The incredibly weird story about the mountain with racism carved right into it.
Stone Mountain in Georgia is a monument to the past. I visited and saw the future.
Welcome to The Experiment, where we are optimistic about the new year, because we’re starting out with something great, folks. My friend and regular contributor Frank Spring has completed a novel set in the 1890s American West called Regulator. Frank is the kinda fella who insults Kirk Cousins, a football player who refuses to get vaccinated, as a “milquetoast goon” and a “ludicrous oaf.” If you like a writer who plays with words like that, then you’re going to love his novel, which we will serialize every week.
As always, we recommend things to do (roast mushrooms in ata din din), read (this fascinating 2003 piece on how the KBG undermined the Warren Commission), watch (The Lunchbox is a lovely movie on Netflix), and listen to (a cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up” by Brass Against with Sophia Uresti).
We’re also mourning Wayne Slater, the NYT-best selling author who you might also know as a longtime Texas journalist who contributed a couple times to The Experiment in his retirement. He was a good man, and I’m sad he’s gone.
But first, do you know where this picture was taken?
That’s me in the middle with the sunglasses and the Walker Lukens T-shirt. Hatcher, my youngest who killed it in his first semester at UTSA, is the one with the long hair. Henry, my oldest who got all A’s in 2021 at Texas A&M, is wearing the Baltimore Orioles cap like a good boy, and of course that’s my lovely wife Sonia there, being lovely. We’re on top of Stone Mountain, right outside of Atlanta.
We were in Georgia visiting her father for Christmas, and his wife suggested we go to Stone Mountain, about which I knew exactly squat but quickly learned that it had a 90-foot-tall carving of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, which made it both the largest bas-relief artwork in the world as well as largest Confederate memorial in the country. It’s often said to be bigger than Mount Rushmore; it is not. It’s also said to be “the largest exposed piece of granite in the world”; it could be.
Stone Mountain is like Disneyland in Los Angeles or the Alamo in San Antonio. It’s where you go on field trips and take out-of-town guests. And though she’d lived in Atlanta for more than a decade, my father-in-law’s wife had never been. My wife remembered family trips as a child, when the adults would let the children tire themselves out running up the mountain. Later, they’d watch the laser light show when the sculpture’s horses’ legs would appear to run.
Someone asked when they carved the Confederate generals into the granite façade, and several suggested that it was probably during the rise of the KKK in the early part of the 20th century or in response to the Civil Rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Nope. A quick Google search revealed that the Confederate carving was completed in 1972 when Jimmy Carter was governor. Also, Google told me the KKK was resurrected in the 1910s on top of Stone Mountain, and that in 1963 they recreated an antebellum plantation inspired by Gone With The Wind. Later still, to more firmly establish the nostalgic tropes, they build a dinosaur park. You know, for the kids.
To sum up, we’re talking about a giant lump of granite about 1,500 feet tall that was the birthplace of a racist terrorist organization than now is a racism theme park. It’s like Disney turned Bergen-Belsen into an amusement destination. This sounded excessively weird. Hell yes, I was in.
This sounded excessively weird. Hell yes, I was in.
The story of how the Jackson, Lee, and Davis carvings ended up on Stone Mountain goes back to 1869, when an Atlanta poet suggested some sort of Confederal memorial be build at Stone Mountain. A few decades later, an Atlanta attorney revived the idea in an editorial in the Atlanta Constitution.
The grandson of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate officer and later the first Grand Wizard of the KKK, owned Stone Mountain. Around the time he was reviving the KKK on Stone Mountain, he and a woman who led a Confederate lineage organization hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum to carve some sort of something into Stone Mountain to remember the Confederacy, which is where the story first starts to get weird. Even though Borglum was a member of the KKK, the Confederate lady who met his train refused to shake his hand. He was, you see, a Yankee.
(By the way, if you know who Borglum is, keep it to yourself and don’t ruin it for everyone else.)
Borglum started carving Lee’s face into Stone Mountain, but he and his clients had creative differences. They fired Borglum and blasted Lee’s partial face off the mountain in 1928. That left Stone Mountain with an ugly scar and Borglum with the freedom to take on his next project, Mount Rushmore. (Yes, a KKK member did Mount Rushmore. No, I don’t know how I feel about that. Yes, it’s gross.)
Stone Mountain was left well enough alone for three decades until 1958 when Governor Marvin Griffin, a segregationist tool, thought the proper response to Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement was to turn Stone Mountain into a Confederate Memorial. Because obviously, the best way to adapt to Black people wanting equal rights is to buy a granite mountain for $1.125 million and turn it into a Confederate memorial.
It gets worse. On August 28, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. As you probably know, seeing as how you’re so smart, Dr. King got to the end of his prepared remarks and felt that it lacked oomph, which is how we ended up with the “Let freedom ring” coda.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.
But not only that:
Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
Dr. King grew up in Atlanta and surely knew the KKK’s history at Stone Mountain. By mentioning it first after the list of mountains in the North and West, he was making Southern Black liberation part of the national story. It was an inspired and glorious choice in the history of American rhetoric. So of course, the next year the State of Georgia said #NotAllMountains and started carving the three generals into Stone Mountain. In case you’re missing the point they were trying to make, they officially opened Stone Mountain Park the year after that on April 14, 1965 — exactly 100 years to the day after John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln.
The history carved into this mountain is not of the Confederacy but of the South digging in its heels against racial equality, first as the home base of the KKK’s resurrection and then the surly, reactionary opposition to the Civil Rights Movement.
But none of this was the history that my father-in-law recalled when I mentioned that the carving was completed in 1972. He recalled that around that time, when he was studying business at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, his father down in Marvel told him to start carrying a gun in his car. Black people in the next county over from Marvel had started a boycott of white businesses, more than half of which folded. Violence ensued, and my father-in-law remembers being scared, though “not, I would guess, unlike the way that all the Black men and women felt most of the time during that and subsequent and former times,” he said.
I was two years old in 1972. The Beatles had broken up by then. MLK had followed Lincoln into the hereafter. Even with the benefit of recent hindsight — Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter, Donald J. Trump — 1972 comes after the Civil Rights Movement in my high school history book. This should have been settled law in 1972, but the past is never dead. It's not even past.
This should have been settled law in 1972, but the past is never dead. It's not even past.
We arrived at the base of the mountain the day after Christmas in the traditional fashion of extended family holiday outings — confused, tired, irritated, and unsure we even wanted to do this in the first place. My father-in-law is due for a knee replacement. I should probably get my arthritic right ankle fused soon. My wife was wearing cowboy boots. We were ill-suited to the task at hand, which was walking a mile straight up a steep grade in the unseasonably hot sun. Nevertheless, I insisted, so we persisted.
For about a century, Stone Mountain has stood as a monument to anti-Black terrorism and oppression, so you’ll forgive me if I was expecting to hike the mountain with families of rednecks whistling Lee Greenwood along trails lined with Confederate flags.
Instead, it was quite the opposite. The trail was crowded with families going up and returning down. At no time were White people the majority of those in my vicinity. I am not competent to list all the languages that I heard, but it was often the case that I heard more than one at a time, and none of them were English unless it was me saying to one of my sons, “I hope it’s not too much farther to the top.” On the day after Christmas, Stone Mountain looked more like a Benetton ad than a Confederate monument.
We took the gondola down the mountain and walked to the lawn to look at the damned carving. After experiencing the glory of the mountain and its terrifying scale in the ride down, the carving looked small and tacky. Later I found out that the carving is in fact nearly as big as Mount Rushmore, but the entirety of Stone Mountain dwarfs the pathetic attempt to carve the Confederacy into the ancient face of granite. The carving is empirically large, but on the side of the big mountain it looks small.
Stacey Abrams wants to blast the carving off the face of the mountain. My father-in-law said that the State of Georgia has appointed someone to decide what to do with Stone Mountain, but any idea would have to get past the Republicans who run Georgia. Staring at the mountain, I noted that there was plenty of space above the three generals to carve Dr. King’s face into the mountain so he could look permanently down on the Confederacy. My father-in-law said that someone had already made that suggestion.
I have no real idea what Georgia should do with Stone Mountain, which is different from other Confederate memorials in that it can’t be taken down and put into a museum. It’s a damn mountain, and it’s not as much a Confederate memorial as it is a failed attempt to stop the arch of history as it bends toward progress. Stacey Abrams is running for governor again. And if the people who trouped up the mountain the day after Christmas were any indication, the future is going to look a lot different than the history carved into the face of that old mountain.
Jason Stanford is the co-author of NYT-best selling Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. His bylines have appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and Texas Monthly, among others. He works at the Austin Independent School District as Chief of Communications and Community Engagement, though he would want to point out that these are his personal opinions and his alone, but you already knew that. Follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
Wayne Slater died recently in a car crash just north of town. He was kind and wise and never failed to treat me with professionalism even when I had not earned it. Wayne was the first writer to recognize me as one, and I’ll never forget how that felt. Later, he was an early adopter of The Experiment and contributed two unsolicited pieces that I happily shared. Wayne was a real one, and I’ll miss him.
How we’re getting through this
Mourning Wayne Slater
Appreciating Bo Burnham
Forgetting the Alamo in D Magazine
Wanting to see a Jimmy Carter action movie
Forgetting the Alamo in Campaigns & Elections
Forgetting the Alamo in the GOP Land Commissioner primary
What I’m reading
Nathan Grayson: “Twitch suspension of Hasan Piker sparks debate over what qualifies as racist language” - Is the word “cracker” racist?
A 2013 article from NPR’s “Code Switch,” which explores issues of race and identity, delved into the etymology of the term after it surfaced in George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Academics and historians interviewed by the article’s author, Gene Demby, dated the term’s use back to Shakespearean times when it was applied as an “insult for an obnoxious bloviator” and was usually directed at people from Scotland or Ireland. When immigrants from those countries crossed the Atlantic to America, the term followed them. Jelani Cobb, a historian now at Columbia University and a staff writer for the New Yorker interviewed by Demby, noted it was later tied to poor White farm hands “since the manual labor they did involved driving livestock with a whip.”
Max Holl: “How Moscow Undermined the Warren Commission” - Turns out Oliver Stone was duped by a KGB disinformation campaign.
This preposterous allegation of CIA involvement might have faded with time but for a chance encounter in a Havana elevator between the publisher of Garrison's 1988 memoir and a powerful Hollywood director named Oliver Stone. In "JFK," Stone reconstructs Jim Garrison's edifice so painstakingly that 88 minutes into the movie, the KGB disinformation resurfaces. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) hands Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) the Italian newspaper clipping, and the implication is created that Shaw was a "contract agent for the Central Intelligence Agency." Arguably, Stone's 1991 movie is the only American feature film made during the Cold War to have, as its very axis, a lie concocted in the KGB's disinformation factories.
Kazuo Ishiguro: “Klara and the Sun” - Deserved all the awards
Tim Ries: “I Played Jazz With Charlie Watts For 20 Years. Here's What I Learned” - An interesting thinker on keeping, and giving, time
We heard so much incredible music on those nights out, and after each gig we would go backstage to rap to the musicians. Of course, everyone knew who Charlie was. But to their surprise, he knew who they were as well. Beyond the the 1940s and '50s jazz he'd grown up with, he was always interested in listening to the newest and youngest stars on the scene, and he always took the time to visit and chat with each player — not as the star that he was, but just as a devoted lover of the music. Many of the musicians were friends of mine, and I would invariably get a call or an email the next day or even the same night, telling me how special the experience had been, how gentle and kind Charlie was to them.
What I’m watching
I’ve watched a lot of movies and television over the break.
The Lunchbox is a helluva love story.
Clearly, The Matrix Resurrections is the best Matrix sequel, but that’s cheap praise. It’s also a great sequel to Sense8, which I value more. We cheered Trinity’s star turn, but more meaningful is how this installment in the franchise gets the possibilities of augmented reality and machine-human cooperation. The remote operation done on Trinity with virtual reality? That will happen in this world in a few years, if not in the new year, as will a fluid physical representation to appear remotely, not just as a hologram but a force with agency. This might be the best Matrix movie; it is definitely the smartest.
TL/DR Queer Eye S6:
Antoni: “Have you tried cooking this super-easy meal?”
Tan: “Try on these clothes that fit.”
Karamo: “You deserve this.”
JVN: “Here’s a haircut. You’re gorg.”
Bobby: “I will remodel your entire home and office in less than a week.”
Annette is a smart idea but awkward, if artful, execution.
The Nowhere Inn is a delightfully surreal examination of the façades artists create. It’s also an excuse to look at Annie Clark’s face for a long time.
Don’t Look Up is a fine-enough political satire of our dumb epoch that really needed a better edit. I can see why all my DC reporter friends hate it. The inability to remain objective and tell the truth must be difficult, and our thoughts and prayers are with them at this time.
Took me almost a decade to watch No, the movie about the Chilean plebiscite that removed Pinochet from power. There’s a pivotal scene where the adman played by Gael García Bernal explains why the ad made by the activists, which looks like an indictment, is relentlessly bad. This movie is good. Don’t let a decade go by before seeing it.
What I’m listening to
I first became musically sentient in 1983 during the pop explosion of the Police, Cyndi Lauper, Prince, Madonna, and David Bowie. “China Girl,” “Every Breath You Take,” “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “Purple Rain,” and “Like a Virgin” were on constant rotation on MTV, but if I wanted to hear a whole album, I had to buy a cassette tape. We didn’t have an extra money in those days, but I scraped together enough to buy one. I had trouble deciding between Bowie and the Police. I chose the latter, and dove into their back catalogue. Bowie was the road not taken, and only recently (and at the suggestion of P) did I ever listen to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust in its entirety. They call it glam-rock, but that seems like a fancy body built on a prog rock chassis. Some of the songs are timeless, but the album sounds so dated. Strange effect. I’m adding “Moonage Daydream” to the playlist.
Khruangbin & Leon Bridges are coming out with another psychedelic soul EP called Texas Moon next year, which is reason enough for optimism. “B-Side” is the first track. It’s another one of those songs to put on the playlist for a cool dinner party.
The song that plays you out of Matrix: Revolutions is a Rage Against the Machine cover by Brass Against with Sophia Uresti guesting on lead vocals. An apt adaptation given Trinity’s star turn.
With all the brouhaha about that awful essay about marriage floating about, here’s an antidote from the late Tom Petty that perfectly describes my wife, “Walls.”
Hey, kids, are you like me? Do you think Billy Preston deserves an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Get Back? Someone noted that the Houston native’s funk jam “I Wrote A Simple Song” is a great wake up song. I think it’s a good one to go out on.
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