Confederate Monuments Must Go. Parks Must Be For Everyone.

Photo: Dean Hesse, Decaturish.com

By Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

Monuments have been much in the news lately. In Decatur, Georgia on Thursday night, thanks to a Judge’s order, the county finally took down the Confederate Monument in the central square.  It is one of a few monuments to the Confederacy remaining in Atlanta.  State law protects them, unfortunately, but it is reassuring that this first one was removed legally.  The Judge justified it because the monument had become a nuisance – a magnet for protests and vandalism.  Indeed, for several years the county searched for someone to take it and use it for historical purposes, but no one wanted it. Good riddance.

There is one enormously awful confederate monument in Atlanta, however, that simply must be removed now.  It is a giant reminder of the KKK and a symbol of racism so big it is hard to fathom – some call it the largest shrine to white supremacy in the world. Its origins were so notorious and malevolent that Martin Luther King referred to it in his “I have a dream” speech. The Confederate Memorial on Stone Mountain is larger than Mount Rushmore – it’s a behemoth 1.5-acre relief of the rebellion’s heroes Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, and President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis.  Their silhouettes are carved on to the face of a granite “rock” hundreds of feet tall and miles around, surrounded by a state park that draws 4 million visitors a year.  It bills itself as “Atlanta’s Favorite Destination for Family Fun” and even has a Marriott Hotel and Conference Center.  Every school kid in Atlanta knows it – because it is one of the most popular field trip destinations in the city, and the site of numerous proms and family events.

Stone Mountain itself is an amazing natural wonder – it is one of the largest granite formations in the eastern U.S., 7.5 billion cubic feet of rock formed millions of years ago.  It is an easy climb and affords a fantastic view of the Piedmont.  But that relief completely spoils its grandeur. There have been efforts to have the state remove the relief for many years.  Lately, protesters have gathered at the Park regularly, and hopefully, they will be able to force this monstrosity to literally be erased. Places like this should never become billboards for politics or commercialized.  They should be left for the public to enjoy in as close to their natural state as possible. In this case, the “monument” is the mountain, not the relief.

People don’t often think of natural places as monuments, but they can be too. Congress passed a law more than one hundred years ago giving the President the power to “protect landmarks, structures, and objects of historic or scientific interest by designating them as National Monuments.”  Notably, it does not give the President the power to undesignated monuments.  But President Trump has made it a cottage industry. He’s slashed the size of monuments in the desert Southwest that are sacred sites and contain Native American archaeological ruins dating back thousands of years and opened up others to allow oil and gas drilling and fishing. These activities are utterly inconsistent with designating them as monuments in the first place and show no respect for the first peoples in our country or the natural resources that belong to all Americans.

Instead, we should be looking for ways to designate more monuments and create more parks – open and natural places of beauty and wonder, thereby increasing the public’s access to nature and the outdoors. Congress is finally, after decades of work, close to creating a permanent trust fund for the preservation of lands and natural wonders – for more National Monuments and for neighborhood and inner-city parks, and everything in between.

Moreover, new natural monuments and parks must ensure greater access for all people and make them feel welcomed. And this must also extend to public spaces in cities too.  The oases within and close by our cities–our parks–must serve that purpose for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender identity. And do so in a way that pays homage to nature, the outdoors, and to a shared history of which we can all be proud. Stone Mountain is one of the few places close to the inner city of Atlanta, and its racially-diverse suburb Decatur, where one can wander in the woods and paddle a canoe.  But as it is now, it is hard to imagine that Black kids feel at home there.

In 2017, young people from a Virginia Beach 4-H club planted 12 saplings from the historic Emancipation Oak at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Brock Environmental Center there. The Emancipation Oak is an ancient sprawling live oak tree on the grounds of Hampton University where during the Civil War, newly freed slaves were educated in the shade of its branches. It was the site of the first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation in the South.

The Emancipation Oak is a reminder that we must preserve natural wonders like it, and we must be purposeful in designing monuments of the more traditional sort — statues and sculptures that commemorate history and pay homage in ways that don’t glorify violence or discrimination. Monuments both natural and man-made should be testaments to the good that humanity has created by inspiring future generations to work for a more just, open, sustainable, and egalitarian world. The purpose of spaces designated for this commemoration and preservation should be to honor humanity and nature alike and welcome everyone under their branches.

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