Mount Rushmore's Extremely Racist History

Following the growing movement to take down Confederate statues in the US, right-wing media have rhetorically asked if Mount Rushmore is next. But given that its history is deeply entwined with white supremacy, is that such an absurd question?

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Aug 17 2017, 8:08pm

Photo via Flickr user Craig Bennett

We cannot undo America's sordid history, but we can at least take down the monuments glorifying it. In the wake of the recent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville against the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue, confederate monuments are coming down all over the country. Protesters in Durham, North Carolina toppled a statue put up by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1924. The mayor of Baltimore had the city's Confederate statues removed under the cloak of night. And yesterday, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams called for the 90 foot bas relief sculpture of three Confederate generals to be blasted off the face of Stone Mountain.

"It is 2017, and now is the time for us to have a conversation about removing the last vestiges of that type of hatred and that type of vitriol toward minority communities in Georgia," Abrams told local news.

In response to calls like Adams', right-wing sites began rhetorically asking, What's next, blowing up Mount Rushmore? But given the racist history that both Stone Mountain and Mount Rushmore share, is there something more to that question than alarmism alone?

Read more: 60 Protesters Turn Themselves In for Toppling Confederate Monument

Let's start on a minor note: Mount Rushmore isn't even finished. The monument was originally intended to show four presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln—from the waist up, as well as a large representation of the Louisiana Purchase, giant facsimiles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and a secret room behind Lincoln's head. But construction stopped in 1941, shortly after the original sculptor's death, and as it stands today, Lincoln is still missing an ear. The rocks lying below the carving? Those aren't naturally occurring; that's the rubble from rock blown away with dynamite.

Much more importantly, Mount Rushmore is only monumental in its hubris and deeply rooted racism. Countless comics, films, and television shows have depicted megalomaniacs carving their own faces into Mount Rushmore, while letting the original megalomania and racism slide. There is something so American about looking at the enormity of nature—at millions-of-years-old rock—and thinking, "You know what this needs? White guys."

Mount Rushmore and Georgia's Stone Mountain—whose officials denied a request to Ku Klux Klan members to burn a cross there on Monday— share a common past: Both are built on land seized illegally from Indigenous peoples, and both were devised by the same racist artist: Gutzon Borglum. Borglum believed that a country as great as America required its own uniquely American art. "[A]rt in America should be American, drawn from American sources, memorializing American achievement," he wrote in a 1908 article in The World's Work.

Borglum was first contacted by United Daughters of the Confederacy member Helen Plane to carve a 70-foot Robert E. Lee on Stone Mountain. Plane wanted Lee to be surrounded by KKK because she believed the KKK had "saved us from Negro domination and carpetbag rule," as she wrote to Borglum in 1915. Borglum's only objection to her plan was that 70 feet wasn't nearly big enough to honor Lee properly. He told her it would look like "a postage stamp on the side of a barn." The final design was 20 feet taller, and depicted Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson riding on horseback. Now it looks more like a piece of legal-size paper on the side of a barn. Or like a trio of racists on the side of a mountain.

As construction began, Borglum aligned himself with the Klan, particularly with Grand Dragon D.C. Stephenson. The two exchanged letters about Nordic moral superiority. (Stephenson would later be convicted of the rape and murder of Madge Oberholtzer.) However, internal squabbling in the Klan led to Borglum being booted from the Stone Mountain project. Subsequently, he destroyed all his models of the monument. Borglum also wasn't a fan of his replacement, Henry Augustus Lukeman. "Every able man in America refused it, and thank God, every Christian. They got a Jew," he said.

It was after this that Borglum was contacted by Doane Robinson, the state historian of South Dakota. Robinson wanted to create a tourist attraction that would pull yokels off the highway. He wanted to carve full statues of icons of the American West out of the Needles, a geological wonder (and a site sacred to the Sioux Nation) in the Black Hills. But the granite of the Needles was poor, so the sculpture site was relocated to the mountain that had only been known as Mount Rushmore for 40 of its two billion years of existence.

The Black Hills region was designated "unfit for civilization," and "Permanent Indian Country" in the 1850s. But when General Custer surveyed the area and reported that his men had discovered gold, white people came running. President Grant secretly ordered the army not to protect the native residents, and bounty hunters began collected up to $300 per Indian killed. The Sioux were forcibly evicted from their land, and the mountain formerly known as Six Grandfathers was named after the first white man to express interest in it. In 1884, New York City lawyer Charles E. Rushmore asked his guide what Six Grandfathers was called. His guide replied, "Never had a name, but from now on we'll call it Rushmore."

Six Grandfathers was sacred to the Lakota Sioux. The mountain was named after the ancestral spirits who came to Lakota medicine man Black Elk in a vision, and any construction on that land would have been an insult.

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Borglum picked his four presidents based on their role in Manifest Destiny. Robinson had originally wanted giant statues of Lewis and Clark, Red Cloud, and Custer. But Borglum felt that only American presidents were worthy of looming over the plains of South Dakota like four Galactuses. Specifically, he wanted four men who he felt were instrumental in expanding and preserving the boundaries of America: Washington for getting things started, Jefferson for the Louisiana Purchase, Roosevelt for the Panama Canal, and Lincoln for preserving the Union.

Of course, the US government has a long history of violating treaties with Indigenous populations. But the Black HIlls are special insofar as the Supreme Court actually agreed that the land was taken illegally in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. The Court ruled in 1980 that the US owed the Sioux Nation the 1877 price for the land, along with 100 years of interest. The Sioux rejected the cash settlement because they still want the land back.

In truth, it's not my place as an American to say what should happen to Six Grandfathers. It's not our sacred land to destroy because it was never ours to build upon.

But Stone Mountain has got to go.