STONE MOUNTAIN, GA. – Some statues of figures from America's slave-owning past have been yanked down by protesters, others dismantled by order of governors or city leaders. But the largest Confederate monument ever crafted — colossal figures carved into the solid rock of a Georgia mountainside — may outlast them all.
Stone Mountain's supersized sculpture depicting Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gen. "Stonewall" Jackson mounted on horseback has special protection under Georgia law.
Even if its demolition were sanctioned, the monument's sheer size poses serious challenges. The carving measures 190 feet across and 90 feet tall.
Numerous Confederate statues and monuments to slave owners have come down across the South amid recent protests against racial injustice. Stone Mountain hasn't escaped protesters' notice.
But there are lots of questions as to what should be done with the massive monument, conceived some 50 years after the Civil War ended but not finished until 1972.
The sculpture's creators used dynamite to blast huge chunks of granite away from the mountain, then spent years carving the detailed figures with hand-held cutting torches.
Erasing the carving would be dangerous, time-consuming and expensive.
The stone is likely too durable for sandblasting, said Ben Bentkowski, president of the Atlanta Geological Society. Controlled explosions using TNT packed into holes drilled in the mountainside would work, he said.
"With the logistics, the safety aspect of it, you'd have a budget certainly north of $1 million, I suspect," Bentkowski said. "You'll need insurance for the project, you'll need hazard pay for people working on the surface of it. It could easily take a year or more."
There's also a sizable legal obstacle.
When Georgia lawmakers voted in 2001 to change the state flag that had been dominated by the Confederate battle emblem since 1956, language to guarantee the preservation of Stone Mountain was included as a bargaining chip.
The law states that "the memorial to the heroes of the Confederate States of America graven upon the face of Stone Mountain shall never be altered, removed, concealed, or obscured in any fashion."
Ryan Gravel, an Atlanta-based urban designer, noted the law doesn't mandate maintenance. He suggested allowing nature to take its course, letting vegetation grow over the sculpture from its nooks and crannies.
"I think we're in a moment where pushing the limits of that law is possible," Gravel said. "And certainly the scale of the challenge at Stone Mountain warrants that."
Asked whether Stone Mountain still deserves special protection, GOP Gov. Brian Kemp didn't give a direct answer on June 26. "As I've said many times, we can't hide from our history," Kemp said, while citing the new hate crimes law he signed the same day as a significant step in fighting racial injustice.
Stone Mountain wasn't a battle site and had little historical significance to the Civil War. But 50 years after the war ended, the exposed surface of the mountain's northern face sparked an idea among the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
The group hired Gutzon Borglum — who later carved Mount Rushmore — to design a massive Confederate monument in 1915.
That same year, the movie "The Birth of a Nation" glorified the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan and Stone Mountain played a key role in its resurgence, marking its comeback with a cross burning atop the mountain on Thanksgiving night.
The park at Stone Mountain markets itself as a family theme park rather than a shrine to the "Lost Cause" mythology.