For over a year now, Andrew and I have held a membership to Stone Mountain Park, just outside Atlanta. The Rock, as we like to call it, just twenty minutes from our house, is heavily wooded and surrounded by a fresh lake in which our dog Ivy loves to swim. The Rock, itself, which stands at the center of the park, is a humpbacked granite slab resembling a somber whale or a planetary hemisphere.
We love the place’s peacefulness – the view of local crew teams gliding across the lake’s early morning glimmer in conjunction with ducks in low flight is truly soul-settling – and we love that it gives our little family a taste of the great outdoors in the midst of a bustling metropolis.
But we also love and are intrigued by Stone Mountain’s irony.
The Rock is of sad history. In 1915, hooded men in white robes revived the Klu Klux Klan (KKK) atop the lovely granite monolith, burning a cross in celebration. This “reincarnation” of the Klan was led by a man named William J Simmons, and featured Nathan Bedford Forest II (the grandson of the KKK’s original Imperial Grand Wizard) administering oaths. The group had permission of The Rock’s owner to hold all its rallies there and in 1924 commissioned a stone carving of the South’s Confederate heroes on its mountainside. (The KKK supplied half the funding for the artwork; the US government supplied the rest of the money.)
Today, however, few signs of the hatred and fear that characterized Stone Mountain for so many years remain. The carving is still there, of course, and throughout the summer the park puts on a campy laser show to which tourists flock and clap along to the tune of Dixie. The Confederate memorial, which details information about Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, is also there but rarely highlighted and does not appear to draw any crowds at all.
Far more prevalent than signs of bigotry at Stone Mountain are the African Americans who use the park grounds as a meeting place for cookouts, who bike, walk and run the trails surrounding The Rock, who fish in the lake and let their dogs run free through the woods. They have claimed Stone Mountain for themselves, not any more or any less than the rest of us, but equally, in light of forgiveness, in light of progress.
The juxtaposition of these two entities – proud Confederates and those they fought to oppress – is just downright bizarre. But it is also because of this juxtaposition that it feels as if the spirit of Stone Mountain has been set free, as if something very wrong has been righted there.
Earlier this summer, Andrew and I saw a group of young black boys – maybe between the ages of seven and ten – chasing one another up the sidewalk by the park grounds. They were laughing and squealing and running as fast as their little legs could carry them. And I was so glad for them to be out of the city, to know the feel of fresh air, however hot and humid, to be assured for them that times do change, and that they have.
I saw in the boys’ faces the joy that I hope for our country, a country that may, indeed, be at the cusp of electing its first African-American President.
If Obama is not our nation‘s hope – the leader of a revival forced from hard times – he may still be the hope of all the little black boys sprinting full speed through the trees at Stone Mountain, an iconic figure for the future America.
The future America. What will it be? I pray for a place, like The Rock, that can overcome its history; for a place that seeks justice and loves mercy; for a place that makes those who live in it healthier, happier, and freer in both mind and spirit.
Until then, we will seek refuge among Stone Mountain’s ironies, waiting, patiently, for change.