Amid talk of change, Stone Mountain Park allows Confederate commemoration to resume

Stone Mountain Park
An event marking Confederate Memorial Day that was not allowed in 2021 is back this year at Stone Mountain State Park. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

The Sons of Confederate Veterans are set to gather Saturday morning at Stone Mountain State Park in observance of Confederate Memorial Day.

It comes a year after park leaders denied the group’s permit, citing safety concerns, including the potential spread of COVID-19.

Park executives signed off on this year’s gathering, saying they had received no warnings of potential violence.

“As we continue to move back towards a new normal, we will begin to receive more requests for gatherings from all quarters,” wrote Stone Mountain Park CEO Bill Stephens in a statement. “And unless law enforcement intelligence issues us a warning of potential violence or a ‘clear and present danger,’ then we will err towards maintaining an open and welcoming environment.”

The permit allows for a gathering of no more than 200 people from 8:30 until 1 p.m. Saturday on the Memorial Plaza lawn below the 90-foot tall Confederate carving on the side of Stone Mountain.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is calling for the permit to be revoked, saying the potential for violence is still very real.

“It sends the absolute wrong message, not just about the park, but about Georgia’s values and priorities,” said the SPLC’s Lecia Brooks. She says as long as the park features a Confederate carving and street names honoring Confederate leaders, it will continue to attract groups glorifying the Confederacy and white supremacy.

“This is why groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans choose locations like this,” said Brooks. “It’s the perfect backdrop, my gosh, it’s like you couldn’t do better on a movie set.”

She says allowing the gathering is especially harmful, considering the area surrounding Stone Mountain has a majority Black population.

Eventually, the Stone Mountain Action Coalition wants at least the consideration of modifying or removing the giant Confederate carving on Stone Mountain. (Emil Moffatt/WABE)

The Sons of Confederate Veterans say revoking the permit would infringe on their members’ First Amendment rights.

“Apparently that’s a civil right that’s no longer viewed with any importance over at the SPLC,” said Martin O’Toole with the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.

Groups including the NAACP and Stone Mountain Action Coalition (SMAC) are planning a counter-demonstration.

O’Toole says his group has “no plans” for any interaction with counter protestors.

SMAC points to social media postings by white nationalist groups that urge members to show up at the memorial event as evidence that the situation could turn dangerous.

“Allowing this event to take place on the grounds of Stone Mountain Park is yet another example of SMMA’s blatant disrespect to the people of Georgia by prioritizing the glorification of the Confederacy over the safety of Georgia citizens and their hard-earned tax dollars,” the group wrote in a statement.

For the past year, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) board, which oversees operations at the park, has been discussing ways to deal with the prominence of Confederate imagery at the park. It has announced plans to relocate Confederate flags to an area directly underneath the carving. It is also has plans to re-vamp the park’s museum to tell a more “complete history” of Stone Mountain.

While SMAC has pushed for more changes, the SMMA board has cited a state law that protects Confederate monuments, including the carving.

A member of SMAC, who requested anonymity out of concern for her safety, says the group is concerned about Saturday park-goers unexpectedly seeing a commemoration of the Confederacy as they exercise or enjoy nature.

“We’re not just gonna let the SCV [Sons of Confederate Veterans] hold this event at Stone Mountain Park without having the people of Georgia raise their voices and speak out against it,” she said.