A Monumental History Lesson Part 2

It is difficult to topple a mountain. Particularly if the mountain rises 800 feet from the ground, covers 583 acres, and is made of granite.

It is not like lassoing an iron horse and its rider from a concrete pedestal and heave-hoing it into pieces on the ground. Mountains are no pushovers.

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Such is the dilemma with Stone Mountain in Georgia, recognized as the single largest monument to white supremacy in the world. The 90 foot relief of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis carved 45 feet into the mountain 400 feet above the ground is also a monument to intransigence.

Because if you don’t see the mountain the same way, what do you do with it? Now that the artist Christo has died, it is not like it can be covered in billowing red sheets. And it is doubtful that we will all wake up one morning to an oversized, anarchist rat spray painted in black across the mountain during the night by Banksy.

Still, it turns out the only thing more important than the glory of a monument itself, is the glory of the people who create it. So if you want to deface a monument, it is best to turn to the artists.

Carving up Stone Mountain was the brainchild of C. Helen Plane. Her husband died in the battle of Antietam serving under General Robert E. Lee. And as head of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, Helen wanted to honor the memory of Confederate soldiers and veterans.

In this, Helen was thinking go big or go home.

Enter Sam Venable, owner of Stone Mountain, and proud member and meeting host to the newly resurgent KKK and their ritual cross burnings on top of his mountain. The not so venerable Venable, deeded his large slab of rock to the UDC and introduced Plane to artist and fellow Klan sympathizer, Gutzon Borglum.

The same Borglum who chiseled away Mt. Rushmore.

Borglum, the son of a Morman polygamist, believed Plane was not thinking big enough. He envisioned a massive relief of the Confederate army led by Robert E. Lee marching up the mountain which would also be hollowed out to a cathedral-like cavern inside honoring the Confederacy with perhaps a mall and a theme park and miniature golf.

But a few years after he started carving, money, egos, KKK politics, and an enticing opportunity to desecrate sacred Lakota Sioux lands in South Dakota found Borglum ousted from the Stone Mountain project.

Disgruntled, he picked up his drills and dynamite and left town leaving behind some lawsuits and a 50 foot head of Robert E. Lee etched permanently into the face of Stone Mountain.

The idea man behind a monument to attract tourism to South Dakota was state historian Doane Robinson, who wanted to sculpt granite pillars known as the “Needles” into historic Western figures, ironically including Chief Red Cloud who signed the Ft. Laramie treaty with the US government recognizing the sacred Black Hills as part of the Sioux reservation.

Borglund did not believe Robinson was thinking big enough. He envisioned the busts of four presidents blasted from 45,000 tons of Mt. Rushmore. The monument would be complete with a Hall of Records carved into the mountain containing historical documents with perhaps a mall and a theme park and miniature golf.

Borglund started small with a 60 foot head of George Washington, which was presented to the public on July 4th, 1930.

Next Borgland started carving Jefferson. But Jefferson, as a monument, was much more problematic for Borgland. Not because all-around historical good guy Jefferson turned out to be a controversial slave owner, but because the rock Jefferson was hewn from wasn’t that pure.

So he blew Jefferson up.

Borgland tried reshaping history again, this time to the other side of Washington, but hit a snag when a crack began to develop across the new Jefferson’s nose. To fix it, he blasted the founding father clean again and shifted him up slightly above the crack line to ensure his nose would not fall down to the rubble below where tourists could pick it for souvenirs.

Meanwhile, back at Stone Mountain, work had resumed where Borgland left it. A new artist named Austus Lukeman quickly realized the large stone relief of Robert E. Lee was now problematic. Not because Robert E. Lee was emblematic of a racist South, but because Borgland had been the artist.

So he sandblasted Robert E. Lee clean off the face of Stone Mountain.

And started over again, this time adding a horse.

After lengthy periods of dormancy due to failed financing and political bickering befitting such a massive project, the burgeoning civil rights movement finally spurred the State of Georgia to purchase the mountain and resume carving, this time with a new artist wielding stone tempering blow torches. The massive memorial to white power was completed and dedicated in 1970.

Although On April 14, 1965 the Stone Mountain State Park was ceremoniously opened to the public on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination.

Mt. Rushmore was completed shortly after Borgland’s death by his son Lincoln, and the finished monument was dedicated in 1941 on Halloween.

I know very little about art. I know even less about history.

But since they are both in the eye of the beholder, maybe they should be a little less monumental.

Miss Part 1 of A Monumental History Lesson?  Click on this. A Monumental History Lesson Part 1