By Hank Johnson
“Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” – The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Those hallowed words of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, uttered more than 50 years ago to more than 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, was a defining moment of the civil rights movement. It pushed Stone Mountain and Georgia into the spotlight and forced us all to reflect where we stood on the question of equality, justice and civil rights for everyone.
Fast forward 52 years. Stone Mountain State Park has evolved into a world-renowned tourist mecca that attracts an internationally diverse group of visitors who come to enjoy the park’s many amenities. Stone Mountain is no longer the state and national bastion of racism and symbol of white supremacy that it once was as the epicenter for the 1915 resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
Although Ku Klux Klan supporters, white supremacist groups and Confederate battle flag enthusiasts are guaranteed the constitutional right to assemble at Stone Mountain to celebrate their legacy, they do so alongside diverse people walking, jogging, bicycling and climbing the mountain, those celebrating family reunions and church picnics, and those who come to see the giant carving on the side of the mountain while enjoying the laser show with family and friends.
Moreover, with its hotels, convention center and two golf courses that attract community, state and national business and non-profits, Stone Mountain Park has become a hub of commercial activity. It’s important to the economies of the minority-majority city of Stone Mountain and to DeKalb County, and to the economic vitality of the 4th Congressional District and the entire state of Georgia.
Stone Mountain’s divisive and painful history can never be obliterated or sandblasted away. All should recognize that now is the time to claim a new legacy and carve a new narrative.
I understand and respect the NAACP, the civil rights community and Confederate enthusiasts for their opposition to a King memorial at Stone Mountain. But as the congressman who represents the district around the famous mountain, I take the larger view.
What better way to symbolize such a legacy than to etch onto Stone Mountain a lasting memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which would coexist with symbols of the Confederacy defeated in part by the movement he led? A memorial to King would be a fitting tribute to the progress this state and nation have made towards the achievement of “The Dream,” and it would help boost park attendance.
As former congressman, U.S. ambassador, mayor, civil rights legend and King confidant Andrew Young said, “The symbolism of having a Freedom Bell on Stone Mountain to honor Dr. King would be wonderful.” He went on to say it’s not just a good idea; it’s a necessary idea to pull our nation and state together.
When I attended the Confederate flag rally at Stone Mountain this summer, I went to see for myself how many people would show up to support what I’ve always seen as a symbol of racism and hate. People I met and spoke with challenged me to have a deeper understanding of those who think differently than I do, and reinforced for me that we need to continue to work to reach common ground.
A memorial to Dr. King that gives visitors a fuller picture of our story is not just the right thing to do, but gets us closer to that common ground of understanding. Freedom rings from Stone Mountain! It’s time for all to see and hear the Bell of Liberty at a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. monument atop Stone Mountain.
U.S. Rep. Hank Johnson, a Democrat, represents Georgia’s 4th Congressional District.