When Tyrone Brooks was a child growing up in rural Georgia, he learned from his elders that the freakish outcropping of granite east of Atlanta known as Stone Mountain was a frightful--even evil--place.
The Ku Klux Klan marked its rebirth early this century by torching a cross upon its peak. And in olden times, his grandmother told him, black people had been lynched and thrown from the mountaintop. “I did not grow up with a good feeling about Stone Mountain,” Brooks said. “I still don’t have a good feeling about it.”
A year from today, when Atlanta hosts the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games, 2 million visitors will be expected to feel good about Stone Mountain and the numerous other reminders that the city known as the cradle of the civil rights movement also has a vivid historical flipside.
From the grandiose Confederate memorial carved into the mountain to the ever-present evocations of “Gone With the Wind” to the contentious Rebel emblem that dominates the state flag, Atlanta’s Civil War and antebellum history will be much in evidence during the Games. Many visitors will find it charming.
But with various groups threatening protests and lawsuits over the flag, and with lingering resentments swirling around the other symbols, the stage is set for a momentous--or at the least loud--clash over how the South’s past should be remembered and portrayed.
Three Olympic events will be held at Stone Mountain, a Southern Mt. Rushmore that since 1958 has been a state-owned park commemorating the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. While park spokeswoman K Thweatt said she knows of no lynchings ever taking place at the site, the land was owned by a family with a long history of klan involvement and was a frequent site of cross burnings.
A gigantic carving of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson graces one side of the mountain, and on weekends and every night from May through Labor Day the park puts on a laser light show featuring Lee and the Confederate flag and accompanied by Elvis Presley’s rendition of “Dixie.”
Brooks, a black 49-year-old state legislator, said he can’t bring himself to visit the park except for official state functions. But despite criticism of the show, Thweatt said it will not be changed before the Olympics.
When Atlanta launched its underdog bid to become the first Southern and first predominantly black city to host the Olympics, much of its appeal rested on its image as spiritual capital of a modern, harmonious South. But the road to 1996 has been marked by collisions between conservative Southern traditions and the new.
Organizers want the Games to showcase a historically rich yet thoroughly modern region that has produced some of world’s friendliest people, finest literature and hottest music. Since the Games are viewed here as a marketing bonanza, striking the right chord is considered particularly important.
Even now, Olympic planners are grappling with how to portray the South in the opening and closing ceremonies, and apparently having a hard time of it. “To depict only a ‘Gone With the Wind’ theme or only a civil rights theme, by definition, you’re abandoning part of your history,” said Billy Payne, the hands-on president of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games. “It takes a lot of work to do it right.”
The danger he faces is that controversy surrounding any one of the South’s contentious social and political realities will rise up to overshadow the manufactured stage show.
That almost happened in 1993, when national gay groups threatened to picket unless Olympic organizers moved preliminary volleyball events from Cobb County, a conservative Atlanta suburb in Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s district. The county had passed a resolution condemning the gay “lifestyle.” After at first maintaining that the Olympics would not take sides, organizers moved the site in 1994.
Similarly, controversy flared over the desire of local organizers to add golf to the roster of Olympic events. The proposal was killed, partly because of opposition to hosting the event at the exclusive Augusta National Golf Club, which has no female members and admitted its first and only black member in 1990.
The most volatile issue currently is the state flag, which has featured the Confederate symbol since 1956, when the state Legislature added it reportedly to protest a Supreme Court school desegregation decision.
Many white Georgians view attempts to change the flag as an insult to Southern heritage. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of white Georgians want to keep the flag. But after helping to bring the Olympics to Atlanta, former Mayor Maynard Jackson declared after leaving office last year that he would work to change the flag, which he calls “a constant, negative reminder of slavery and segregation . . . an American swastika” and an “embarrassment” to the city.
For a short time, Gov. Zell Miller joined the fight to change the flag, but he dropped the issue when it became clear it might cost him reelection. Now he refuses to discuss it.
The Olympics, as local organizers like to say, is the world’s largest peacetime event and so is naturally a magnet for controversy as various interest groups attempt to stand in its spotlight. Organizers, however, have steadfastly refused to take a stand on controversial issues that do not directly affect the Games.
“I guess in a perfect world we’d like everybody to be happy,” Payne said. “But it’s our job to put on the Games. . . . We’re going to stay focused on the Games, not on what our flag looks like, not what’s carved on the side of a mountain, not what Cobb County commissioners choose to do when they have their meetings.”
A recent controversy that did directly affect the Games was the decision by a Georgia county to pull the welcome mat out from under Somali athletes who had planned to train there for the Olympics. Officials in Barrow County rejected the athletes because of the way Somalis attacked U.S. soldiers there in 1992 and dragged bodies through the streets of Mogadishu. Payne called the incident “unfortunate” but noted that another county immediately chose to host the Somalis.
Because the 1996 Games will mark the centennial of the modern Olympics, organizers feel a need to use the event to showcase the history of the Games. But the event, which has generated great enthusiasm and a feeling of prideful ownership all over the Southeast, also will shine a spotlight on the region.
“The world really doesn’t know the American South,” Payne said. “The world will tell you ‘Gone With the Wind’ or the civil rights movement, but there is a lot more to it than that.”
Part of the job of guiding visitors through Southern folkways and traditions falls to Leslie Gordon, producer of humanities for the Cultural Olympiad. She is organizing the Southern Crossroads festival, which will be held during the Olympics at the new Centennial Olympic Park downtown and will showcase the art, food and culture of the region.
Olympic programming will stay away from hoop skirts, mint juleps, Tara and other aspects of the mythic South, except to debunk them, said Gordon, because they’re “not real.”
“One of the premises of the festival is that what a lot of the world thinks of as American culture is really Southern culture,” she said, noting that various forms of music, such as blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, zydeco, rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm-and-blues, have roots in the South.
Because the festival wants to showcase the contemporary South as well as the traditional South, there will also be a focus on technology, the space program and CNN, she said. In addition, programming will highlight the cultural contributions of whites, blacks and Native Americans. “One of the other premises of this festival is that Southern culture is basically a synthesis of three cultures.”
There are some who derisively call the 1996 Games “the Bubba Olympics.” While Olympic organizers eschew the stereotype that the term evokes--of tobacco-chewing good ol’ boys driving pickups with Rebel bumper stickers--possible protests over the flag will make certain that image stays alive.
Olympic organizers say they will obey state law, which requires that the state flag fly over state-owned property. If they do not, Lee Collins, president of the Atlanta-based Heritage Preservation Assn., promised to protest and possibly file a lawsuit.
“Confederate symbols all over the country are being attacked, whether they are mascots in high schools or high school students being suspended for wearing a T-shirt with Robert E. Lee on the front of it. . . . If those flags don’t fly, we’re going to protest. We’re going to get in the streets and march.”
Contending that those who oppose Confederate symbols are ignorant of Southern history, Collins said the Rebel flag is important “for the same reason the U.S. flag is important. . . . It honors the Georgia citizens who stood up and represented Georgia in the Confederacy’s struggle for independence.”
While there is little chance the state Legislature will change the flag between now and July, 1996, Brooks said the coalition of civil rights and civic groups that have been fighting the flag for years will press on. His group also is planning demonstrations. “We will be there at many of the venues.”
Bills to change the flag have been presented in the state legislature every year since 1982 and have failed to get very far. But Brooks, noting that a number of municipalities, most downtown hotels and corporations such as Holiday Inn and McDonald’s have stopped flying the state flag, predicted that the tide of public opinion in Georgia eventually will turn.
To his way of thinking, Atlanta was awarded the Games because of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Former Mayor Andrew Young, who was an aide to King, is one of the local people most responsible for bringing the Games to Atlanta and is co-chairman of the organizing committee. He and other organizers have made it no secret that they employed King’s image to sell Atlanta to the International Olympic Committee as the cradle of the civil rights movement.
For that reason, Brooks argued, the city should strive to portray itself as a racially enlightened New South metropolis. “It puts Atlanta in a whole other category in terms of world image, but my feeling is that the Olympics would not be here if it was not for the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and the actions of Andrew Young.”
Times researcher Edith Stanley contributed to this story.
* RELATED STORIES: C1, C4