December 12th, 2017

Dr. Martin Luther King knew mountains. Key to his imagery was Mount Nebo, the mountain that Moses stood upon to glimpse the promised land. King invoked that image in 1968 when he delivered his final speech. He said:

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

The next day he would be assassinated.

Mountains were vital to King. Twice in his 1963 address at the Lincoln Memorial he raised up the image. First, when he said:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”2

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.

I believe that he had a particular mountain in mind when he spoke those words. King did not choose words carelessly. As a classically trained rhetorician he agonized over each word, each syllable. So when he said:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

He was focused like a laser.

These lasers…

Shaun King and Sierra Pettengill, reporting in New Film “Graven Image” Shows How Georgia Racists Created a Confederate Myth for The Intercept, write:

Three hundred and fifty million years ago, tens of thousands of feet underground, an earth-shattering magma event took place. Nearly the entire event was invisible to any living creature. Beneath the surface, as the molten hot liquid cooled, miles and miles of underground granite were formed — stretching as far as 50,000 feet in any single direction. In one place, though, the molten liquid erupted above ground to form a most peculiar mountain in the middle of a relatively barren flatland.

That mountainous dome structure is today called Stone Mountain.

To give that some perspective, Stone Mountain was 343 million years old before anything remotely resembling the first human beings emerged on this planet. After that, for about 6,999,900 years of human existence on earth, Stone Mountain stood unscathed in what we now know as metropolitan Atlanta.

It was at that time, in 1915, that the 349-million-year-old mountain became the birthplace for modern movement of the Ku Klux Klan. Mountains, you see, cannot be racist. They are not partisan. They don’t see race or religion. They aren’t bigoted or homophobic. After existing for the entire world to see and enjoy for fifty times longer than human beings had even walked this earth, insecure white men in the Deep South made a natural wonder into something truly ugly.

We can thank Sam Venable for that. A lifelong bigot, he bought Stone Mountain — which in and of itself is fundamentally absurd — in 1887. Venable and his family purchased rock quarries all over Georgia and intended to mine Stone Mountain as well. As much as they were in the rock business, the Venable brothers were in the bigotry business — playing a central role in the early expansion of the KKK and even granting the violent white supremacist organization an easement that existed in perpetuity for them to host their local, regional, and national gatherings there.

In “Graven Image,” a brilliant short film by Sierra Pettengill and produced by Field of Vision, we get the very modern story of the desecration of Stone Mountain.

There is a shining stare in all of this, however. Two years ago Jim Galloway, reporting in A monument to MLK will crown Stone Mountain for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote:

On the summit of Stone Mountain, yards away from where Ku Klux Klansmen once burned giant crosses, just above and beyond the behemoth carving of three Confederate heroes, state authorities have agreed to erect a monument to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Specifically, an elevated tower—featuring a replica of the Liberty Bell—would celebrate the single line in the civil rights martyr’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that makes reference to the 825-foot-tall hunk of granite: “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.”

“It is one of the best-known speeches in U.S. history,” said Bill Stephens, the chief executive officer of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association. “We think it’s a great addition to the historical offerings we have here.”

The “freedom bell” will, in fact, sound from the mountaintop. How often, or when, hasn’t been determined.

I’m puzzled, however, that I can’t find any followup on the story.

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