In Re: Michael Thurmond and Stone Mountain

Though long overdue, DeKalb CEO Michael Thurmond is quite possibly the perfect choice to sit on the board responsible for what goes on at Stone Mountain. DeKalb’s African American CEO lives close to the park, and is a Civil War buff to boot. He sees the war as A “triumph for human rights,” who asked the AJC “How can you not celebrate that if you believe in human dignity?”

Talk about flipping the script, but he’s right. Too many of us white folk need to be reminded that the right side won the Civil War.

I have more than a little fondness for Stone Mountain because I grew up in its shadow, and in the summers of 1980 through 1983, worked as an actor at the park, putting on a show for tourists who rode the train around the mountain.

35 years ago was an astonishingly different era. The “act” was a conductor and a showgirl (yes, that’s what they called them) giving a tour of the mountain to the train passengers, explaining the carving, the geology, and a little history. Partway through the ride, the train would stop and masked cowboys would hop aboard, make dire threats to the passengers, bully the conductor and upon finding no gold, chase the showgirl off the train with wicked intent. The showgirls would run from the robbers until their tear-away dresses were snatched off to reveal –they were really sheriffs! With badges on their bloomers and .22 caliber six shooters loaded with nail-driver blanks. The ensuing shootout ended up with the robbers dead and the showgirl/sheriff stepping back on the train to resume the tour and mock the cowardly conductor.

The original show, using cowboys and Indians in a similar scenario, had been deemed as possibly too insensitive to Native Americans, so that’s what they changed it to. As hard as that may be to believe in 2017, I am not making this up. There are pictures.

Our audiences were mostly sun-burnt Ohioans, on their way to or from Florida, but during the summer of Atlanta’s missing and murdered children, we performed for every black church with a vacation bible school looking to keep their little ones safe. Buses full of African-American kids would arrive, tour the park, play on the water slide –and ride the train. They would laugh, and hoot and holler to flake the paint off the walls. Until you’ve acted in front of 60 children in a closed train car, you don’t know what loud is.

The actors were all white, of course, because that’s what the roles called for, and ranged from talented and beautiful to –me. That’s what passed for diversity back then. But even while extolling Stone Mountain and using the massive carving as a backdrop for our foolishness, none of us felt like racists. We entertained the Ohioans and the African-American children and anyone else who bought a ticket, including then Georgia Secretary of State Max Cleland one time. We were ignorant and innocent and having fun. Dangerous, glorious fun.

Looking back, we should have known more –not better, but more. Our silly act would not have been a venue for racial reconciliation –which somehow didn’t seem as necessary then as it does now- but the mountain, and the carving, would have been the appropriate place. I can imagine no better spot in America to explain Robert E. Lee’s agonizing decision to be loyal to his state instead of his country, Stonewall Jackson’s military genius, Jefferson Davis’ intractable cowardice -and their subsequent elevation to near sainthood by contemptible racists who re-birthed the Ku Klux Klan. Our nation’s complicated, painful racial history can not be adequately understood without acknowledging that Stone Mountain is ground zero for the evil beliefs that make it complicated and painful, which is probably why Dr. Martin Luther King name-checked it in his most famous speech.

Removing the carving from Stone Mountain is a shortsighted campaign war-cry, as dopey and stupid as pretending the men depicted on it are heroes. But adding something to it (there is talk of a freedom bell, or an image of Dr. King) to make it a place of education instead of celebration, would be a noble idea. And a necessary one.

Good luck, Mr. Thurmond.

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SkipSmith

I am a product of the 1950-60s DeKalb Co. school system. Ignorance is no longer an excuse for my generation. I was a student at the old Southwest DeKalb High during desegregation, but it was not until adulthood & independent study that I gained an accurate understanding of the civil war, black codes, & Jim Crowe laws. It is time for each community to determine how to deal with its past memorialization of slavery & segregation. For me, leaving the relic in place but adding a permanent marker that states when it was created, who funded it, and an accurate… Read more »