Three hundred and fifty million years ago, tens of thousands of feet underground, an earth-shattering magma event took place. Nearly the entire event was invisible to any living creature. Beneath the surface, as the molten hot liquid cooled, miles and miles of underground granite were formed — stretching as far as 50,000 feet in any single direction. In one place, though, the molten liquid erupted above ground to form a most peculiar mountain in the middle of a relatively barren flatland.
That mountainous dome structure is today called Stone Mountain.
To give that some perspective, Stone Mountain was 343 million years old before anything remotely resembling the first human beings emerged on this planet. After that, for about 6,999,900 years of human existence on earth, Stone Mountain stood unscathed in what we now know as metropolitan Atlanta.
It was at that time, in 1915, that the 349-million-year-old mountain became the birthplace for modern movement of the Ku Klux Klan. Mountains, you see, cannot be racist. They are not partisan. They don’t see race or religion. They aren’t bigoted or homophobic. After existing for the entire world to see and enjoy for fifty times longer than human beings had even walked this earth, insecure white men in the Deep South made a natural wonder into something truly ugly.
We can thank Sam Venable for that. A lifelong bigot, he bought Stone Mountain — which in and of itself is fundamentally absurd — in 1887. Venable and his family purchased rock quarries all over Georgia and intended to mine Stone Mountain as well. As much as they were in the rock business, the Venable brothers were in the bigotry business — playing a central role in the early expansion of the KKK and even granting the violent white supremacist organization an easement that existed in perpetuity for them to host their local, regional, and national gatherings there.
In “Graven Image,” a brilliant short film by Sierra Pettengill and produced by Field of Vision, we get the very modern story of the desecration of Stone Mountain. Relying on haunting archival footage, the film tells the story of how the Confederate monument came to be made out of a giant piece of rock in Georgia. And it is a modern tale: Some of the footage is without sound but the Confederate monument at Stone Mountain is a young enough idea that its whole history could be captured on film. The completion of the monument was broadcast on, as Pettengill documents, color television.
Relying on haunting archival footage, Sierra Pettengill’s “Graven Image” tells the story of how the Confederate monument came to be made out of a giant piece of rock in Georgia.
In 1916, a year after the KKK hosted a cross burning on Stone Mountain to announce their resurgence, plans moved forward to grossly deface the dome with a gargantuan 1.57-acre wide carving honoring the Confederacy. While it is true that many horrible men sustained and advanced systemic racism in the United States, the central roles played by many white women in advancing Jim Crow are drastically under-told. In “Graven Image,” however, the central role of women in making the mountain a monument for bigots is not overlooked. Pettengill shows us these white women in archival footage, seated in lace dresses, sewing a Confederate flag.
It was Caroline Helen Jemison Plane, the president of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who convinced the owners of the property to give the United Daughters of the Confederacy access to the mountain. Forming the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association, Plane’s original vision was for the mountain to feature the KKK alongside Confederate generals.
From 1916 until the height of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the carving proceeded in fits and starts, always with the foundational support of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. And what never stopped was the usage of the mountain as a gathering ground for racists.
It was widely understood among black Georgians during that time that you simply didn’t set foot near the place. I learned this firsthand all the way back in 1998 as a young student at Morehouse College — a school for young black men that has stood on its own Georgia hill since 1867. Sitting in an African American history course with the legendary Dr. Marcellus Barksdale, he told us we should never go there — not now or ever. With a seriousness that struck us all on that day, he communicated that everything about the place was not just rotten, but designed to offend and intimidate us.
Just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement exploded in both respect and impact, Georgia’s white politicians, a full 100 years after the Civil War, decided that it was time again to pour their hearts, souls, and money into completing the Confederate carving once and for all. I mean, what did the American South need more in the 1960s than a monument to the leaders of the Confederate Army, right?
Against my professor’s wishes, I visited Stone Mountain many times. The carving and the theme park built around it is as bad as he said it would be. Mind you, that plot of land had absolutely nothing to do with the Civil War. It appears that the three men hewn deeply into the granite, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, never even saw the place with their own eyes.
Stone Mountain was not made into the world’s largest monument to the Confederacy because it had anything at all to do with the Confederacy, it was done because the horribly racist people who bought it — and loved for it to be a meeting place for the KKK — knew full well that nothing would make their racist worldview more known than such a monument.
In “Graven Image,” we see Georgia’s racist, segregationist Governor Marvin Griffin announce that he’s using state funds to purchase the mountain in 1958, urging that the carving continue. He knew full well what such a monument in such a time meant, but moved forward anyway.
Now, the town of Stone Mountain, which surrounds the dome on almost every side, is as black as the NBA. Metropolitan Atlanta, home to some of the best black colleges in the world, is seen by many as the Mecca of Black America. Yet right smack in the middle of it is this ancient dome honoring the men who fought tooth and nail to preserve slavery in this nation.
Modern-day Stone Mountain is not a reluctant monument. It’s proud.
Modern-day Stone Mountain is not a reluctant monument. It’s proud. Nightly, they host a kooky laser show slapped on the side of the mountain which celebrates the Confederacy — it’s the opening scene of Pettengill’s “Graven Image.” The theme park is meant to look, feel, and even sound like a nostalgic version of the 1800s — except we know that this time was not wonderful, but horrible for every single African American living anywhere within hundreds of miles of that place.
The KKK continues to use Stone Mountain for their gatherings to this very day. It makes perfect sense: Few places in the entire country have done more to make them feel more at home.
Stone Mountain was Charlottesville before Charlottesville. For generations, it has been the place where insecure white men put on costumes and walk around aimlessly with torches, in an effort to intimidate all who see their tomfoolery. Yet elected leaders in Georgia continue to embrace Stone Mountain’s painful past and refuse to even consider blasting away the monument and taking the entire park back to the way it was over 349 million years ago.
That’s what needs to happen.
Text by Shaun King. Film by Sierra Pettengill/Field of Vision.