Opinion: Some memorials are to remind us of our flaws
This past Memorial Day weekend, Americans across the country gathered to remember friends, colleagues, comrades and, yes, heroes who have died in service to this country.
There were moments of silence, parades and, in some cases, ceremonies around memorials dedicated to veterans of the United States of America. However, there was a story about memorials that likely garnered little notice here in Oregon. In a meeting late last month, board members of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association in Georgia voted unanimously to begin changing what had once been a monument to the Confederacy to a more accurate historical memorial.
If you're unfamiliar with Stone Mountain Park, it's a state park in Georgia where the images of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson are carved into a quartz monzonite dome. This isn't just any carving into a mountain of rock. At 90 feet in height and 190 feet in width, it is the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world. The mountain overlooks a body of water known as Venable Lake, which refers to William Hoyt Venable and Samuel Hoyt Venable, the latter of whom was involved in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and in the creation of the Stone Mountain sculpture, that was officially opened on April 14, 1965 — the 100-year anniversary of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.
The park itself has Confederate flags near its walking trail and streets named after the Confederates carved into the mountain as well as John B. Gordon, a Confederate general who opposed the post-Civil War reconstruction and was later the first commander-in-chief of the United Confederate Veterans.
Stone Mountain, which was considered a sacred site to members of the Ku Klux Klan, was also the location of an annual cross-burning ceremony that took place on Labor Day.
But this isn't the only monument to the Confederacy that still exists. While more than 100 monuments to the Confederacy have been removed since 2009, more than 700 still remain. For what should be obvious reasons, these monuments stir controversy and remind Black Americans of a time when their people were enslaved against their will and perpetuate the lie of the lost cause of the Confederacy.
Which is why it's understandable that some people feel that the actions of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association to reshape the park into one that presents an accurate portrayal of the role this monument played in history don't go far enough and that it the sculpture should be removed entirely.
But that is the very reason it should be preserved.
If the Confederacy had prevailed in the Civil War, we probably wouldn't call it the Civil War. However, the Northern states, under the leadership of President Lincoln, prevailed in their mission to preserve the union and, eventually, to free the South's slave population. While I support the removal of other memorials to the Confederacy, this one should be preserved as a reminder of this terrible stain upon the fabric of this country. A reminder that states openly revolted against the government of the United States in the name of preserving the institution of slavery.
We need not memorialize the insurrection of the Confederacy, but nor should we forget it. Is it a painful reminder that this park was created as a shrine to segregation and white supremacy? Yes it is. But in order to solve a problem, you first need to acknowledge it and admit to it.
In Germany, the camps at Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen and Dachau exist today to remind the world that there was a time when a country persecuted and systematically sought to exterminate another people. Stone Mountain should be preserved as this country's Dachau so that we never forget the atrocities committed in the name of state's rights.
Memorials and statues should remind us of who we are and who we aspire to be. Sometimes, however, they should remind us of the cold, hard facts so that we can continue to evolve as a country and exemplify the very best of our ideals: that all people are created equal and are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Vance W. Tong is director of operations for Pamplin Media Group and an occasional columnist.
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