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Opinion - Proposed MLK tribute on Stone Mountain is an insult

Don't dilute the civil rights leader's legacy with a token gesture

In Georgia, racism is chiseled into stone and law. That's right. It's written into state law that Stone Mountain remain a memorial to the Confederacy. If nothing else has changed, the times certainly have, especially in the wake of this summer's massacre of nine African-Americans in one of South Carolina's most historic black churches during a Bible study. Instead of sparking the race war the gunman allegedly intended, his act kicked off a firestorm of criticism against Old South symbols such as the Confederate flag.

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The outcry ultimately helped bring down the flag at the South Carolina state Capitol and criticism eventually made its way to Stone Mountain, metro Atlanta's 825-foot shrine to leaders in the fight to uphold slavery. It resulted in protests by local activists and an unsuccessful boycott at the park on Independence Day.

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In an attempt to quell the new wave of Confederate criticism, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association has proposed to let freedom ring by placing a Liberty Bell replica in honor of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. atop the mountain. According to the AJC, the bell would be framed by an 18-foot-tall arch and bear the inscription, "Let freedom ring from the Stone Mountain of Georgia," from King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The display would not be visible to park visitors from the ground, unlike the massive three-acre carving of Confederate generals on the mountain's side. Instead of addressing the Confederacy's pro-slavery legacy — and the Ku Klux Klan that it gave rise to and nurtured on top of Stone Mountain — the SMMA is trying to subvert the criticism by placating protests with a damn bell.

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There's plenty to be said about Confederate pride and the attempt by culture preservationists to detach symbols such as the flag from their racist legacies. But we already wrote that column.

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Plainly put, in good ole boy terminology, this is pure hogwash. The Sons of the Confederacy and local NAACP chapters stand in agreement against the MLK tribute but for totally different reasons. What's worse is that many so-called progressives are swallowing the suggestion that the literal ringing of a bell is the cause for which King died. They believe that we should take this pittance of an offering in the hope that one day soon a real "change is gonna come," as Georgia native Otis Redding once sung. But that's the same kind of moderate logic that inspired King to pen his Letter from a Birmingham Jail to white Christian clergymen who suggested he "go slow" when fighting for change.

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Symbols and monuments possess a great deal of power. They remind us of where we come from, both good and bad. But their context matters. When we have statues of white supremacists on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol and Confederate flags flying on government property throughout the South, it offers those symbols approval and calls up a history when all were not welcome. An MLK memorial on Stone Mountain would only help perpetuate the myths Stone Mountain upholds by distracting from the Confederate monument's reality. And arguably that's the intended purpose — you get your hero, we keep ours.

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Nodding along with this monument represents a failure by many to recognize old racism in new forms. Racism is not always as obvious as fire hoses and police dogs, burning crosses and public lynchings in the courthouse square. It is insidious. It now shields itself behind professional courtesies and systemic laws rather than bedsheets.

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Today's racism comes with its own political platform that labels Mexican immigrants as rapists to stir up the xenophobes. It co-opts the language of yesterday's radicals in an attempt to camouflage its intentions. It fails to see the relevance of cries that Black Lives Matter. And it refuses to acknowledge the systemic injustices that have led to a disproportionate number of black people — 228 as of this writing — being killed by police in the U.S. so far this year. That type of statistic is exactly the kind of injustice King fought and died for — not the sort of symbolic gesture the SMMA has proposed.  

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For too long, we've learned to live with the carving on Stone Mountain. We've pretended to overlook the explicit carving and its inherent meaning. But if we're all in agreement that now is the time to address it head-on, surely we can advocate for something better and more holistic than placing an out-of-context bell on top of a mountain.

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King's legacy has been tainted by American conservatives who, unable to deny his importance, have sought to diminish his radicalism. Why further taint and dilute the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by associating him with the mountainous Confederate memorial with an object that, to the uninformed visitor, could almost be viewed as an endorsement by King of everything the mountain stands for? A nod of the head saying "everything's all good now?"

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When King commanded the nation's leaders to let freedom ring, he wasn't referring to symbolism. The civil rights hero shouldn't be mocked under the guise of change proposed by those who stood in opposition to everything King represented. The solution is making clear at Stone Mountain the Confederacy's reality — that it was a lost and unjust cause from the beginning. We need a true reckoning with the history that Stone Mountain heralds, not a tribute void of context.



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