N’neka Scruggs refuses to let Stone Mountain Park’s massive memorial carving of Confederate leaders bother her.
“That was put there as an act of aggression towards Black people,” Scruggs said of the 51-year-old memorial site, where the Ku Klux Klan used to burn crosses. “I’d rather it not be there, but I don’t pay it much attention.”
Scruggs has spent the past 15 years living in Stone Mountain, where she owns her own photography business, Images by N’neka. She’s one of many who, on any given day, can be seen jogging and biking on Robert E. Lee Boulevard or Stonewall Jackson Drive in the 3,200-acre greenspace, famous for its undeniable beauty.
Scruggs is one of several Black residents of the city of Stone Mountain who have recently voiced support for a proposed law, House Bill 794. The measure would terminate a state mandate to preserve the 90-by-190-foot carving depicting Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on horseback.
“I have no love for it, but it does not stop or deter me from going to the park,” Scruggs said. “It’s the closest park I live near, so I will go there to walk or hike or exercise.”
The state-run memorial has been a point of controversy in the city ever since it was completed in 1972. State law bars officials from authorizing destruction of or changing the monument. Its original version was conceived by a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and commissioned by a Stone Mountain family known for its ties to the Klan.
State Rep. Billy Mitchell is the Democratic lawmaker representing Stone Mountain who co-sponsored HB 794 in late March. The measure, he says, wouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars to destroy the controversial landmark, but would cut down on resources for upkeep.
“If they were to stop maintaining it, it would just be a matter of a short period of time before Mother Nature would take care of it itself with the overgrowth,” he said.
Mitchell estimates that the state spends about $250,000 dollars in taxpayer revenue every year to preserve and maintain the Stone Mountain carving. Capital B Atlanta reached out to the governor’s office for confirmation on that figure, but have not heard back.
The bill would also eliminate a state law requirement that Confederate memorabilia be sold at the park, Mitchell said. Additionally, HB 794 would remove “memorial” from the park’s official name — to avoid suggesting Confederate leaders should be admired — and change the moniker of its governing body, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, to Stone Mountain Park Association.
The House declined to pass the bill before the end of its latest legislative session, but Mitchell says that was part of the plan.
“We intentionally sponsored the bill at this time so that we could have a conversation all throughout the summer,” he said. “Most of what I’m asking for in my bill, they could do administratively if that Memorial Association had the wherewithal to vote and change it.”
‘Bigger fish to fry’
Building support for HB 794 among city of Stone Mountain residents may not be as easy as it sounds, according to activist Derrica Williams, co-founder of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, a grassroots group of “concerned citizens” who want to make the park more inclusive.
Stone Mountain’s Black population is just over 86%, but Williams, who was raised there and now owns a home just outside the city limits, says many locals have become apathetic about the Confederate monument.
“A good number of them lived through a time period when you couldn’t go to any water fountain you wanted to, or any bathroom you wanted to, or sit wherever you wanted to on a bus,” Williams said of the city’s older Black residents. “They lived through that, and they still are OK with having the biggest memorial to the Confederacy right in their backyard. They just ignore it. It’s like, ‘Don’t talk about it. Don’t think about it. Just leave it alone.’”
More-pressing issues, like securing jobs that pay livable wages, the poor condition of some local school buildings, and a recent school board election, have taken priority over the decades-old monument that isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The Republican-led General Assembly appropriated $11 million in the latest state budget, signed into law by GOP Gov. Brian Kemp, to renovate parts of Stone Mountain Park and add a “truth-telling” museum that will provide more historical context about the memorial.
“If you’ve got a governor and a legislature who don’t make it a priority, then why would the citizens?” Williams said. “They’ve got bigger fish to fry.”
‘I had no idea’
Out-of-town visitors to the park, Georgia’s most popular tourist destination, are often unaware of the origins, or even the presence, of its main attraction.
Lawrenceville resident Quin Meadows and her husband, Luis Ocadez, recently took two of their kids to the park for an afternoon birthday celebration.
The couple, who moved to the metro area from out of state about a year ago, second-guessed returning to the park after learning about the venue’s Confederate memorial.
“I had no idea,” Meadows said. “Now that you’ve told me that, I think bringing our older kids will probably be a little hard to explain.”
Meadows and Dunwoody resident Jermaine Hines voiced support for HB 794 after learning about the bill for the first time.
Hines and his friend Marvin Dixon of Peachtree City visited the park for some exercise when they, too, first learned about the Confederate memorial.
“Take it down,” Hines said. “There’s no point of it. We’re not in slavery no more, so what’s it there for?”
One of the people best positioned to help secure passage of HB 794 is avoiding taking sides.
The Rev. Abraham Mosley is the Kemp-appointed chairman of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association’s board of directors and one of its three Black members. He declined to voice support for HB 794.
“In my position, I have to stay neutral right now,” Mosley said. “There’s some other things that need to be done that I see [take] priority over this.”
Those priorities, Mosley said, include completing the park’s renovations and finishing its truth-telling museum.
“It’s going to tell the whole story about what Stone Mountain is all about,” Mosley said of the museum. “I’ve got pictures and things of crosses being burned there. … That’s Stone Mountain, years ago.”
Mosley pointed out that in recent years, his board has taken the Confederate carving’s image off the park’s logo and moved a state-mandated Confederate flag from the park’s walk-up trail to a less visible location.
“There are other things that will be done, but you just got to do a little at a time,” he said. “I know folk all about changing names and things of that sort, but I think it’ll come. I don’t know when, but I think it may come.”
Bad for business?
Mitchell said Stone Mountain Park doesn’t turn a profit without funding from Georgia taxpayers. He said it could make more money from major corporations hosting events there, but many businesses refuse to do so because of the park’s Confederate symbols.
“It’s certainly a poor business model,” Mitchell said. “It is striking that they believe that this is an appropriate use of taxpayer-funded dollars. However, the reality is they’re just trying to preserve that memorial to the Confederacy.”
The Sons of Confederate Veterans, a group composed of descendants of Confederate soldiers dedicated to preserving the history of their ancestors, is scheduled to host a memorial service on the park’s grounds on April 29.
Counter demonstrators are expected to be there to greet them. Mosley said the association’s board approved the Confederate group’s permit to appear at the park.
“Personally, I have no problem with people recognizing their ancestors,” he said. “I know others disagree with me. Even my own kind would disagree with me, but erasing history [is] not going to change history.”
One of those residents and local entrepreneurs that would disagree with Mosley is Barbara Collins. The 58-year-old jewelry maker has lived in Stone Mountain for the past 20 years. She said she and other Black residents of the city would like to see its Confederate carving removed, but decades of talk about it haven’t led to much action.
“The Black community does care,” Collins said. “They just want to see something done about it, not just that we talk about it. They want to see people actually doing something to remove this situation from the area.”