the more upstanding White Citizens’ Councils which operated in the political and economic sphere. However, the KKK was dealt a near death blow during the term of President Ulysses Grant, who banned the group and arrested many of its members. Still, its tactics lived on in ensuing decades: lynchings rates for African Americans reached their peak in the late 1890s, and continued apace through the early 20th century. Much of the decline is due to the solidification of Jim Crow, a regimented system of apartheid which separated the races in public facilities, enforced public and private subservience to whites, and erected an edifice of white supremacy on the backs of African Americans. It was this KKK that D.W. Griffith honored in his film, and combined with the rise in xenophobia caused by migration and the war, the film struck a particular nerve among white native Americans in general, particularly those in the South.

The film was a massive success, given its time. It drew crowds nationwide, playing in New York City for ten months. Woodrow Wilson screened it in the White House, the first film to be shown there; he called it “history written in lightning”. It was, to be sure, the most technologically advanced film of its day, and at three hours was certainly an epic. But it was the morality play of race and redemption which captured its largely white audience. Many groups, including the new NAACP, protested it heavily, but in an era where civil rights was a largely foreign concept, the protests fell on deaf ears.

Only a year before Birth of a Nation was screened, a proposal by the Daughters of the Confederacy was made for a giant Confederate memorial on the wall of Stone Mountain, a gigantic granite hunk in Georgia. In part for this reason, as well as its visibility and its existing links with ceremonial activity (Native Americans, for example, had used Stone Mountain for rituals long before), it was the site of a rebirth of sorts in 1915, not long after Birth of a Nation made news. It was the site of the incorporation of the second Ku Klux Klan.

The KKK has had several iterations through its history, but the one that is most iconic is the second. Most of the symbols we associate with it – the hooded outfits, the burning cross – originated with this second version of the Klan, founded at Stone Mountain in November of 1915, almost 100 years ago. That iteration of the KKK described itself as a savior of white, Protestant civilization, defending it against equality-seeking blacks and what it saw as a pestilent flood of Catholic and Jewish immigrants into the United States; in fact, another of the precipitating events for the second Klan was the lynching in 1915 of Leo Frank, a Jewish man convicted (though probably not guilty) of murdering a female factory worker in his Georgia textile mill. Anti-semitic sentiment was high, and Frank was abducted from his cell and murdered by a group calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan. The murder lit a match under the violent resistance in the South to immigration, especially in an era where factory work was beginning to reshape Southern economics. This, plus the success of Birth of a Nation, led to that fateful meeting in November, on Thanksgiving Night, at the future site of a great memorial to the Confederacy, to recreate the most gruesome and long-lasting terrorist organization in the United States: the Ku Klux Klan.

It’s also worthwhile to note that the timeline of the Stone Mountain monument itself hides a history of white resistance to African American equality. Certainly the very subject matter itself demonstrates it, though many of those protesting yesterday would disagree. Still, a monument designed at the height of Jim Crow, whose development lapsed in the 1920s but was revived in the late 1950s as the Civil Rights movement gained steam, bears scrutiny. The late 1950s and early 1950s saw a resurgence in Confederate symbology – most notably the battle flag so many gathered yesterday to defend – as a direct response to the Civil Rights movement that began in earnest with the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 and the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 and 1956.

Defenders of Confederate symbols who say they are ‘Heritage not Hate’ are half right. They are the heritage, sadly, of the South; however, that heritage IS one of hate, and the two have been effectively inseparable for the entirety of this nation’s history.  The intertwined histories of Stone Mountain and the Confederate resurgence is proof.

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