Some 300 million years ago, an eruption of magma produced the massive granite rock that is known today as Stone Mountain in Georgia. Humans first stepped foot on this remarkable landmark around 4,000 B.C.E. and have continued to gather at its summit for more than six millennia. In 1915, one such gathering took place that would alter Stone Mountain in the eyes of Georgians and the world.
At midnight on November 25, 1915, a dozen white supremacists climbed to the top of Stone Mountain and burned a cross, inspired by the D.W. Griffith’s propaganda film The Birth of a Nation. This marked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, a violent terror group that grew to a membership of more than 4 million in 10 years, and cemented Stone Mountain’s link with that group. The brothers who owned the mountain, the 85 year-old president of the Atlanta United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Klan-sympathizing sculptor Gutzon Borglum (who would go on to carve Mount Rushmore) then launched their plan to etch three Confederate generals into the mountain’s façade. In 1972 the carving was completed, transforming Stone Mountain into the world’s largest Confederate memorial and celebration of American white supremacy.
“Stone Mountain allows for a full century’s worth of reckoning with the motivations and politics behind these celebrations of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause narrative,” says Sierra Pettengill, director of the film, Graven Image. “In my film, a voiceover from a 1972 Stone Mountain promotional film says, ‘Remember how it used to be? It’s still that way for you to enjoy at Stone Mountain Park.’ I want this film to make us remember how it actually used to be.”
Recent conflicts over resurgent white nationalism and its links to Confederate monuments in public spaces have prompted conversations about the role of history in our national identity. These debates are an opportunity to critically examine our historical memory and to reevaluate our cultural symbols, like monuments, as our nation’s values and priorities evolve.
In this lesson, students use the short film Graven Image to explore the meaning and function of monuments, analyze the role collective historical memory plays in shaping our identities, and engage with monuments in their own communities to better understand the power dynamics that shape public spaces.