As the monuments fall, the Confederate sculpture has size on the side

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STONE MOUNTAIN, GA. – Certain statues of characters from the American past of the possession of slaves were uprooted by demonstrators, others dismantled on the orders of the governors or town leaders. But the largest Confederate monument ever built – colossal figures carved from the solid rock of a Georgia mountainside – can survive them all. The oversized Stone Mountain sculpture of General Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on horseback enjoys special protection under Georgian law.

Even if its demolition was sanctioned, the very size of the monument poses serious challenges. The sculpture measures 190 feet (58 meters) in diameter and 90 feet (27 meters) in height. An old photo shows a worker on scaffolding just below Lee’s chin barely reaching his nose.

Numerous Confederate statues and monuments to American slave owners have descended in the South amid recent protests against racial injustice. Stone Mountain did not escape attention.

After organizing a demonstration where thousands of people marched in the neighboring city of Atlanta, 19-year-old Zoe Bambara organized a demonstration on June 4 with a much smaller group – her license did not authorize her more than 25 – inside the state park where the sculpture attracted millions of people. tourists for decades.

“The Confederation does not celebrate the South; it celebrates white supremacy, ”said Bambara, who is black. “The people of this mountain, they hated me. They didn’t know me, but they hated me and my ancestors. It hurts to see these people celebrated and a memorial dedicated to them. ”

Bambara nevertheless admits that she is lost for what should be done with the massive monument, designed about 50 years after the end of the civil war, but which did not end until 1972.

The creators of the sculpture used dynamite to project huge pieces of granite away from the mountain, and then spent years sculpting the detailed figures with hand-cutting torches.

Erasing the sculpture would be dangerous, time consuming and costly.

The stone is probably too durable for sandblasting, said Ben Bentkowski, president of the Atlanta Geological Society. Controlled explosions using TNT wrapped in mountain side drilled holes would work, he said.

“With the logistics, the security aspect, you would certainly have a budget north of $ 1 million, I guess,” said Bentkowski. “You will need insurance for the project, you will need a risk premium for the people working on it. It could easily take a year or more. ”

There is also a significant legal obstacle.

When Georgian legislators voted in 2001 to change the state flag which had been dominated by the emblem of the Battle of the Confederates since 1956, language to guarantee the preservation of the Stone Mountain sculpture was included as currency exchange.

The law states that “the monument to the heroes of the Confederate States of America engraved on the face of Stone Mountain will never be altered, removed, hidden or obscured in any way.”

Ryan Gravel, an Atlanta-based urban designer, noted that the law does not make maintenance mandatory. He suggested allowing nature to take its course, to let the vegetation develop on the sculpture from its nooks and crannies.

“I think we are at a time when pushing the boundaries of this law is possible,” said Gravel. “And certainly the scale of the challenge at Stone Mountain warrants it. ”

Other ideas – such as adding a bell tower at the top of the mountain in honor of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. – failed to take hold. And Democratic proposals to remove the protective language from Georgian law fell flat with the legislature controlled by the Republicans.

Asked whether Stone Mountain still deserves special protection, GOP Governor Brian Kemp did not give a direct response during his interview with reporters on June 26.

“As I have said many times, we cannot hide from our history,” said Kemp, while citing the new hate crime law he signed the same day as a milestone in the fight against racial injustice.

Stone Mountain was not a battle site and had little historical significance for the Civil War. But 50 years after the end of the war, the exposed surface of the north face of the mountain sparked an idea among the United Girls of Confederation.

“It looked like a giant billboard,” said Stan Deaton, senior historian at the Georgia Historical Society.

The group hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum – who would later sculpt Mount Rushmore – to design a massive Confederate monument in 1915.

That same year, the film “The Birth of a Nation” glorified the era of reconstruction Ku Klux Klan and Stone Mountain played a key role in its resurgence, marking his return with a burning cross at the top of the mountain at night Thanksgiving.

Budget problems plagued the Stone Mountain project and work on the sculpture languished until the state bought the mountain and surrounding land in 1958 for a public park. The completion of the monument became increasingly urgent as the civil rights movement brought undesirable changes to the southern states.

“It has become the centerpiece of the park,” said Deaton. “There was never any doubt that the state’s intention to complete this project was that of massive resistance.”

It is estimated that 10,000 people attended the monument’s inauguration in 1970. Two more years passed before its official completion.

Five decades later, Stone Mountain Park presents itself as a family theme park rather than a sanctuary from the myth of the “lost cause” that romanticizes the Confederation as chivalrous defenders of state rights. Its website highlights miniature golf and a dinosaur-themed attraction while minimizing Confederate sculpture, Confederate flags, and brick terraces dedicated to each Confederate state.

Paula and Michael Smith from Monticello, Georgia, visited Stone Mountain on Monday so their 10-year-old grandson could see the monument for the first time.

“The mountain itself is breathtakingly beautiful and the sculpture is a marvel of engineering,” said Paula Smith, a 70-year-old white woman who rejected the idea of ​​removing or modifying the sculpture. as an attempt to “steal American history”.

Jarvis Jones climbs the steep hiking trail behind Stone Mountain several times a week. The 29-year-old black man said he was trying to avoid seeing the sculpture.

“I really understand that everyone wants their story to be represented,” said Jones. “But when it comes to the oppression of others, I think it has to change. ”

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Bynum reported in Savannah, Georgia. Associated Press writers Ben Nadler and Jeff Amy in Atlanta contributed to this story.

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