“Hitler was a good organizer.”
“Columbus was an expert sailor.”
“Genghis Khan was an excellent horseman.“
These are the kind of comments you get when history is treated as a bunch of detached facts rather than a moral issue. Once again, I felt how the absence of commitment to a vital, multi-faceted and thought-provoking history curriculum in my country is staggering and disturbing.
Today we went to Stone Mountain outside of Georgia, the one Martin Luther King includes in his speech—“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain in Georgia!” What most people don’t know is that Stone Mountain is the Confederate Mount Rushmore, with huge stone carvings (photo later) of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee. And that when they began carving those figures in 1910 or so, the Ku Klux Klan decided to adopt the space as their meeting ground. Three slaveholders honored and revered in stone and a place that held one of the most devastating terrorist groups the United States has known.
Now it is an amusement park. You can take a tram to the top, have some kind of 4D experience (whatever that is) with Yogi Bear and Boo Boo, ride on the train, picnic on the grounds, bike around the beautiful paths or go visit the Antebellum Plantation. All under the watchful gaze of these Confederate heroes.
We didn’t have time to do any of that, but I was hungry to read some information and finally found the little information kiosk. Did it treat this place as the Germans treat Auschwitz, as a place where horrible things happen that never should happen again? Of course, not, silly, this is the United States. It talked about what a “gifted tactical commander” Stonewall Jackson was and how Jefferson Davis “succeeded against overwhelming odds” and then more accolades for Robert E. Lee. Not a word about the Klan.
Minniejean Brown talked about the moment on Oprah when one of the students who had tormented her at Little Rock apologized on television some 40 years later. When asked what that meant to her, she said, “It meant a lot. An apology means ‘it happened and it was wrong.’” As on a personal level, so on a collective level. Why is our country having such a hard time apologizing to Native Americans and African-Americans? The Stone Mountain information was a typical tap dance to the side and the fact that it is an amusement park yet another example of choosing stupefying entertainment over deep reflection and moral teaching. It’s fine to go on the merry-go-round after the apology, but weird to just keep circling around as if nothing ever happened.
Now to be fair, the northern Mount Rushmore also has two slave-owners deified (Washington and Jefferson) and a third big bully (Roosevelt). It’s not wholly fair to excuse Jefferson as a product of his time and not give Jefferson Davis the same latitude. I do think there is a difference of degree that’s worth paying attention to, but to be fair, I did look up, Wiki-fashion, something about these three Confederates. It seems Stonewall Jackson was as benevolent a slave-owner as one could be under the circumstances and Robert E. Lee was confused as hell, kind of not wholly for it, but whipping his runaway slaves at the same time. And how did he go to sleep at night? Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his wife in 1856:
“The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”
In other words, “Your call, God. I’m just doing what I think You think is right.”
Personally, I think it’s time to collectively say, “It wasn’t right. And it’s time to take you and your colleagues off of Stone Mountain. Or use it to teach a needed lesson to all who come by.”