The Confederate battle flag has been under siege ever since a white man massacred nine black worshippers in a church in South Carolina last month and photos of him posing with the flag were widely circulated by the media. The contention that the battle flag has been used too often as a standard by the Klan and other hate groups for it to represent anything other than bigotry and intolerance for many Americans seemed to very quickly become too persuasive to be denied.
Already the battle flag that flew on state government property in South Carolina has come down, and it’s likely that any others that are still displayed on public land will soon follow. All things considered, I think that’s probably for the best.
But removing the battle flag is not going to satisfy those who are offended by any sort of reminder of or memorial to the Confederacy. There are moves afoot to remove anything and everything related to the Confederacy that takes up space on public land. Some are even suggesting that the huge relief sculpture of three Confederate dignitaries that serves as the centerpiece of Stone Mountain Park near Atlanta should be destroyed.
The Stone Mountain carving of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is the largest high-relief sculpture in the world, dwarfing even Mount Rushmore. It took more than 60 years to complete and is probably the most familiar landmark in our state.
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But because it honors men who were leaders of the Confederacy, some Georgians find it offensive and want to see it removed. The Atlanta NAACP and other civil rights groups have requested that the state government act to destroy or modify the sculpture. There does not seem to be much chance that our current state government will act on this request anytime soon, but as the recent events in South Carolina have shown us, public opinion can change very quickly at times, and when it does government action can follow relatively swiftly as well. Those three gentlemen on the side of Stone Mountain should probably be at least a bit concerned about their future.
I understand why some people find any sort of memorial to the Confederacy to be inappropriate on public land. Human slavery is one of the greatest evils human beings can inflict on one another, and there is no doubt that the state governments that sought to create the Confederate States of America saw preserving the institution of slavery as one of their founding principles. In fact, the Constitution of the CSA specifically forbade the passing of laws that would restrict the practice of slavery in any way (see Article I, Section 9, Clause 4.) To ignore that fact, and to ignore the anxiety it understandably still generates among black people today, is to stick one’s head in the sand.
But I think we should think long and hard before we destroy notable works of art like the Stone Mountain carvings because they cause discomfort for some of the people who see it. I’m reminded of the religious fanatics who blew up ancient Buddhist carvings in Afghanistan -- great works of art that were obliterated because they were judged to be offensive. These are historical markers that cannot be reclaimed or recreated once they are lost.
I believe we’d be doing a disservice to art and to history if the Stone Mountain carvings were to be destroyed. Maybe a better idea is to somehow balance the lofty representation of three Confederate luminaries with some sort of memorial or display recognizing the painful legacy of slavery in the Old South and the long (and still ongoing) struggle to overcome the stigma of racial strife that goes on to this day.
Perhaps a giant relief sculpture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. will one day live in harmony next to Davis, Lee and Jackson. It’s a big mountain, there should be plenty of room.
Bill Ferguson is a resident of Warner Robins. Readers can write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.