Civil rights groups condemn 'Soul Fest' concerts at Stone Mountain Park

A carving on Stone Mountain honoring Confederate generals is shown on Monday, May 24, 2021, in Stone Mountain, Ga. (AP Photo/Ron Harris, File)

Civil rights groups are criticizing a concert series with Black performers dubbed “Soul Fest” that is being held at a Georgia park replete with Confederate imagery, including a giant carving of Confederate leaders.

Stone Mountain Park just outside Atlanta is where the Ku Klux Klan marked its rebirth in 1915. Its colossal, mountainside sculpture of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson is the largest Confederate monument ever crafted and has special protection enshrined in Georgia law.

The park has taken steps in recent years to try to soften its Confederate legacy and promote itself as a family site, but civil rights groups have said the moves fall way short of what’s needed.

The “Soul Fest” concert series is a way to “normalize and sanitize” the hateful message of the park, said Atlanta NAACP President Richard Rose.

“They’re saying, ‘This is OK. Get used to it. It’s cool,’” he said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Rose said he encouraged two of the bands to pull out of the event, but they told him they were under contract, and their music brings people together.

“The music can’t bring people together in front of this icon of the Confederacy,” he said.

Emails to the park and its management company, Thrive Attractions, were not immediately returned. In a news release earlier this month, the park promoted Soul Fest as a new event that would allow families to experience a “full day of fun.” An ad for the event on the park’s website featured a photo of a smiling Black man and Black woman on a lawn.

The event, which runs from Thursday night through Sunday night, features rhythm and blues groups, a gospel singer and a Prince cover band.

It’s a “bad faith effort” to distance the park from the Confederacy, said Rivka Maizlish, a researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“It’s an effort to pretend that the park is for everyone while still maintaining this massive symbol of white supremacy,” she said. Some supporters of the carving say it is a tribute to their ancestors who fought in the Civil War, not a celebration of white power.

The park 15 miles (25 kilometers) northeast of downtown Atlanta attracts large numbers of tourists and other visitors interested in hiking to the top of the mountain, walking the grounds or seeing a light show. In 2021, the park’s board voted to relocate Confederate flags from a busy walking trail and create a museum exhibit that relates the history of the site and the carving, which was completed in 1972 amid resistance to the civil rights movement and desegregation by Georgia and other Southern states.

The changes approved by the board came amid a national reckoning on race that brought down dozens of Confederate monuments in 2020.

The park, however, still maintains the giant carving, which measures 190 feet (58 meters) across and 90 feet (27 meters) tall. The Soul Fest concerts will take place on a lawn that faces the monument just months after a Confederate group gathered there.

“It’s just so beyond obnoxious and disgusting and gross that they’re hosting these artists now and trying to pull in a different audience,” said Brian Morris, a member of the Stone Mountain Action Coalition, an advocacy group that has called on the park to stop maintaining the carving.