Donald Trump is going to Mount Rushmore today for an Independence Day eve campaign rally and fireworks show (a decade after fireworks were banned amid concerns about wildfires and groundwater pollution). President Trump pushed for the revival of the fireworks display, so naturally this red state complied with his whims.
The local Argus Leader reports, Fire expert: Mount Rushmore fireworks show ‘ill-advised’ due to dry conditions and high fire risk: The fireworks display planned for July 3 at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is an unnecessary, potentially devastating and expensive event, according to one fire expert with intimate knowledge of the region. Let’s hope these fools don’t set the surrounding forest on fire.
And despite at least 91 deaths registered in South Dakota from COVID-19, an estimated 7,500 spectators will not be told to don face masks or to practice social distancing at the event. The local Rapid City Journal reports, Coronavirus precautions set aside for President Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore (excerpt):
Gov. Kristi Noem has said, however, that face masks will be provided for free at the event. Yet, people won’t be forced to wear them.
Those who choose not to wear a mask at the event may be jeopardizing their own health and the health of other people, said Dr. Ben Aaker, president of the state’s medical association. He said those who don’t believe in masks should listen to their doctors, the SDSMA and CDC guidance on masking.
“By not following those guidelines, you have a risk,” Aaker said. “You may be healthy now, but you have a risk of contracting the illness and then infecting others. You may say ‘I’m a healthy person, I’m going to feel bad for a while and get better.’ Well, we know that might not be true.”
Trump and Noem have both made frequent press appearances and city visits without wearing masks on-camera. Trump has been especially vocal about his distaste for wearing a mask.
Maggie Seidel, advisor to Noem, said the governor has worn a mask before but doesn’t plan to wear one at Mount Rushmore.
South Dakota’s Congressional delegation plans to attend the event.
If you think our Governor Doug Ducey is bad, he is a model of restraint compared to Governor Kristi Noem. NPR reports:
“We will have a large event July 3rd; we told those folks that have concerns that they can stay home,” South Dakota Republican Gov. Kristi Noem told Fox News host Laura Ingraham on Monday. “But [for] those who want to come and join us, we’ll be giving out free face masks if they choose to wear one, but we won’t be social distancing.”
Noem, who became governor last year after serving eight years in the House of Representatives, has refused to order restrictions to protect public health throughout the pandemic.
“Gov. Noem is the only governor in the country who never mandated a single business or church to close, never ordered a shelter-in-place order for her citizens,” Noem spokesman Ian Fury tells NPR.
“Gov. Noem has trusted her people to exercise their personal responsibility, to keep themselves, their loved ones and their communities safe, to make the right decisions, to do the right thing. And that’s the approach that we’re taking here at Rushmore.”
South Dakota currently ranks 11th among the 34 states considered by the Harvard Global Health Institute to be prone to “potential community spread,” with an average over the past week of 6.2 new cases daily of COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants.
The actual owners of the land where Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located, the Oglala Lakota Nation, see United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians (1980), have advised Donald Trump that he is not welcome, not that he gives a damn. Indian Country reports, Lakotas to Donald Trump: ‘You are not welcome here’:
Maya Eagle has a message for President Donald Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and their supporters: “You are not welcome here.”
Eagle, Oglala Lakota, plans to protest Trump’s scheduled stop Friday to her peoples’ sacred He Sapa, or Black Hills, as part of South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore fireworks event. Eagle and others will be protesting that afternoon in Keystone, a small resort town along Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Lakota also refer to the Black Hills as Paha Sapa.
“The Black Hills are the heart of everything that lives and breathes,” she said. “The Black Hills are supposed to bring positivity, strength and wisdom. These two men (Trump and Pence) bring the complete opposite. He Sapa are sacred, and they should be treated as such.”
The mountain is known as Six Grandfathers to the Lakota, and He Sapa was never meant to be desecrated. Other tribes like the Cheyenne, Arapaho and Omaha also have history in the Black Hills and surrounding areas.
The Black Hills are part of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and the country’s highest court ordered compensation in the millions of dollars to the Lakota for the illegal seizure of the Black Hills, an offer the Lakota have refused for decades. They instead want the Black Hills returned to tribal authority.
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Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Chairman Harold Fraizer issued a strongly worded statement this week on the removal of presidents from the Black Hills. His post on Twitter had more than 6,000 interactions as of Wednesday.
“Visitors look upon the faces of those presidents and extoll the virtues that they believe make America the country it is today,” Frazier said.
“Lakota see the faces of the men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on the land they wanted to steal.”
He added this “brand on our flesh” must be removed, and “I am willing to do it free of charge to the United States, by myself if I must.”
Just as Donald Trump had a racist subtext for his Tulsa, Oklahoma campaign rally – the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 – Mount Rushmore has its own racist subtext. The sculptor of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, was a white supremacist with ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The Sordid History of Mount Rushmore:
In 1914, Gutzon Borglum was a sculptor in Connecticut of modest acclaim when he received an inquiry from the elderly president of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, C. Helen Plane, about building a “shrine to the South” near Atlanta. When he first glimpsed “the virgin stone” of his canvas, a quartz hump called Stone Mountain, Borglum later recalled, “I saw the thing I had been dreaming of all my life.” He sketched out a vast sculpture of generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and was hired.
The son of polygamist Mormons from Idaho, Borglum had no ties to the Confederacy, but he had white supremacist leanings. In letters he fretted about a “mongrel horde” overrunning the “Nordic” purity of the West, and once said, “I would not trust an Indian, off-hand, 9 out of 10, where I would not trust a white man 1 out of 10.” Above all, he was an opportunist. He aligned himself with the Ku Klux Klan, an organization reborn—it had faded after the Civil War—in a torch-light ceremony atop Stone Mountain in 1915. While there isn’t proof that Borglum officially joined the Klan, which helped fund the project, “he nonetheless became deeply involved in Klan politics,” John Taliaferro writes in Great White Fathers, his 2002 history of Mount Rushmore.
Borglum’s decision to work with the Klan wasn’t even a sound business proposition. By the mid-1920s, infighting left the group in disarray and fundraising for the Stone Mountain memorial stalled. Around then, the South Dakota historian behind the Mount Rushmore initiative approached Borglum—an overture that enraged Borglum’s Atlanta backers, who fired him on February 25, 1925. He took an ax to his models for the shrine, and with a posse of locals on his heels, fled to North Carolina.
The Stone Mountain sponsors sandblasted Borglum’s work and hired a new artist, Henry Augustus Lukeman, to execute the memorial, only adding to Borglum’s bitterness. “Every able man in America refused it, and thank God, every Christian,” Borglum later said of Lukeman. “They got a Jew.” (A third sculptor, Walker Kirtland Hancock, completed the memorial in 1972.)
Still, the years in Georgia had given Borglum the expertise to tackle Rushmore, and he began carving in 1927 at age 60. He famously devoted the last 14 years of his life to the project. His son, Lincoln, oversaw the finishing touches.
Given Donald Trump’s recent defense of monuments to long-dead Confederate traitors who committed treason against the United States, I am surprised that he is not holding this campaign rally at Stone Mountain in Georgia.
Stone Mountain Confederate Memorial features General Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis—and has stirred up controversy in Georgia for years. (Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy)
The Birth of a Memorial
“Just now, while the loyal devotion of this great people of the South is considering a general and enduring monument to the great cause ‘fought without shame and lost without dishonor,’ it seems to me that nature and Providence have set the immortal shrine right at our doors,” wrote newspaper editor John Temple Graves for the Atlanta Georgian on June 14, 1914.
His argument was simple, and less provocative than a statement he’d made on lynching a decade earlier (in which he argued lynching was the most useful tool in preventing rape, since “the negro is a thing of the senses… [and] must be restrained by the terror of the senses”). Graves believed the South deserved a monument to its Confederate heroes. Stone Mountain was a literal blank slate, just waiting for a suitable memorial to be carved into it.
Among those Southern citizens who read Graves’s editorial and others like it was C. Helen Plane, a member of the Atlanta United Daughters of the Confederacy (founded in 1895) and honorary “Life President” of the group. At 85, Plane fought as passionately for the memory of her husband and other Confederate soldiers killed in the Civil War as she had done decades earlier. She brought the issue of a memorial before both the city and state chapters of the UDC, quickly gaining the group’s support. While the UDC briefly considered such notable artists as Auguste Rodin to carve the features of General Lee into Stone Mountain, they ultimately settled on Gutzon Borglum.
But after visiting Stone Mountain, Borglum was convinced the UDC hadn’t been ambitious enough in their idea for a bust of Lee. He proposed what would be a 1,200-foot-long carving featuring 700 to 1,000 figures, with Lee, Jackson and Davis in the foreground and hundreds of soldiers behind them. The monumental work would require eight years and $2 million to complete, though Borglum estimated the main figures could be finished for just $250,000 (almost $6 million today).
“The Confederacy furnished the story, God furnished the mountain. If I can furnish the craftsmanship and you will furnish the financial support, then we will put there something before which the world will stand amazed,” Borglum announced before an audience of potential sponsors in 1915.
While the amount Borglum required seemed impossibly high, Plane pushed forward with her fundraising efforts, writes David Freeman in Carved in Stone: The History of Stone Mountain. Plane also secured a land deed from the Venable family, with patriarch Sam Venable even inviting Borglum to his home at the foot of the mountain.
But the sculptor wasn’t the only person Venable welcomed to his property in the fall of 1915. He also befriended William Simmons, who ushered in the modern era of the Ku Klux Klan, founding the Second KKK at the top of Stone Mountain on November 25, 1915. That night, more than a dozen men gathered to become part of a resurgent white supremacy group that had mostly died out in the late 1800s. Inspired by the film Birth of a Nation, they burned a cross and swore their loyalty to the Klan, ushering in a new era of white nationalist terrorism.
Venable himself, who was part of the ceremony, quickly rose through the ranks of the KKK, allowing the group regular use of his grounds. As Paul Stephen Hudson and Lora Pond Mirza write in Atlanta’s Stone Mountain: A Multicultural History, “Their meeting place for decades was known as the ‘Klan Shack’ in Stone Mountain Village.”
But the overlap between the memorial and the Klan didn’t end with their geographical origins. At one point, Borglum considered including the KKK in his monument at the prompting of Plane, who wrote:
“The Birth of a Nation will give us a percentage of next Monday’s matinee. Since seeing this wonderful and beautiful picture of Reconstruction in the South, I feel that it is due to the Ku Klux Klan which saved us from Negro domination and carpet-bag rule, that it be immortalized on Stone Mountain. Why not represent a small group of them in their nightly uniform approaching in the distance?”
Although Borglum ultimately declined to include the figures in his carving, he agreed the KKK should have some recognition in the memorial, perhaps in a room carved out of the mountain. But none of his plans were destined to be achieved. By 1924 he had only completed Lee’s head, having been delayed by World War I, and a disagreement between Borglum and the managing association resulted in him leaving the project in 1925. But he wasn’t between jobs for long; Borglum went on to work on Mount Rushmore, a project that lasted him from 1927 till 1941.
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With only three years to go before the land deed from the Venables was set to expire (they had granted 12 years to finish the memorial), a second sculptor was brought in. But Augustus Lukeman barely had time to remove the work Borglum had done and start work on a carving of three figures on horseback when he was forced to abandon the project in 1928.
The deed expired, the Venable family took back their property, and the mountain remained untouched for 36 years.
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After Walter Kirkland Hancock was chosen to lead the sculpting efforts, work resumed in 1964 after a nearly-40-year hiatus. The dedication ceremony was held May 9, 1970, and the memorial was finally completed in 1972, with fine enough detail that the eyebrows and belt buckles were visible, the sculpture large enough that a grown man could stand inside one of the three horse’s mouths. The memorial became the largest high relief sculpture in the world, depicting Davis, Lee and Jackson on horseback, their figures stretched across three acres.
An early version of the park beneath the sculpture included a replica plantation, where slave quarters were described as “neat” and “well furnished” in promotional materials. The slaves were called “hands” or “workers,” Hale writes, and black actor Butterfly McQueen was hired to provide visitors with information about the park.
“As part of a 2001 political compromise to change the segregation-era state flag so it no longer included symbols of the Confederacy, lawmakers in Georgia’s General Assembly agreed to a statute that protects plaques, monuments and memorials dedicated to military personnel of the U.S. and the Confederate States of America. This, of course, includes Stone Mountain.”