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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Steven] We're at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia on the day that the monument carved into the face of this enormous granite mountain appeared on the front page of the "New York Times." This carving is widely understood as a potent symbol of white supremacy. Carved onto the face of the mountain are three figures, the general, Robert E. Lee, the general, Thomas Stonewall Jackson, and the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. This sculpture can be seen as part of a broad effort to sanitize the real causes of the Civil War. - [Beth] What historians call the myth, or sometimes even the religion of the "Lost Cause", that the Civil War was fought not to protect the institution of slavery, but rather to protect a Southern way of life. - [Steven] That the moral imperative was so just that the South had no choice but to go to war against the better armed, better financed North. - [Beth] But all of this involved a denial of the horrors of slavery, that this was in fact a good way of life that should be preserved. - [Steven] And perhaps most importantly, to perpetuate the racial segregation that existed in the American South. - [Beth] Historians ascribe the myth of the "Lost Cause" largely to the women who wanted to memorialize their husbands and their family members who had fought in the Civil War. And the woman who's at the center of this story is named Helen Plane. And she was a charter member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, an organization that's promoting this idea of the "Lost Cause" and revering the Klu Klux Klan, the KKK, a terrorist organization that was formed in the 19th century and then revived in the 20th century. - [Steven] And worked to maintain the subservience of freed enslaved people. And this site is closely associated with the Klan. - [Beth] So it was here at the top of this mountain that the Klan was reborn. There was a cross burning in 1915, just at the time of the debut of DW Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" a huge hit that perpetuated and ignited racist tropes that black people were not intelligent, that they were sexually aggressive. And that valorized the Klan as heroes that could protect white people from the dangers of black people. - [Steven] They were seen as latter day knights, which wove into the Southern idea of chivalry as one of its defining features and set it against what it saw as the more barbarous North. - And in fact, when Helen Plane hired Borglum to sculpt the face of this mountain, she wrote, "Seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of reconstruction in the South. I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination. Why not represent a small group of them in their knightly uniform approaching in a distance." This land was owned by a man named Sam Venable, who was himself, a Klan member, and the sculptor, Borglum, would also join the Klan. - [Beth] So let's start by taking us back to before the settlers arrived here from Europe. This was a place that was important to native American communities beginning with the Mississippians. - [Steven] Archeology uncovered significant evidence of Native American occupation. - [Beth] Those traces were disregarded, bulldozed over. And so much of what we could have learned was lost. - [Steven] The first treaty of Indian Springs passed this land from the Muskogee to the US government. - [Beth] By the 1850s, this site was becoming an important tourist attraction, and it's easy to see why. The natural environment is incredibly beautiful and the face of the mountain awe inspiring. So the idea begins in the early years of the 20th century, Borglum was hired in 1915. He begins work in 1923. Borglum is nothing if not ambitious. And he doesn't just plan this relief sculpture on the side of the mountain with dozens of figures, but he also plans to carve out of the mountain below the relief a vast hall to honor the women who were involved in the cause of the Civil War. - [Steven] So this sculpture was meant to be part of an ensemble in front of the entrance was planned a memorial to the unknown Confederate soldier. And in front of that, a large reflecting pool. What's fascinating is that when you look at the planned architecture, it seems to reflect almost perfectly the building of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, which was completed in 1922 at this very moment. - [Beth] And inside this vast chamber, they planned a sculpture about the same size as the figure of Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, but of a woman in mourning for those who were lost in the Civil War called "Memory." So in 1925, Borglum is fired and another sculptor, Lukeman, is hired. We might also note that in 1925, more than 50,000 members of the KKK paraded through Washington DC. - [Steven] This was the height of Klan activity. Now Lukeman did not like what Borglum had done and blasts Borglum's sculpture off the face of the rock and starts over. But soon enough, the project grinds to halt, funding is lost and the sculpture sits unfinished for more than a quarter of a century. - [Beth] And then interest in the sculpture is revived in 1954 at the time of the landmark decision that we know as Brown versus the Board of Education, which made segregation in the public schools illegal. - [Steven] Marvin Griffin, a man who was running for governor, promised two things on his platform. One that he would protect segregation in the South against the ruling of the Supreme Court and two, that he would finish Stone Mountain. (triumphant music) - [Announcer] For decades completion of the Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial is a dream shared by all Georgians. But every attempt to complete the memorial ends in failure, no progress is made until Governor Griffin gives the project new impetus. - [Steven] And in fact, the reaction was so strong against the federal efforts to desegregate the South that Atlanta took the punitive step of changing their state flag to include the Confederate battle emblem. - [Beth] Work resumes on the sculpture in 1963. And it's also in that same year that Dr. Martin Luther King mentions Stone Mountain in his great, "I have a Dream" speech. - [Dr. King] So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire, let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado, let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California, but not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. - [Steven] By 1970, the sculpture itself is completed. And there are plans that President Nixon will come to the unveiling ceremony. Nixon is called away and his vice-president Spiro Agnew, comes in his stead. But this history doesn't stop in the 20th century, this history continues into our moment. - [Beth] In 2001, a state provision allows for the Confederate emblem to be removed from the state flag, something that had been lobbied for, for decades, but the governor had written into the law that this memorial must be preserved. And the language states, "The memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed or obscured in any fashion." And of course, once again, obscuring the real cause of the war, of slavery. - [Steven] Just yesterday, the board overseeing the monument voted not to change the monument, but to take two actions, one to remove Confederate flags that continue to populate the park and two to do a better job of contextualizing the history of the monument. - [Beth] That the issue of permanence was on the minds of those who created and commissioned this sculpture. Those involved said this, "This monument cannot fall. It is part of the earth. It will be one of the last parts of the earth to crumble." - [Steven] And it's clear when you look at this sculpture that the artist had been thinking about the sculptures of ancient Greece and ancient Rome. You might think about the riders on horseback from the frieze of the Parthenon, held up for centuries as the highest expression of nobility. Although some of the original designs for the sculpture were to incorporate dozens, sometimes hundreds, by one report, nearly a thousand figures, in the end, there were only three carved and these men are holding their hats against their heart because in an original design, they had just passed the Confederate flag to which they were paying honor. - [Beth] And the scale of the carving reminds me of the tendency toward depicting the landscape of the United States as grandiose, as almost bombastic, as dwarfing human presence and help to promote an ideology of manifest destiny that the white settlers had a right to claim this land from the Atlantic to the Pacific. And it didn't matter who was here before. - [Steven] And so here we stand on land that once belonged to the Muskogee nation, looking at a sculpture whose intention was to heroize the Civil War, to perpetuate the mythic narratives of the "Lost Cause", to promote white supremacy, to maintain the social order in the South that had existed before the Civil War.