By Eric Brothers for CoinWeek …..
It was in 1923 that renowned sculptor Gutzon Borglum wrote to influential senator Henry Cabot Lodge, urging him to support legislation for a Stone Mountain commemorative half dollar. The bill passed both houses of Congress and was signed by President Calvin Coolidge on March 17, 1924. The money raised from the coin would be used to help defray costs associated with the Stone Mountain monument project 15 miles outside of Atlanta.
The final legislation read, in part:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That in commemoration of the commencement on June 18, 1923, of the work of carving on Stone Mountain, in the State of Georgia, a monument to the valor of the soldiers of the South, which was the inspiration of their sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters in the Spanish-American and World Wars, and in memory of Warren G. Harding, President of the United States of America, in whose administration the work was begun …
Gutzon Borglum (1867-1941) was born in St. Charles, Idaho, to Danish immigrants of the Mormon faith. After graduating from high school, he trained as a lithographer’s apprentice before opening a small art studio. He continued his education in Europe, where he studied at the Académie Julian and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. While there, he became acquainted with the noted French sculptor Auguste Rodin, whose impressionistic, light-filled work influenced the young artist.
Borglum moved to New York City around the turn of the 20th century, and sculpted saints and apostles for the Cathedral of Saint Joan the Divine in 1901. The Metropolitan Museum of Art accepted one of Borglum’s bronze pieces, The Mares of Diomedes – the first sculpture by a living American the museum had ever purchased. He also created a bust of Abraham Lincoln, which was displayed at the White House.
But Stone Mountain in Georgia was no ordinary monumental project. The purpose of the monument was to honor the fallen Confederate soldiers of the Civil War. There was a strong Ku Klux Klan (KKK) connection that included the owner of Stone Mountain and the original sponsoring organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC).
Significantly, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum was also a member of the KKK. He once wrote:
“If you cross a pure breed with a mongrel dog you get a mongrel. So it is in races….It is curious that the lowest races in civilization is the strongest physically and breeding (crossed) is always down. A Negro and a Jew will produce Negro … any European race and Jew, offspring Jew.”
But the story of the creation of a KKK-inspired commemorative half dollar begins back in 1909.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy
It was in 1909 when Helen C. Plane, then president of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, casually blurted out an idea to honor fallen Confederate soldiers at Stone Mountain.
The Georgia division of the UDC was formed in November of 1895. Its initial goals included maintaining the beliefs of the Lost Cause, which was a heroic interpretation of the Civil War that enabled southerners to retain a sense of honor, as well as to create monuments in honor of Confederate heroes. The UDC was well-connected with southern politicians, which resulted in a large, influential membership. Woman who could prove that they were blood descendants of men who served the Confederacy with honor were eligible to join the ranks of the UDC.
There was a strong element of white supremacy in the UDC. A crusade to educate farm women was employed to empower poor whites and develop an appreciation and strong feelings of white supremacy. The UDC felt that rural girls, future mothers of the white race, needed education and other forms of assistance.
The most prominent member of the UDC was Mildred Lewis Rutherford. She fought strongly against women’s suffrage, and believed that women should remain at home and be deferential to their men. A dyed-in-the-wool Confederate, Rutherford held that the plantation mistress was a powerful role model for all southern white women. Defending secession, she glorified the plantation system and slavery in antebellum Georgia.
Editorial Calls for Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain
Plane’s idea of a Confederate war memorial at Stone Mountain, however, did not build up steam until after John Temple Graves, editor of the New York American, wrote a stirring editorial in the pages of the Atlanta Georgian. Dated June 14, 1914, Graves wrote, “I bring today the suggestion of a great memorial, perfectly simple, perfectly feasible, and which if realized will give to the Confederate soldier and his memories the most magnificent monument, set in the most magnificent frame in all the world.”
That “frame” was Stone Mountain, which, Graves claims, “is distinctly one of the wonders of the world.”
He tells us that “there is a sheer declivity that rises or falls from 900 to 1,000 feet….[that is] Nature’s matchless plan for a memorial.” Graves’ desire is for a great sculptor “to chisel an heroic statue, 70 feet high, of the Confederate soldier in the nearest possible resemblance to Robert E. Lee … and from this godlike eminence let our Confederate hero calmly look history and the future in the face!”
The natural beauty of Stone Mountain, in the powerful words of Graves, is secondary to the memory of the war dead of the Confederacy. Graves wrote, “There will be no monument in all the world like this, our monument to the Confederate dead. None so majestic, none so magnificently framed, and none that will more powerfully attract the interest and admiration of those who have a soul.”
“Birth of a Nation” and the Revival of the Ku Klux Klan
It was less than a year after the publication of that editorial (February 8, 1915) that D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation premiered at Clune’s Auditorium in Los Angeles. Based on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman, it was one of America’s first feature-length films and a box-office smash hit. Birth is a three-hour tour-de-force that saw Griffith popularize numerous filmmaking techniques that are still used today. However, it is also considered extremely racist in its quite subjective treatment of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the rise of the Klan.
Griffith was the son of a disabled Confederate soldier who died when Griffith was only seven year old; this family background surely helped shape his view of the issues raised in Birth of a Nation. Today the film is considered a masterpiece of political propaganda, but Birth, which was seen by millions, caused riots in several cities and was also banned in some places.
Birth purports to tell the story of American history during the 1860s, and follows the fictional lives of one Northern and one Southern family. During the entire film, black Americans are presented as brutish, lazy, morally degenerate and dangerous. The climax of the film has the Ku Klux Klan rise up and save the South from the Reconstruction Era influence of blacks in the public and political spheres.
The Klan saw its rebirth atop Stone Mountain within a year of the opening of Birth of a Nation, on Thanksgiving Day in 1915. Methodist minister William J. Simmons led a gathering of 34 white men who took the name “Knights of Mary Phagan“. Miss Phagan was a young white factory worker who was murdered in Atlanta in 1913. A Jewish industrialist, Leo Frank, had been erroneously convicted of the crime, and earlier in 1915 he was forcibly taken from prison by a gang of white toughs and hanged on a nearby tree. Buoyed by the murdering of Frank and inspired by Birth of a Nation, these men met on top of the mountain to form the second Ku Klux Klan. The men, some of whom participated in Frank’s lynching, put on bed sheet robes and pointed, hooded caps given to them by Simmons. Among the assembled was Sam Venable, the owner of Stone Mountain.
The white-clad men then formed a semi-circle in front of a crude stone altar, upon which sat an open bible and an unsheathed sword. Simmons then lit a massive wooden cross on fire. After that Nathan Bedford Forrest II, grandson of Confederate general and original KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, administered the Klan oath to each of the men. This new Klan would not only be fiercely anti-black, but also anti-Jewish and eventually anti-Catholic.
Confederate and Klan Interests Merge
Stone Mountain became a sacred site to the KKK. It was in 1915 that Helen C. Plane, president of the Georgia chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), hired the famous sculptor Gutzon Borglum to turn Stone Mountain into a massive Confederate monument.
Plane asked Borglum to place mounted Klansmen on the monument because, as she said, “they had saved us from Negro domination and carpetbagger rule.” The UDC strongly supported the Ku Klux Klan. In an article published in 1936 in The Southern Magazine entitled “Secret Political Societies in the South During The Period of Reconstruction,” the UDC openly supported the KKK and its attitude towards black Americans. The Atlanta Chapter, a prominent chapter of the UDC, published a pamphlet, “History Atlanta Chapter United Daughters of the Confederacy: 1897-1922”, for their 25th anniversary. Within that pamphlet is an advertisement for membership in the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan with the name William J. Simmons, Imperial Wizard, at the bottom of the ad.
It made sense to unite the theme of Confederates and the original Ku Klux Klan at Stone Mountain. The majority of original Klansman came from the rank and file of the Confederate army, while most Klan leaders came from the officer corps; both organizations wanted to keep black Americans in slavery or peonage. Borglum, however, refused to include Klansmen in his great battle scene, but his master plan did include an altar to the Klan. The sculptor proposed to carve a central group of important Confederate leaders, including Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson. Borglum planned to create a panorama representing the Confederate armies with artillerymen, cavalry, and infantry surrounding the central group of Confederate leaders.
The year 1916 saw Klansman Sam Venable deed the north face of Stone Mountain to the UDC for Borglum’s carving. The sculptor was busy planning the monument, and also promised to assist in fundraising, but the onset of World War I put the project on hold. After the war, the KKK volunteered to help raise funds for the giant carving. During that time Borglum himself became a Klan member, and later became an adviser of David C. Stephenson, the Klan leader in the Midwest.
Beginning in 1920, the Stone Mountain project slowly came under the control of Atlanta businessmen, who were brought in to aid with the massive fundraising needed, and the UDC became marginalized.
Creation of the Stone Mountain Commemorative Half Dollar
The monumental work was expensive, and by November 1923 the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association decided to advocate for a commemorative coin that it could buy from the government at face value and sell at a premium as a fundraiser. To that end Borglum wrote Senator Lodge to begin the legislative process to approve the coin.
Between the passage of the bill and the end of May of 1924, Borglum was busy working on the Children’s Founders Roll medal and then the half dollar models. White children who donated one dollar to the building of the monument could join the Children’s Founders Roll. The sculptor seems to have been fine-tuning the monuments design, since Stonewall Jackson’s image on the medal is different from that on the coin. Unlike the finished coin, Borglum’s models showed the front of Davis’s horse, but the Confederate president was not seen, and marching soldiers are seen in the background.
Borglum went to Washington, D.C. to meet with Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon to present his models of the Stone Mountain half dollar. When asked by Mellon why “In God We Trust” was placed over Lee’s head, the sculptor told him that it was to pay tribute to the faith of the Confederates. Then Mellon queried Borglum as to what the 13 stars upon the coin’s obverse represented. He coyly replied that people who lived north of the Mason-Dixon line could consider them to be representative of the original 13 colonies. He did not say, however, that those south of the famed demarcation would know that they represented the 13 rebel states of the Confederacy. The Treasury Secretary laughed and gave his initial approval. The models also included a tribute to President Harding, who was in office when the Stone Mountain project was started. After Mellon showed the models to President Coolidge, they were then sent to the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) for its members’ review.
James Earle Fraser, the sculptor member of the Commission, rejected Borglum’s initial designs. Fraser claimed that the tribute to Harding was inartistic, and that the design seemed only a segment of a larger motif, not one specifically designed for a half dollar. President Coolidge did not like the reference to Harding, so it was removed, and the Commission repeatedly asked Borglum to revise his models. Frustrated, the artist wanted to stop working on the coin, but was threatened with being fired from the Stone Mountain project. And so he continued, creating nine different plaster models before one was finally approved.
The Stone Mountain commemorative half dollar was finally completed, but the monumental project at the site in Georgia suffered. Borglum was too busy with the coin to devote time to sculpting; there were flaws in the rock; and fundraising had ceased in anticipation of revenue from the coin sales. The project fell apart and Borglum was dismissed.
A KKK Half Dollar?
To some, the Stone Mountain commemorative half dollar is a de facto Ku Klux Klan coin.
The original sponsoring organization of the monument project was the Georgia section of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), who strongly supported the efforts and policies of the Klan.
In 1925, the year the coin was issued, there were 156,000 members of the Klan in Georgia.
The UDC hired sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who designed the Stone Mountain half dollar.
Borglum openly supported the Klan, having joined in the post-WWI era. He also authored a virulently racist and anti-Semitic essay.
The owner of Stone Mountain, Sam Venable, was among the first 34 new Klan members in the second KKK that officially began in 1915; among his fellow Klan inductees were men who took part in the lynching of Leo Frank. Significantly, it was on top of Stone Mountain where the second Ku Klux Klan began on Thanksgiving of that same year.
And even President Calvin Coolidge, whose support of the commemorative coin aided in the legislative process, controversially side-stepped calls to denounce the Klan in the lead up to the 1924 presidential election. While the Klan tried to purport that Coolidge was one of its members, the President’s press office did, eventually, push back against the claim.
So it is not hard to see why Stone Mountain became a shrine to Klansmen throughout the U.S.. Many members of the Confederate army and the original KKK were inextricably connected. However difficult it might be for present-day collectors to accept, historically it is almost impossible to separate the Klan from the concept, funding and creation of the Confederate memorial at Stone Mountain and its commemorative coin.
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Loewen, James W. Lies Across America: What American Historic Sites Get Wrong. New Press. 2001.
“Atlanta Chapter United Daughters of the Confederacy history with a full page ad for the Ku Klux Klan”, Anti-Neo Confederate (blog). January 11, 2014. Web.
Brothers, Eric. “One-Coin Wonders: Gutzon Borglum”, The Numismatist. September 2014.
PCGS-Certified Stone Mountain Half Dollars Currently Available on eBay