On a beautiful Saturday afternoon at Stone Mountain, as families laced up their boots and joggers hit the pavement, Williams Phillips had a different mission. After traveling an hour from Griffin, Georgia, the Army vet embraced his First Amendment right, brandished his oversized Confederate battle flag, and hiked up the 825-foot-tall granite landmark to announce his displeasure about an effort to build a bell tower honoring one of the world’s most revered civil rights leaders atop the world’s largest monument to the Confederacy.
“It’s a smack in the face,” said Phillips. “Martin Luther King has had his image all over the world. This is a Confederate memorial.”
Phillips stood among three dozen other participants in the “Defend Stone Mountain” rally on Saturday to protest the plan to build an 18-foot arch in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at the summit of Stone Mountain. The idea of an MLK monument, which would reference a line from his most famous speech, became the subject of a fierce outcry among Confederate sympathizers and King’s contemporaries alike last month.
Governor Nathan Deal initially expressed support for the monument proposal, but the Sons of the Confederate Veterans soon pushed back, calling the monument illegal due to a state law that requires the park to commemorate the Confederacy. They threatened legal action if the monument moved forward. In a statement, the group compared it to “flying a Confederate battle flag atop the King Center in Atlanta against the wishes of King supporters.”
Then, in a somewhat surprising move, both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and NAACP joined the SCV in opposition to the monument, arguing that its erection would tarnish MLK’s legacy through its association with the state park once home to Ku Klux Klan cross burnings. For individuals like Charles Steele, president of the SCLC, the MLK monument was nothing more than an attempt at amelioration in a park filled with symbols of hatred.
“It’s something that was a dark past of our history, and it needs to be buried in history,” Steele said last month. “We want to eradicate it. We want to blast it. We want to paint over it. Whatever it takes, that’s what we want to do.”
Civil rights leaders John Lewis and Andy Young eventually came out in support of the concept. But the backlash prompted Deal to step away from his early support—causing all parties to tap the brakes on the idea. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, following the storm over the statue, suggested that MLK’s contemporaries convene a summit to discuss the best way to honor the slain activist before moving forward.
As those politics played out in subsequent news cycles, organizers of the “Defend Stone Mountain” rally prepared for this weekend’s rally. In a Facebook group, they asked supporters to “stand with us against the traitors who wish to tarnish our Ancestors Heritage by placing a Monument celebrating Martin L. King on Stone Mountain.” On Saturday, a Kennesaw resident Joseph Olah, who runs a group called Rebel Yell, doubled down on the notion that a MLK monument would only continue an ongoing assault against a symbol that represents his Southern heritage.
“Fuck civil rights, this is a Civil War mountain,” Olah said. “They want to take our flags down from everywhere else. If they want us to put them in a museum, this is the museum to put them in. It’s not for Martin Luther King.”
Throughout the afternoon, Stone Mountain police officers, who expected hate groups to protest alongside the Confederate flag supporters, provided flag holders with an escort up the mountain, and even walked with them to the concession stand at the top, where a few demonstrators noshed on popcorn and purchased souvenir cups. Another group, dressed in military fatigues and clenching assault riles, walked with the protesters in case of a potential conflict.
No KKK members or white supremacists made their attendance known, though some people were later photographed making a four-fingered salute in front of the Confederate flags flying near the base of the mountain. Likewise, no counter-protesters stepped forward, as they had done at a similar rally last August, where they tore up and stomped on Confederate flags.
Many visitors who came to the park simply for recreation were startled—and visibly dismayed—to see Confederate flags being hoisted up the mountain. London native Noreen Sumpter, who this week was visiting Atlanta from her home in Brooklyn, called the demonstration “bloody ridiculous” given the park’s history and affiliation with hate groups like the KKK. For her, the notion of a bell atop the granite structure wouldn’t just help Stone Mountain move past its beleaguered image, but would be a step in the right direction for the state, helping to place the symbolic reminders of old injustices even farther in the past.
“It would be awesome,” Sumpter said. “It would be [MLK’s] dream. It would be rung all over Georgia and ring out into the rest of the world.”