STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. — A group that says it has held annual events at Stone Mountain Park for nearly 20 years says it has canceled after being denied a permit. Now, they're taking issue with the reasons why.
The Stone Mountain Memorial Association released a statement to 11Alive on Monday that it had declined a "public assembly request" for the Sons of Confederate Veterans who had planed a Confederate Memorial Day event for Saturday.
The association identified three main reasons for declining the permit. The first was that holding the event presented "a clear and present danger to public safety."
"With the current climate and volatile nature of several previous assemblies, protests and counter-protests at Stone Mountain Park, the Stone Mountain Park Department of Public Safety does not have sufficient resources to provide for the protection of memorial service participants as well as all park employees and guests," the association wrote.
The statement goes on to say the danger presented by such tension at the park may require the National Guard - or other law enforcement agencies - to control.
The association added the pandemic is also another reason why the event wasn't approved.
"Though the state is making substantial progress in mitigating the many public health risks of the pandemic, some state and CDC restrictions remain in place for the near term," the statement said.
Finally, the memorial association said that the vendor that controls some central parts of the park has said it won't allow participants on them.
"The Memorial Plaza lawn, facing the mountain carving, is an assigned responsibility as part of the master lease agreement with the SMMA," the statement continues. "The Stone Mountain Park/Silver Dollar City leaseholders have notified the SMMA that they will decline access within park assets under their control."
As such, ignoring their notice would be a violation of the agreement; though, the association added that the current lease agreement with Silver Dollar City expires in 2022.
Sons of Confederate Veterans group responds
Following the decision, the Georgia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans issued a statement calling it out.
"This is the first denial from the Stone Mountain Memorial Association that the Sons of Confederate Veterans has received," spokesperson Martin O'Toole said. "Naturally, we are very disappointed as we had been working with the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (SMMA) for months and had no hint this was a possibility."
O'Toole said the event was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, adding they would have been able to accept coronavirus as a reason to cancel even this year.
However, he described the other reasons as "spurious" adding they permitted an armed militia to "parade in the park" the previous year, referring to the group known as Not F***ing Around Coalition (NFAC) that marched in last summer.
"The group, which proudly sports an obscene name, certainly has the right to demonstrate under the First Amendment," O'Toole added. "But to compare the Sons of Confederate Veterans with a militant, armed group such as this seems odd."
He said that group was rightfully allowed its first amendment rights, but said the Sons of Confederate Veterans should be as well.
He also pointed to the decision by the park vendor despite the event being held there many years in the past and described it as "odd."
He concluded that denying their permit out of concern for what others may do was permitting a "heckler's veto" of a Confederate Memorial event at a park that, itself, is a Confederate memorial.
Past protests at the park
Stone Mountain Park, with its massive stone carving of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson, has been a flashpoint for controversy in recent years, with groups protesting the continued use and existence of Confederate symbols across the South.
Some of those protests have come when other groups celebrating Confederate symbols have held - or attempted to hold - events there, with counter-protesters showing in large numbers as well.
One of the most nationally publicized protests came in 2020 when members of the predominantly Black NFAC Militia group marched up the road and were not restricted from the park.
With many of the members armed, they called out the Ku Klux Klan - an organization that also has longstanding ties to the park's history.
As Smithsonian Magazine points out, the Stone Mountain had a resurgence in the early 20th century beginning with a cross burning at the top of the mountain in 1915. Ties to the Klan continued for many decades after that with the group given the right to access the land at any time.