Stone Mountain, one of the largest quartz domes in the world, stands like a scab erupting from the surrounding landscape. Carved into its north face, the figures of three Confederate leaders of the Civil War – President Jefferson Davis and Generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson – tower over Stone Mountain Theme Park, a site where the “the fun never ends”, according to the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau. (1) Here, children feast on cotton candy at the base of the largest Confederate memorial in the United States. The amusement park complex, replete with a 4-D movie theater, a mini-golf course, and a small water park, sprawls in all directions, with the looming figures of the Confederate leaders ever-present (indeed, visible from most corners of the park). The Bureau encourages family members to gaze into the faces in the monument and ask each other “who are they?” in the interest of “learning a little history.”
Absent from the question, worded so innocuously as to imply a political neutrality in naming the three figures, is the inconvenient subtext – “who are they to whom?” and “whose history?”
Absent from the question, worded so innocuously as to imply a political neutrality in naming the three figures, is the inconvenient subtext – “who are they to whom?” and “whose history?” To some in white Atlanta – and to large extent white America – the figures symbolize pride for a particular American history, that legitimizes the institution of slavery and glorifies white supremacy. Yet to Black Atlanta, Stone Mountain is a constant reminder of the dehumanization of African Americans, from bondage to Jim Crow, both old and new. “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. urged in his 1963 “I Have a Dream Speech” from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Everyday peace omits the brutality of the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras when African Americans were whipped as enslaved people or lynched as free people.
Everywhere in Atlanta, race and historical remembering collide with intense fervor and awkward irresolution. With ambitions as a global destination and the aspirational capital of the American South, Atlanta invites the world to a city which sanitizes the struggles of the many and leaves the past as a for-profit enterprise for the privileged few. Atlanta, the cradle and crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, has renamed numerous streets, buildings and parks in an effort to capitalize on the movement’s historical significance. At the same time, Atlanta promotes travel to Stone Mountain, the most visited attraction in Georgia, (2) located only twenty miles northeast of the city center. In Confederate Hall, a museum at the foot of the mountain, slavery, the Civil War, and segregation are all whitewashed in the same tenor. In one exhibit, a display “demystifies” the notion that white plantation owners held an exorbitant number of slaves when, in reality, “the typical farm had four African American slaves”. According to another exhibit, everyday life on Stone Mountain was peaceful until the summer of 1864,
when General Sherman began his siege of Atlanta. Fortunately, the display continues, Stone Mountain regained its position as a popular summer resort only two years after. Yet everyday peace omits the brutality of the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras when African Americans were whipped as enslaved people or lynched as free people. Near the end of the museum, a small display offers the only acknowledgement of Stone Mountain’s legacy as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.
Euphemized as a secret society, the KKK is characterized along the lines of an events planning committee, with depictions of gatherings, rallies, and marches. There is no mention of terrorism or terrorist activities, with recognition of cross burnings as the only crime the KKK has committed. In effect, the display walks the tightrope of admitting the erroneousness of the Confederate cause without committing to its deplorability. The museum’s eulogy of the Confederacy realizes the cultural capital of romanticizing the aftermath of the Civil War without suffering the consequences of historical revisionism. Rather than purport false narratives, that have no basis in the historical record, Confederate Hall remains silent on objectionable histories, effectively obviating them from public knowledge or discourse.
In a city that is majority African American, the museum offers no exclusive exhibition of African American history of any era.
Atlanta’s convulsive past is marked by rebuilding the city on top of the remains of systematic violence without acknowledging the ashes upon which new Atlanta stands. The Atlanta History Center, located in the wealthy and predominantly white business district of Buckhead, offers permanent exhibits on the Civil War, Southern folk art, and the life of golfer Bobby Jones. Yet, in a city that is majority African American, the museum offers no exclusive exhibition of African American history of any era. Instead, the African American experience is encapsulated in the Gatheround exhibit, where displays of the Civil Rights Movement and segregation are interspersed between country music records and Coca Cola memorabilia. By presenting the African American struggle for freedom and equality as a discontinuous narrative, the museum dilutes how African Americans were discriminated against across generations. Furthermore, the presentation of African Americans blended with white people throughout the city in the exhibit ignores the racial tensions that fracture Atlantan society. Following the rebuilding of Atlanta after the Civil War, local leaders envisioned a city that would be a transportation hub for the region. At the same time, local leaders encoded Jim Crow laws to restructure Postbellum Atlanta along the racial hierarchy of slavery. African Americans were concentrated in segregated districts south of downtown Atlanta, which was exclusively white. Yet as Atlanta expanded, Black people began to encroach on downtown, causing white flight from downtown to midtown in an effort to resist neighborhood and business integration. Then, as Black people moved from downtown to midtown, white people fled again north to Buckhead, to remake another oasis of whiteness in the aversion to African American social empowerment. (3) Atlanta’s urban geography today reveals how race and income intersect to reproduce segregation. According to Georgia State University Professor Erin Ruel, Atlanta ranks last among American cities for upward mobility. (4) Children, particularly Black children, born in the most impoverished neighborhoods of Atlanta have the lowest chances of becoming high-income earners of any child in the United States. In the city historically “too busy to hate”, the conditions of Apartheid are growing for the next generation of Atlantans.
Atlanta has reinforced within me the importance of social inclusion across diverse communities in the unfolding stories of cities.
By demanding inclusion and reclaiming history, the stolen girls resist the temptation among Civil Rights leaders and historians that the movement itself is a closed chapter of the American experience, that all the lessons in the movement’s pursuit to end discrimination have been learned.
What might restorative justice look like amidst Atlanta’s politics of forgetting? In Leesburg, Georgia, a city near the Florida border, a group of African American girls were abducted and incarcerated for marching for the Civil Rights Movement. They were locked in a stockade for two months with little food and water. One girl, Verna Hollis, discovered she was pregnant with a baby boy during this imprisonment. Yet this tragic history, bereft of fiery orators and written appeals for human rights, (5) offers to the Civil Rights Movement no champions to capitalize on. Still the stolen girls march on to Atlanta and to Washington D.C., sharing their under-told story to seek affirmation that their survival had meaning, and, in effect, that Black lives matter. By demanding inclusion and reclaiming history, the stolen girls resist the temptation among Civil Rights leaders and historians that the movement itself is a closed chapter of the American experience, that all the lessons in the movement’s pursuit to end discrimination have been learned. “History is a human right”, according to Emory University Professor Carole Anderson in a lecture to the 2017 John Lewis Fellowship Program. (6) In view of the social friction surrounding forgetting and remembering in Atlanta, perhaps it is more apt to modify Anderson’s statement through the lens of inclusivity – that a people’s history is a human right. A people’s history of Atlanta, a city retold and remade in the image of the many, may provide the basis for restoring the dignity and humanity to the people of Atlanta and thereby create the justice long denied to the city’s forgotten. A city centered on its people’s history may provide the foundations for the freedom Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed about over a half century ago.
Atlanta has reinforced within me the importance of social inclusion across diverse communities in the unfolding stories of cities. Reflecting upon my work as Chair of the Peace and Justice Commission, the city of Berkeley’s human rights commission, I realize the urgency of learning and interrogating local history before crafting municipal policy. My summer in the American South has taught me how the politics of memory frames politics entirely. I return to the San Francisco Bay Area carrying these questions – “who has been forgotten in this city?” and “how can we work together to remember and uplift their stories?”
-  Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau. “See Atlanta from the Top of Stone Mountain.” Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, n.d. Web. 29 July 2017. <http://www.atlanta.net/things-to-do/outdoors/stone-mountain-park/>.
- Massey, Wyatt. “NAACP: Banish Confederate Symbols from Stone Mountain in Georgia.” CNN. N.p., 14 July 2017. Web. 29 July 2017. <http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/14/living/feat-stone-mountain-georgia-naacp-confederate-symbol/index.html>.
- Rosen, Sam. “Atlanta’s Controversial ‘Cityhood’ Movement.” The Atlantic. Open Society Foundations, 26 Apr. 2017. Web. 29 July 2017. <https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/04/the-border-battles-of-atlanta/523884/>.
- Ruel, Erin. “Creating the Win-Win for Communities of Color and the City of Atlanta: Development Without Displacement.” Community, Development, and Gentrification. Georgia State University College of Law, Atlanta. 13 July 2017. Lecture.
- Pope, Roslyn. An Appeal for Human Rights. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 9 Mar. 1960. Web. 29 July 2017. <http://www.crmvet.org/docs/aa4hr.htm>.
- Anderson, Carole. “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Nation’s Racial Divide.” Historical Redux: A Question of Humanity. Georgia State University College of Law, Atlanta. 10 July 2017.