Narrow bridges

Building Bridges with Government Sponsored Truth

But it turned out the bridge was more than a sentimental memento from rural Georgia. It was built in 1891 by Washington W. King, a free black man and engineer who had been trained by his bridge builder father, Horace King. The patriarch of this family was born a slave but bought his own freedom before the Civil War with his talent.

The bridge has now been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the only place in the park to bear this seal of legitimacy. But this ceremony was not limited to the brass plaques that will stand at both ends of the bridge. The rally was a silent declaration that Stone Mountain Park, now an island in a sea of ​​black communities, must make room for stories other than that made up in the days of Jim Crow and white supremacy.

“And so, we come back this day to rededicate this bridge. But more importantly, we’re coming to send a message,” said DeKalb County CEO Michael Thurmond, a former park board member. “That the Georgian people will own this park. And this park will exist and be maintained not for one, not for two, not for you, not for you,” Thurmond said, pointing in different directions, “but for all of us. All our stories will be celebrated, will be protected.

Current members of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association board of directors sat in front of Thurmond, as did descendants of Horace King, the bridge builder, from New Mexico and Pennsylvania. So was 70s UGA football star Horace King – one of the first five black athletes to win a UGA football scholarship, who went on to play for the Detroit Lions. This last Horace, who now lives in Alpharetta, would like to know if there is a family link with the first.

For years, these streams of the African-American past have grappled with a shadowy mix of Confederate fact and “lost cause” fiction — made more difficult because, as with that covered bridge, so much of the history of Stone Mountain remains out of sight. And for a reason.

In 1915, the second iteration of the Ku Klux Klan and a long season of lynchings in the South began with the burning of a cross atop the mountain peak. That same year, or perhaps a year earlier, the push for a sculpture to celebrate Confederation had begun – and would continue in spurts for the next four decades.

A broader effort began in the 1950s, as Georgia and other Southern states fought the imposition of integration by federal courts. State money to complete the sculpture and purchase the surrounding acreage for a huge park was pushed through in 1958 by Governor Marvin Griffin.

Tourism was a motive. But Griffin specifically tied the completion of the sculpture and construction of the park to his top administrative priority — preserving Georgia’s legal walls separating blacks and whites in schools and almost everywhere else.

The sculpture “would be a powerful factor in uniting the people of Georgia in these perilous times,” he wrote in a statement sent to statewide newspapers in 1957.

To cut expenses, the park—which would be segregated in its early days—was largely landscaped with prison labor.

A pamphlet from the time cites a range of possibilities for the sculpture, including a solitary, savior-like figure of General Robert E. Lee – “a Christian without hypocrisy and a man without cunning. He was Caesar without his ambition, Fredrick without his tyranny, Napoleon without his selfishness, and Washington without his reward.

Lee, of course, would eventually share his place on the rock with Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson. WW King’s Covered Bridge had already been in the park for five years when the sculpture on the side of Stone Mountain was finally dedicated on Mother’s Day weekend in 1970. The crowds were surprisingly sparse – around 10,000 at the instead of the planned 100,000.

Vice President Spiro Agnew was the keynote speaker, replacing President Richard Nixon, who avoided the event. As have many Georgian officials, including US Senator Richard Russell.

Reverend Billy Graham also sent his regrets. Instead, the blessing was given by the Reverend William Holmes Borders, a prominent African-American minister – a fact noted last Friday by the Reverend Abraham Mosley, the first black chairman of the Stone Mountain council.

Not mentioned: The appearance of Border in 1970 drew strong protest from James Venable, imperial magician of the Ku Klux Klan Knights and one of the former owners of the park property. The presence of a black preacher on stage, Venable said, was “not in good taste and repugnant to the sense of respect due to memory” of Confederate veterans.

Hopefully these and other real facts about the origins of Stone Mountain Park will one day be exposed for Lee, Jefferson and Jackson to see. Yet change has been extremely slow. An unfulfilled promise to move a pair of Confederate flags to the foot of the trail to the top of the mountain is now 16 months old.

But the memorial association has approved the creation of a new “telling the truth” exhibit in the park’s museum. A contract for the signage was considered possible as early as this week, according to Bill Stephens, CEO of the memorial association and an advocate for these changes and more at the mountain. However, on Tuesday, Stephens said board members now want to visit sites to see existing work from companies vying for the Stone Mountain exhibit.

Diplomacy was paramount. The application of realpolitik to the precision-loving discipline that is the story has often left both sides uneasy.

And so, during Friday’s ceremony, the king’s covered bridge served as a metaphorical path between a sanitized lost cause and the harshness of the civil rights years. Thurmond, the CEO of DeKalb, led the audience through. Originally from Athens, Thurmond had crossed this same bridge – then in a somewhat rickety state – several times in the back of his father’s vegetable truck.

“It’s the scariest ride you could imagine. Because I always knew one day we were going to end up at the bottom of the Oconee River,” Thurmond said. Even as a metaphor, 60 years later , crossing this bridge remains frightening for many.

“Thank goodness for WW King, who knew we couldn’t live on one side of the river, casting slander on the other side,” Thurmond said. “The only way to progress and grow, and to be better than who and what we were, is that we have to build bridges.

“And once we build the bridge, we have to have people brave enough to cross it, meet halfway and shake hands,” Thurmond said.

But in case anyone missed the gist of his message, the DeKalb CEO repeated himself. Who owns Stone Mountain Park? he asked – then answered himself.

“The people of Georgia. Our park. United.”

Jim Galloway, a former political columnist for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, retired in 2021.