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Authorities Plan A Tribute To MLK Above 'Confederate Mount Rushmore'

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Stone Mountain is a big granite formation 15 miles east of Atlanta. It's also a monument to the leading figures of the Confederacy. History buffs visit sculptures of these figures at the monument. It's been the site of picnics and laser shows and of gatherings of the Ku Klux Klan. Now park operators want the mountain to be remembered for a different chapter in American history. The park's management announced today a plan to place a bell tower on top of the mountain as a tribute to Atlanta's civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. From member station WABE in Atlanta, Johnny Kauffman reports.

JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: The inspiration for the proposed monument comes from one of the most well-known sections of Martin Luther King's famous "I Have A Dream" speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.: Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.

KAUFFMAN: Stone Mountain is the largest exposed mass of granite in the world. Chiseled into the stone are impressive carvings of Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis. It surpasses even the size of Mount Rushmore, and it's been a controversial place since the early 20th century. It's called the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan. This summer, Stone Mountain was the site of a rally of Southerners who wanted to let their Confederate symbols fly. This followed the massacre of black churchgoers in Charleston. They wanted to prove they're not racist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I hope everybody stays, goes up the mountain, has fun. We're going to take pictures. Everybody that's took pictures or video, post it all over Facebook. This is heritage, not hate.

KAUFFMAN: But for many, their message of heritage, not hate doesn't address the racist history of the Confederacy. In a statement, the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the organization that oversees the park, said the bell that recalls King's famous speech would be a way to address the racist history the park is associated with. The statement says the Association acknowledges Dr. King was talking about the KKK's meetings in his "I Have A Dream" speech, and they say the bell will help with a more complete telling of the mountain's history. Ray McBerry is a spokesperson for the Georgia Sons of Confederate Veterans. He says nothing should be added to Stone Mountain that could possibly distract from memorializing Confederate history.

RAY MCBERRY: I believe that the specific memorial that has been proposed to put on top of Stone Mountain is specifically to invite the issue of race into Confederate heritage where it has no place.

KAUFFMAN: Georgia law says the park must remain a Confederate memorial. And McBerry says the Sons of Confederate Veterans haven't ruled out a lawsuit. The park says even with the addition of a monument to Martin Luther King Jr., Stone Mountain will remain a Confederate memorial. Georgia State senator Vincent Fort is drafting a bill to outlaw Confederate memorials on state property. He says placing a bell atop the mountain would dishonor King.

VINCENT FORT: It's as if the evil that those slave-owning Confederates perpetrated is somehow ameliorated by the presence of a monument for Dr. King.

KAUFFMAN: As the park moves ahead with its plans, it will have to navigate these complicated feelings about the history of Stone Mountain. To add to that challenge, they'll need the approval of the King family. It holds the rights to the "I Have A Dream" speech. That family is currently in a legal battle over King's estate. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Atlanta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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