On April 29, the popular laser-light show at Stone Mountain, Ga., illuminated the east Atlanta sky for the last time, after having done so every weekend for 40 years. It was the latest victim of a years-long process of awkwardly de-Confederate-izing the largest Confederate monument in the United States. No longer would parkgoers see video projections that animated the 90-foot-tall carvings of Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis, making them look like old-timey cartoon characters riding into battle along the mountain’s sheer granite face.

What would replace it? The answer came on Memorial Day weekend, the debut of the Music Across America Drone & Light Show. Thousands of parkgoers sat on the lawn of Georgia’s top tourist attraction and gawked at a chorus line of brightly colored drones assembled to appear as ephemera from the past half-century of pop culture—from Elvis’s gyrating hips to the blips and bloops of Pac-Man, even inexplicably, defunct music-delivery systems like the CD player and iPod.

There was no reference to the monumental stone horsemen throughout the 30-minute performance. No one in attendance seemed to notice. The message conveyed by the show was implicit: These days, neither Gen. Lee nor Abraham Lincoln is any match for Taylor Swift.

Since the 2020 death of George Floyd, representations of problematic dead white men have been removed from many American cities. This trend gave new impetus to longstanding demands to obliterate the old gods of Stone Mountain. But why bother when they are already defunct—not brought down by principled objectors, but cast into oblivion by 250 robots flying in sync to the beats of a pop soundtrack?

The iconography of Stone Mountain was itself partially inspired by a massively successful pop-culture product from the dawn of the mass-media age. Released in January 1915, D.W. Griffith’s pioneering Hollywood epic Birth of a Nation was a blockbuster hit.

The film was a cinematic rendering of the Lost Cause, the revisionist political history that flourished in the South almost immediately after the Confederacy lost the Civil War. Southern writers and thinkers rebranded the war as self-defense against a tyrannical government rather than an armed battle in support of slavery and recast figures like Lee and Jackson as martyrs who were the natural heirs to the American Revolution.

In Griffith’s silent film, the Ku Klux Klan journeys to the top of a mountain for a “rebirth” before heroically rescuing a genteel Southern town from the corruption of freed black people and Yankees. The movie’s popularity not only spawned a resurgence of the real-life KKK, including a cross-burning rally on Stone Mountain, it prompted Helen Plane, the founder of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, to dream up a memorial to those who led the Southern rebellion. Plane asked sculptor Gutzon Borglum to design the project, writing in a letter: “Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South, I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan, which saved us from Negro domination and carpet-bag rule, that it might be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”

Borglum accepted the commission and soon began carving Lee’s head out of the mountain with funding from the KKK and box-office cash from Birth of a Nation screenings in Atlanta. But work was slow, and Borglum was eventually fired in 1925 after it was revealed he had been in talks to carve out a similar project in South Dakota. His funders accused him of “disloyalty, offensive egotism, and delusions of grandeur” (adjectives that, ironically, could also apply to the Confederacy itself). Borglum shrugged it off and became the sculptor of the Mount Rushmore memorial, a testament to a different American myth—Manifest Destiny.

The Stone Mountain project got mired in further delays and wouldn’t be fully revived until 1954, two months after the US Supreme Court overturned segregation in public schools in Brown v. Board of Education. In the wake of this landmark decision, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Marvin Griffin pointed to Stone Mountain at a rally and vowed to finish the Confederate carving as a salute to those who had fought for the South’s “way of life.”

As governor, Griffin added the Confederate battle-flag design to Georgia’s state flag and purchased Stone Mountain in 1958 with public funds to finish the Confederate memorial. The park officially opened to the public on April 14, 1965—100 years to the day after Lincoln’s assassination and just weeks after 25-year-old activist John Lewis led more than 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Despite the new drive to glorify Dixie, the monument continued to proceed slowly, and carving wasn’t finished until 1972.

“These days, it’s more Splash Mountain than the Stone Mountain of old.”

Over the five decades since the monument’s completion, the park has slowly distanced itself from its origins as a shrine to the Lost Cause. Confederate flags have been tucked away to the far reaches of the 3,200-acre campus, the carvings are gone from the site’s logo, and the state recently dedicated $11 million to building a forthcoming “truth-telling museum” at Memorial Hall. These days, it’s more Splash Mountain than the Stone Mountain of old, a theme park without a theme.

But the culture war rages on regardless, as if we are stuck in 1965 again. Confederate nostalgists say they won’t rest until Stone Mountain is restored to its former glory, and neither will woke liberals until they extract a pound of flesh—or in this case, tons of granite. That’s no simple task. A little rope and some leverage have been enough to take down hundreds of Confederate monuments, but erasing the 90-foot-tall trio on Stone Mountain would be a tall task.

Perhaps that’s why all the talk about the future of the graven images of the Confederacy in recent years has seemed rather fanciful. Blow it up with tons of dynamite? Carve OutKast next to the rebels? Add a bell tower on the mountain’s peak to embody MLK’s call to “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain, Georgia”?

These conversations seem disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the park in the present and the village that abuts it. Stone Mountain, Ga., now has a 90 percent black population, one that depends mightily on tourism dollars for its economy. Progressive white liberals avoid the park like the plague, imagining it as an unholy marriage of a KKK cross-burning and Trump rally. Those who do come tend to be multiracial crowds of tourists, who are either oblivious to the politics and history of the site or willing to ignore it.

I saw proof of that on the aforementioned April day marking the final laser light show, which also coincided with the park’s annual Confederate Memorial Day celebration. That afternoon, a few dozen cosplayers wearing rebel-grey pajamas waved battle flags in the masked faces of antifa and anti-racist protesters. Meanwhile, Memorial Hall, which tells an incomplete history of Stone Mountain and the iconic carving, remained hauntingly empty. Most of the thousands of visitors to Stone Mountain that day were instead gawking at the park’s animatronic dinosaurs or there to see the laser show’s ode to the imagined battles in Star Wars, not rhetorical fights over American history.

The media narratives of our age would have you believe that the most potent secular religion of our time is either wokeness or white supremacy. But the truth is, it’s novelty and entertainment. A century ago, the spectacle of Birth of a Nation may have driven Southerners to erect stone monuments to political figures of the past, but today’s most potent spectacles only recall the pop-culture spectacles of yore.

Or, to paraphrase Guy Debord, the spectacle aims at nothing other than itself.

That's why the future of cultural attractions looks less like liberals meekly affixing trigger warnings to old artifacts and more like the $1 billion Lucas Museum that hovers over Los Angeles like a Death Star, promising to soon canonize a dopey sci-fi franchise of laser swords, spaceships, and talking puppets. For a “truth-telling” Stone Mountain to compete, it better start building way more dancing drones.

Ryan Zickgraf is a Compact columnist based in Atlanta.


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