ATLANTA (AP) — At Georgia’s iconic Stone Mountain — where the Confederacy is enshrined in a giant bas-relief sculpture, the Ku Klux Klan once held notorious cross-burnings and large Confederate flags still wave prominently — officials are considering what to do about those flags.
The park, which now offers family-friendly fireworks and laser light shows, is readying its “Fantastic Fourth Celebration” Thursday through Sunday, and multiple Confederate flag varieties are still displayed at the mountain’s base.
The display includes the “battle flag” of the Confederacy, said Bill Stephens, chief executive officer of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. That banner has come under renewed criticism nationwide after the June 17 church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. The man accused in the case posed for photos with the Confederate symbol.
“I’m from Stone Mountain, and I’ve never liked that it was a place so synonymous with the Klan,” said Shannon Byrne, a 1993 graduate of Stone Mountain High School who regularly hikes up the mountain.
“I feel ashamed that the park would fly the flag,” Byrne added. “The park, of all places, with its history with the Klan, should be even more sensitive.”
Stephens said the park’s leaders are listening to arguments pro and con in considering their next steps.
“There are a lot of strong feelings on both sides, as you might expect,” Stephens said. “We’re listening to those comments.”
Stephens said fewer than 20 phone calls have come directly to the park from opponents or supporters of the Stone Mountain flags, but he said social media posts about the flags at the park “greatly exceed” that number.
The association he leads is a state authority created by the Georgia Legislature in 1958. Since 1998, the association has operated the park through a partnership with Herschend Family Entertainment Corp. of Peachtree Corners, Georgia. The company manages the park’s attractions, including the slap stick “Georgia Justice Wild West Train Show,” which features mock gun fights involving stuntmen, along with “gut busting comedy and even an exploding outhouse,” according to the park’s website.
But Byrne says the people she has met on the park’s hiking trails are not representative of old Southern stereotypes. She said Stone Mountain Park is now surrounded by some of metro Atlanta’s most diverse neighborhoods, including the nearby cities of Stone Mountain and Clarkston.
Clarkston’s population in 2010 was 58 percent black, 22 percent Asian and 14 percent white, according to the city’s website and Census figures. The city of Stone Mountain’s population was about 75 percent black and 17 percent white, according to 2010 Census data.
Well before the South Carolina shootings sparked renewed controversy over Confederate flags, Byrne, 39, created a website aimed at capturing some of the stories of people she’s met on the trails at Stone Mountain Park.
The site — iamthemountain.org — includes a video in which Byrne confronts a group of hikers carrying Confederate flags as they hiked Stone Mountain after an annual Confederate memorial service there. “We don’t care if it upsets a lot of black people, or white people or purple people or Spanish, Indian or whatever,” one woman says in the video.
Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesman Ben Jones, who played Cooter on the “Dukes of Hazzard” TV show and later represented Georgia in Congress, said Confederate flags honor millions of Confederate veterans. He called attacks on the flags a form of “cultural cleansing” reminiscent of efforts by the former Soviet Union to “destroy all vestiges of your enemy.”
Jones also questioned how far efforts to remove Confederate imagery will go, noting that the carving on Stone Mountain depicts Confederate military and political leaders.
“What are you going to do, dynamite Stone Mountain?” he asked.
Asked whether the issue might arise at the board’s next meeting, Stephens said, “I suspect that it might, but I haven’t had a discussion with the board members yet.”
The association’s nine-member board typically meets monthly, but Stephens said it’s not yet clear whether a quorum will be available for the July meeting.
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