State authorities’ decision Sunday to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the site of a Confederate memorial on Stone Mountain, Ga., has again underscored rising tensions over the Confederacy’s role in US history.
The announcement, which faces mixed reactions from locals, is emblematic of an increasingly divisive discourse taking place across the South in the wake of the mass shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C., in June. The shooter, a self-professed white supremacist, had published a racist manifesto and unfurled the Confederate battle flag in photos.
Since then, a nationwide debate has raged over symbols of the Confederacy, which some have insisted are a vital part of the country’s history and others decried as a relic of the South’s racist past.
[T]he history of the Confederacy – and what it means to the South – is up for debate as never before from Kentucky to Mississippi.
That Confederate monuments may no longer be sacred – and could even be unbolted and removed – suggests rapidly evolving moral and intellectual views of the South's complicated past, historians say. Those insights, unleashed by violence in the same city where the Civil War began, appear to be forcing a national reckoning over the power of rebel symbols, even those once seen as largely innocuous.
In some ways, the new project in Georgia epitomizes the discourse. The Stone Mountain Memorial Association, with Republican Gov. Nathan Deal's approval, plans to build a tower with a replica of the Liberty Bell just beyond the carvings of Confederate heroes Gen. Robert E. Lee, President Jefferson Davis, and Gen. Stonewall Jackson to celebrate Mr. King’s reference to the site in his famous “I Have A Dream” speech: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”
“It is one of the best-known speeches in US history,” said Bill Stephens, the association’s CEO, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We think it’s a great addition to the historical offerings we have here.”
“A monument like this should bring people together,” one local told the paper.
Not everyone agrees.
“This is an insult to us,” said Tim Pilgrim, head of the Georgia chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. “This is like the government going down to Auburn Avenue and putting a monument of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson on top of the King monument. How would supporters of Martin Luther King feel about that?”
Similar episodes are playing out across the nation. In Mississippi – the heart of the Deep South and whose state flag is the only one that incorporates the “rebel X” – the debate has divided cities and officials alike.
On Sunday, about 400 people gathered for a rally outside the state capitol in an effort to push the state government to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag, The Associated Press reported.
"What was the Civil War fought over?" Mississippi-born rapper David Banner told the wire service. "Be honest. Slavery."
But as state Sen. Melanie Sojourner argued on her Facebook page in June: “The flag was no more the ‘source’ of horrible acts against mankind than a gun is the ‘source’ of someone’s death. The ‘source’ is the hatred and evil that resides in the hearts of some who live and have lived among us.... Simply placing the blame on something that some see as a symbol only perpetuates the problem.”
As contentious as the issue has become, some states have found ways to forge ahead.
In South Carolina, for instance, the Confederate battle flag that had flown over the State House in Columbia for more than half a century was furled for the first time in July “amid cheers, even as some Southerners hung their heads, unbelieving that a flag they believe represents solely the valor of Southern soldiers defending their land had come to represent hatred and oppression,” the Monitor reported.
The flag’s removal to what is set to become a multimillion-dollar shrine at the state’s “relic room” in Columbia heralded the beginning of a new era in South Carolina, long burdened by deep racial tensions.
“This moment is about more than a flag or a vote,” Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin tweeted at the time. “It’s about the hope that now, 150 years after the end of the Civil War, we have grown beyond our differences and have begun to grow together.”