Stone Mountain is a rock with a lot of racial baggage: Finding solutions

November 22, 2018

Should Germany erect statues of Adolf Hitler because it’s their “history”? Is their banning of the swastika “erasing history”?

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When I was in third grade at Atherton Elementary in Stone Mountain, Georgia, if I couldn’t immediately name the three Confederate heroes carved into the face of the mountain, I would get punched. Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. We moved to Stone Mountain in 1972, after a year living in Boca Raton, Florida. But before that, my family lived in Cleveland, Ohio. I quickly learned that the Civil War didn’t end in 1865, and if there was one thing worse than a “yankee” it was a “damn yankee.” The refugees of the rust belt were the new carpetbaggers.

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I loved growing up in Stone Mountain. In the 1970s, it was just starting to transition from a rural southern town to a suburb of Atlanta. We got our milk from a dairy, fished in a pond, road horses, and played in endless tracks of woods that were quickly being cutdown to make way for new subdivisions. We had brand new schools (Woodridge Elementary and Redan High for me) and new grocery stores and even a new Hardee’s hamburger joint. But there were some old demons that caught a few of us damn yankees off guard.

Let freedom ring?

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I didn’t hear Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech in school for probably the same reason that (unlike other students across the country) we weren’t encouraged the watch the groundbreaking 1977 miniseries Roots. There was a subtle message that black lives didn’t really matter and neither did their experiences in white America. I saw the speech on PBS one day (a habit I picked up during the Watergate hearings) and was dumbstruck. Amid the rightness and righteousness to King’s call for a “symphony of brotherhood,” was a shout out to my podunk town. “Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!” Woo!

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There was a reason MLK mentioned my town. Stone Mountain is the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. A methodist preacher named William J. Simmons saw the film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, an insanely racist epic that glorifies the Reconstruction-era Klan, and thought, “That looks like a good idea.” He assembled a group of like-minded white men, including a local quarry operator named Samual Venable, whose son, James Venable, would become the Imperial Wizard of the national KKK in the 1960s. Simmons, Venable, and 13 others, including 2 elderly members of the original Klan, climbed the mountain and lit a 16-foot cross and a new Klan (and a new Klan tradition) was born.

As a kid in Stone Mountain, it was well known that the Klan was still a presence. A good friend of mine in sixth grade’s father was in the Klan and would “delight” us with tales of nightriders who would keep the town white. There was no counter narrative about the horrors of lynchings, rapings, and sheer terror inflicted on black Americans under the Klan’s warped reign. Every Labor Day, the Klan marched through our little town before their annual rally on the Venables’ property. There was no Antifa to oppose them. The fall of 1980, my senior year in high school, as our student body experienced an increase in African-American kids, Klan flyers popped up on lockers. There was no response from the white administrators. The following fall a 23-year-old black army private named Lynn Jackson was found hanging from a tree in nearby Social Circle, Georgia. There were no marches. Everyone knew that we lived in Klan territory.

I carry great shame that as a young person I never spoke out against this insanity. The truth is I was told the Klan had my back against the “invasion” (that word should sound familiar) of black residents moving out from Atlanta, looking for a better life in the burbs. We were told they were bringing crime and lower property values. My northern-born parents would never use the N word, but I heard “jigaboo” more than once. I was conflicted but acquiescing to the Klan-view of the world was easier. I now wonder how hard it was for the black kids in my class to operate in the face of this normalized white supremacy. When one white kid did something positive, another would say, “Mighty white of you!” If you tried to reach out to a black student for friendship, you were called a “nigger-lover” (so you didn’t). I had a great black friend in my guitar class named Cheryl who turned me on to dub reggae and the very first rap records. I want to find her and beg her forgiveness for not being a clear voice against the daily micro aggressions she must have endured as a black kid in white Stone Mountain.

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Stone Mountain has changed dramatically. White flight accelerated in the 1980s and when I go back now it feels like aliens just rounded up all the Caucasians. They fled farther into the hills and complain about “what happened” to “their” town. (The truth is my old neighborhood is now a nice middle-class black neighborhood. Cars on blocks have been replaced by Mercedes and landscaped lawns.) My nearly all-white high school is nearly now all-black. My brother and I recently visited our elementary school to take some pictures and the black principle came out to confront us, probably worried that we were Aryan soldiers planting a bomb.

“Get over it!”

But Stone Mountain still has a race problem. It’s the mountain itself. Or at least the carving on it. When the Trump-hat wearing alt right was rallying in Charlottesville, Virginia last year, chanting, “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” they were defending a statue of Robert E. Lee. We were moving forward in our national history and putting these vestiges of our dark past in museums where they belonged. I remember thinking, “Um, we’ve got a Confederate memorial the size of a mountain to deal with. What do we do about that?”

It doesn’t make much sense to blast Lee, Davis, and Jackson’s faces off the giant hunk of granite that is our mountain. There’s some hysteria coming from white folks who think that’s even possible. These are the same white folks who, in 2008, worried that a newly elected President Obama would ban the N word and force white people to pick cotton. But those three faces loom over an increasingly black part of the country, watching over black families who picnic where the Klan burned crosses.

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Many southern whites say, “Get over it. It’s history! Stop looking to be offended!” I’m guessing that German Christians don’t say that to German Jews. These southern whites must be willfully ignorant of the centuries of rape, torture, mutilation, murder, family separation, and endless bondage that was a historical fact of the regime Lee, Davis, and Jackson fought to preserve. “The Civil War wasn’t about slavery!” these whites claim. This is the biggest lie of all. The leaders of the Confederacy made it quite clear that they were quitting the United States of America over the issue of slavery. Georgia’s proclamation of secession, signed January 29, 1861, referenced slavery 35 times. Confederate president Jefferson Davis routinely cited Lincoln’s attempt to abolish slavery as the reason for the war (as did Lincoln himself). It’s an Orwellian rewrite by whites wishing to diminish the savage and divisive nature of slavery to try to claim the war was about “state’s rights” (to preserve slavery) or the “southern way of life” (built on slavery). This what you get when people think Gone With the Wind was a documentary.

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But I go back to the trauma. The experience of that black family having their picnic under the gaze of the Confederate “heroes” who defended lifetimes of torture for their ancestors. As Dr. Joy DeGruy writes about in her brilliant book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing, it is unrealistic to expect African-Americans to just “get over” the traumatizing effects of generational slavery when the reminders of that campaign of dehumanization are all around, from Confederate flags, to increasing hate crimes, to police brutality, to the simple micro-aggression by whites who deny that racism is still a problem. Black lives don’t matter. The fact that we are even having this conversation is proof.

I had a white student once tell me, “Racism ended in the 1960s. Black people are just complaining now.” I responded, “What day? There must have been a day that racism ended, so what day? I mean we should make that day a holiday! The day racism ended in America and black people just started complaining. What day was that so I can mark it on the calendar?” He didn’t say anything after that. If these white people (and they aren’t just in the South), bothered to ask an actual black person about the persistence of racism, their fragile picture of a “post-racial” America would crash.

Transforming a mountain

So what to do about Stone Mountain? Nobody’s going to blast off any faces. Half of the guys up on Mt. Rushmore owned slaves (Washington and Jefferson). Do they get blasted, too? These whites who worry that any of this is “erasing” history obviously don’t know what the fuck a book is. There are thousands of books on the Confederacy. But don’t worry, those three ghosts will be on that mountain long after we’re all gone.

My solution has always been to add to the carving. Leave Lee, Davis, and Jackson up there, but add Martin Luther King, Jr. to the mountain. He’s from Georgia and it was his “I Have a Dream” speech that put my little town on the map in a way the KKK only dreamed about. Maybe a larger MLK wagging is finger at LD&J or just looking down on them with pity. Racist rednecks can have their carving and African-American families can be reminded that progress happens. This country is not stuck in the past.

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I’ve been hanging out on a Facebook page called I Remember Stone Mountain When… It’s populated by those of us who grew up there and it’s mainly reminiscing about cruising the K-Mart parking lot or eating fried catfish at Rio Vista Restaurant. But bring up the issue of race and suddenly we’re back on James Veneble’s property with crosses burning. I’ve been called a “stupid liberal” more times than I care to count, just for asking people to acknowledge the truth about the carving and the pain it causes.

Amid all the yeehawing about “preserving our heritage” and my failed attempt to raise the issue of white privilege came the most sane rational post from a guy named Tom Malone;

May I invite you, gentlemen, to join me in an idea I’ve been developing over the past few years? To enhance Stone Mountain Park by making one of its missions to serve as a center for racial reconciliation. How? Not by removing anything, but rather by adding statues, historical markers, and a museum, etc. honoring and remembering the contributions, sacrifice, and suffering of the slaves who were also an integral part of the Confederacy. This way, the WHOLE story would be getting told, and we could all go there for honoring, reflecting, and reconciling.

Bam. There it is. Problem solved. The carving stays as a recognition of the horrific sins of the past and our dedication to right those wrongs. We desperately need a real national conversation on race and Stone Mountain, Georgia could be where this could happen. It’s not beyond the pale that Johnny Reb embraces the depth of his implicit bias in the shadow of Jefferson Davis. And it’s entirely possible that little black boys and little black girls may be able to transcend the trauma of racism from a mountaintop in Dekalb County where the KKK burned its first cross. That would be the realization of Dr. King’s dream. There have been incredible racial reconciliation projects in South Africa, Rawanda, and the former Yugoslavia that have brought real healing. We need this in America and we could start it in Stone Mountain.

It’s so funny when I hear white people blather about “heritage.” If you are a European-American, your heritage includes everything from Neanderthals to the Renaissance. The fact that you fixate on the disgusting eras of slavery and Jim Crow says an awful lot about your values. You know what is a part of your “southern heritage”? The civil rights movement! Where Americans put their bodies on the line to fight for justice and equality. Preserve that history. Be proud of that history.

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In 1997, Stone Mountain elected its first black mayor. Mayor Chuck Burris ended up moving into the house once owned by KKK wizard James Venable. To bring the point home, Burris put a freedom bell in the town square to celebrate the progress of MLK’s dream. That’s the Stone Mountain I love. I don’t have to wax nostalgically about fried catfish in the good old days. Stone Mountain’s good old days are straight ahead and I’m proud of where it could go. I have a dream, too.

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Our White Supremacist President

January 16, 2018

President Trump enjoyed his Martin Luther King Day off like he enjoys most of his days on, playing golf. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, those working and those not, were left wondering, just how racist is our president?

It’s not a matter of “if” anymore. And it’s not one comment here or there about African shitholes or Haitians all having AIDS. It’s his entire life. In 1973, Trump was sued by the Nixon administration for refusing to rent his properties to black tenants. His very public campaign for the execution of the black and brown teenagers, known as the “Central Park 5,” who were later exonerated through DNA evidence, wasn’t met with an apology by Trump. Instead he doubled down on his belief in their guilt. And of course there was the bizarre “birtherism” campaign he led to “prove” America’s first black president wasn’t actually American.

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There are numerous examples of this even before his 2015 campaign declaration in which he proclaimed that Mexicans were “criminals, drug dealers, and rapists.” That was the the moment, from my little room in Mexico, I wrote the piece “Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy” that helped put this little blog on the map. It might be inappropriate to say the world has given Trump enough rope to lynch himself, but, good God, how much evidence is enough? His caricatures of Chinese businessmen? No? His Muslim ban? No? His demanding that those black “sons of bitches” in the NFL stop protesting and get back to performing? No? His proclamation that there were “fine people on both sides” of the Nazi/Anti-Nazi clashes in Charlottesville? No? How many examples do you need of him devaluing non-white people and their lived experiences with racial injustice?

I’ve been asked numerous times, including by the media, if I think Donald Trump is a racist. I always try to side-step the question. Honestly, I don’t know what in the man’s heart, other than Big Mac residue. I try to make the point that he’s just ignorant of the reality of racism in this day in age. He’s lived his life in a bourgeois bubble and the only brown noses he knows have been firmly placed in his ass. He hasn’t had to know about the persistence of racism and, like many white people, probably thinks the problem was solved at some point in the 1960s by nice negroes and the benevolent white people who took pity on them.

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But screw it. No more pussyfooting around. I’ve been doing this work long enough to know it when I see it and Trump’s obviousness about this is as big as the Stay Puft Man in Ghostbusters. He’s not only a racist, he’s a Stay Puft white supremacist. And the people that still defend him are his racist enablers. This isn’t just a sad statement of the president’s bigotry. This man has power over people’s lives. Just witness how he threatened to deport the brown children and young people in the DACA program while he threw a tantrum over his racist comments being leaked to the press. I don’t doubt that he thinks lobbing a few nukes at North Korea will help him bounce back in the “ratings.”

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The revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s saw upwards of six million members across the nation (including here in Oregon). Their main rallying point was not the “negro problem,” but immigration. They promoted  “100% Americanism” and opposed immigrants “flooding” in from non-white countries as well as Jews and Catholics arriving from Eastern and Southern Europe and Ireland. The Klan was a powerful political force in America, electing congressmen, senators, and governors (including here in Oregon). Their great victory was the Johnson-Reed Act, also known as the Immigration Act of 1924. Johnson-Reed put strict quotas on immigration from Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, while encouraging immigration from Northern European countries like Norway and was on the books until it’s repeal in 1965. In a 2015 interview with Steve Bannon in Brietbart, future Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions praised the 1924 law as an effective immigration plan. So, to be clear, the 1920s Klan wanted less immigrants coming from “these shithole countries” and more coming from Norway. Does that sound the least bit familiar?

This isn’t just me jumping on the shithole bandwagon. Trump is a textbook racist in so many ways that future textbooks on racism will be dedicated to him. But I’d like to focus on just a few, what I call Triple D racism; denial, defensiveness, and denigration.

“I’m the least racist person there is.”

Usually, when someone says, repeatedly, that they are not something, they are. But this is more than that. People who are actually anti-racist do not say they are not racist. We grow up in a racist society and we internalize that racism. I never say I’m not racist. I oppose racism but I still have racism in me and I am actively working to purge it. Like a recovering alcoholic who never says they are not an alcoholic, I will always be a racist.

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The least racist person there is would never say they are the least racist person there is. They would say they are racist but they are working every single day to rid themselves and their world of racism. Have you ever heard Trump discuss his white privilege or his implicit biases? No, of course not. What has he done to dismantle institutional racism or even his own internalized racism? I mean besides eat a Taco Bowl on Cinco de Mayo. Anyone who believes Trump’s claim to be the least racist person is as ignorant as he is about how racism actually works.

He should spend sometime with real white allies in the struggle against white supremacy if he wants to know how to sound less racist. He’s not even a good con artist.

“So much Fake News is being reported.”

Trump is a big baby. An orange snowflake. Instead of doing the people’s work, he spends his time on Twitter whining. This is a common reaction when white people get called out on their racism. They (we) reactively go into defensive mode. “I did not say that!” “I’m a good person!” “You’re lucky to have me!” This guy doesn’t see the opportunity he has. He’s too busy circling the wagons so he can kill some injuns.

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Racism is a deeply rooted facet of our society. Each time it appears in front of us there is a learning opportunity. Remember when President Obama hosted the “beer summit” after a white cop thought black Harvard professor was breaking into his own house? That’s how you do it. Trump could have made serious points here but instead he read through some staff-written script to honor MLK and then split for the golf course.

White people, listen to me! When you are accused of being racist don’t get all defensive and shut down the dialogue. Repeat after me. I’m sorry. Please help me to see this issue the way you see it. I want to understand this complex and traumatizing issue through your eyes. Thank you for helping me to grow and be a better person.

Can you imagine Trump saying that this week? There’s a better chance he’ll release his taxes.

On the attack

Of course what Trump does best is go on the attack and hit back “ten times harder.” A year a go he was attacking civil rights icon John Lewis for failing his “crime infested” congressional district in Atlanta (which we Atlantans know is one of the nicest, most livable parts of the entire South). Now he’s going after “Dicky” Durbin for spilling the beans on his latest locker room talk. Remember when, during the debates, Hillary Clinton accused Trump of being a Russian puppet. His response was, “No, you’re the puppet.” That’s the third-grade level of thinking going on here. Na na ni boo boo, stick your head in doo doo.

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Trump and his troll army at Fox News are deft at attacking their critics. Unleash the MAGA drones and make all opponents’ lives hell. (It’s the main reason I declined to appear on the Tucker Carlson show last month.) It serves to silence dissent and protect his authoritarian approach to governing. Trump is already pushing to revise federal libel laws so he can go after tell-all authors like Michael Wolf, whose best-selling book, Fire and Fury, paints a more than unflattering picture of Trump and his dysfunctional White House. Hell hath no fury like a small-handed rich guy scorned.

Getting it

It’s crystal clear that, when it comes to race, Trump just doesn’t get it and doesn’t want to get it. This a guy who in 2014 tweeted, “How is ABC Television allowed to have a show entitled “Blackish”? Can you imagine the furor of a show, “Whiteish”! Racism at highest level?” Um, you could totally have a show called Whiteish. How awesome would it be to have a sitcom that confronted issues of white privilege? (ABC, I’m available to write it.) But Trump’s brain farts are a great example of dichotomous lower-revel thinking.  Nuance must just sound “French” to him. As a rich white guy, he doesn’t get the race problem because he’s never had to and as president he could, but he’s got a tee time at 1 pm and then there’s all his “executive time”  he needs to catch up on Fox & Friends. Courting his racist base makes him feel more secure in his own racism. Merry Christmas!

Both Bill Clinton and Barak Obama promised more dialogues on racial reconciliation under their administrations and both failed miserably. But just the idea that white people need to take part in exploring how they benefit from racism, even if they are the “least racist person you ever met,” was a start. The white people who don’t want to be bothered with such silliness are now driving the nation. An NPR/Harvard poll last fall found that 55 percent of white Americans now feel whites are discriminated against. This is Trump’s base and they want to make America 1924 again.

If we hope to move forward, we’re going to have to talk our way out of this shithole. The sad part is that our president is an obstacle not an ally in our struggle against racism.

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My little MLK story: Skinheads and feminists

January 19, 2015

Being from Atlanta I get to claim Martin Luther King, Jr. as my homeboy. I’ve spent a lot of time on Auburn Avenue, and not going to Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Royal Peacock Club was there, where the Supremes and James Brown performed. And the band I managed, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ too! I was hit by a car on Auburn in front to the Sweet Auburn Rib Shack. I was on my Vespa scooter and sent flying. I ended up at Grady Hospital, now a Walking Dead location.

But before Atlanta, I was from Stone Mountain, Georgia. Our little town was mentioned by Dr. King in his famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, but not because it was awesome. When I was a kid, I thought it was because it was awesome. (Stone Mountain has a giant granite mountain with a lazar show the ends with “Dixie” that I doubt MLK ever saw.) He mentioned my town because it was the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Sad trombone.

Growing up around the Klan was the beginning of my interest in extremism and oppression. As a grad student at Emory University, I chose to go undercover in the late 1980s to study a new racist group, Nazi skinheads. My first study was a 13-month observation of a racist skinhead gang in Orlando, Florida called the O-Town Skins.

Much to my surprise, these rabid bigots were not morons, or bullies (although a few were sociopaths). They were reasonably intelligent kids who just had been given the wrong explanation for why their world was changing. (“It’s the Jews!”) The right explanation had something to do with Ronald Reagan. I would listen to them gripe about The Cosby Show and how this black family had so much more than their own.

I bonded with these guys, drank beer with them, and talked to them about their girl problems. I began to get too close to them and lose my objectivity. So, while I was home on a break from the study, I rode my scooter over to Martin’s tomb on Auburn and sat with him for a while. I wanted to reflect with the man by the cool reflecting pool and remember why I started the project. He once said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I wanted to understand these skinheads so I could liberate them from their burden of hate. We sat together in the hot Atlanta night and I felt ready to go back into the field.

It was this study that turned me into a feminist. It became clear, as the research progressed, that the racism was just a vehicle for them to perform their masculinity. They saw black men, lesbians and feminists taking “their” white women. And Jews outsourcing “their” manufacturing jobs. And gay men threatening “their” sexual propriety. As the 80s became the 90s, they became obsessed with that “bitch” Hilary Clinton, who signified, to them, the end of the divine right of men. Hateful violence was their defense of their fragile masculinity, not far removed from the rhetoric of the conservative right. Much of this research ended up in my 2001 book with Wayne Wooden, Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws.

Martin Luther King’s love ethic is all around. It’s in the philosophies of bell hooks and Cornell West. It’s in the actions of youth outreach workers and gay rights advocates. And it’s in the work I’ve been doing since I interviewed that very first skinhead. Love undoes hate. If you try to understand the hater, including the misogynist, through love, you can turn them toward the light. As Dr. King told us long ago, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

The following book was mentioned in this blog. You can buy it from Powell’s by clicking the cover image below.