Mount Rushmore’s Uneasy Connections to the KKK and Confederate Statues
The sculptor perfected his concepts by working for white supremacists in the Lost Cause monument movement
You can add Mount Rushmore to the list of memorials that wouldn’t exist if it hadn’t been for the relentless United Daughters of the Confederacy — the group that spearheaded the erection of thousands of Confederate monuments.
Before Gutzon Borglum, the visionary sculptor of Mount Rushmore, began work on the four presidents in South Dakota, he found his passion for gargantuan mountain carvings in Georgia. Even in 1915, Stone Mountain, a rock dome that pokes a half-kilometer into the sky east of Atlanta, had lasting links to the Ku Klux Klan, not only through the man who owned it, but also as an ideal vantage point from which to light crosses and warn Black Georgians to mind their place.
That’s where Borglum accepted a commission from a UDC spinoff group to amplify the racist symbolism of Stone Mountain by carving a celebration of Confederate military leaders on it— facing north, of course. The UDC had spent two successful decades feverishly installing Rebel statues in every nook and cranny of the South—many of which are finally coming down in 2020—but with Birth of a Nation in cinemas and gleefully segregationist Woodrow Wilson in the White House, their appetite for tributes expanded to a scale that would daunt the Ancient Greeks. At Stone Mountain, the UDC aspired to build a Dixie Ephesus, a monumental acclamation of the Lost Cause so massive that nature itself would not be able to remove it.
Borglum, a man of no small ego, convinced the ladies that a the 20-foot carving of Lee on Stone Mountain they envisioned “would look like a postage stamp on a barn door,” and so he greedily went about revising their concept into a gargantuan neo-Confederate memora-complex that could be seen from space. As envisioned, his magnum opus would rival the works of Wren, Jefferson, and the Egyptians combined. His carved men — and there would be a militia’s worth — would march in full figure across the side, and at their vanguard Robert E. Lee, from hat to hooves, would be taller than a 17-story office building. There would be a giant Memorial Hall, a repository of priceless Confederate relics, a reflective pool, and sanctifying smoke wafting eternally from a shrine. “It will be bigger than anything of the sort ever before attempted,” Borglum promised.
The ladies were seduced by such a narcissistic vision, and to seal their favor and the commission, Borglum joined the Ku Klux Klan.
But Borglum’s inflated plans also inflated the budget far past what even the well-connected UDC could handle. The planned site would exalt a treasonous insurrection that aimed to topple the federal government, but that didn’t stop the ladies from enlisting the U.S. Treasury itself to issue 50-cent pieces cast with Borglum’s design. The Treasury obliged, and the Stone Mountain Memorial Association then sold the coins at a 100% markup.
Ultimately, the blueprints proved to be too lunatic, and the artist too mercurial. The SMMA soon discovered it could no longer control both the budget and Borglum. Chafing at what he perceived as meddling by his employers, Borglum quit in a huff. He smashed his working models and then, in true Dukes of Hazzard style, he skipped town with the sheriff hot on his tail. (The next sculptor, Augustus Lukeman, literally blasted Borglum’s carving off the face of the earth and started over with a white supremacist paean more appropriate to a modest postwar purse.)
After Borglum high-tailed it out of the county like one of them Duke Boys., posse on his heels, he wound up in remote southwest South Dakota, where he found more unfettered artistic freedom. He may not have kept his KKK membership active, but that didn’t stop him from finding new locals to offend.
The spot in the Black Hills that Borglum chose was, in fact, hallowed ground. It was also disputed. A few decades before Borglum arrived at what we now call Mount Rushmore, the U.S. government had signed a treaty promising the Lakota Sioux natives that they could keep the mountain they called Six Grandfathers. Like most promises made by the U.S. government to Native Americans that are easily linked to white supremacy, that promise fell apart quickly. Once minerals were discovered by Six Grandfathers, that was that. Miners renamed the rock after a friend, New York City lawyer Charles E. Rushmore, who had affairs in the area. In 1927, at age 60, Borglum showed up and began mining for his dynamiting the hallowed ground to 450,000 tons of smithereens so he could forge the exact sort of colossal triumph he was thwarted from completing at Stone Mountain in Georgia. Mount Rushmore would avenge his failure at Stone Mountain.
The South Dakotans wanted him to carve a few Western heroes like Buffalo Bill Cody and Red Cloud, but Borglum insisted on something more federal because it would appeal to a larger (white) market. So instead, he designed an altar for United States’ deities. Chief executives would be his Gargantuas, and even if the resulting empty-calorie patriotism didn’t actually make a statement about anything, his portrait prowess was sure to be the talk of the masses. Washington! Jefferson! Lincoln! And, oddly, Teddy Roosevelt, even though he had been dead for less than a decade.
Thus the sacred mountain was reduced from six grandfathers to only four. Bystanders timidly suggested to Borglum that Roosevelt had not yet stood the test of time and should perhaps not be included, but Borglum was not a man who entertained edits. He shut them down. Teddy, you see, had been Borglum’s buddy — the sculptor had even worked on his 1912 Bull Moose campaign — so onto the rock he went. Three of the presidents on Mount Rushmore got there on their résumés, but the fourth was added because he had connections. It pays to know the sculptor.
Mount Rushmore even borrowed some of elements that were conceived for Stone Mountain. In Georgia, he wanted to make a Memorial Hall for relics from the Confederacy. In the Black Hills, that was translated into a Hall of Records, a repository for important patriotic documents from American history. Behind Lincoln’s head, Borglum blasted a 70-foot cave for the purpose. He didn’t get a chance to finish it, but the cavern is still there, hidden and closed to the public.
Standing on the Presidential Trail in front of the sculpture on an August day, I asked a park ranger about Borglum’s relationship with the United Daughters of the Confederacy and why he had escaped to the Black Hills to essentially improve upon his racist plans at Stone Mountain. The ranger’s explanation: sartorial differences.
“He got fired,” the ranger said flatly. “He was a pretty cocky guy. He got called on the carpet by the Daughters of the Confederacy! They said, ‘You have a hat on General Lee. No good Southern gentleman would wear a hat in front of a woman, and a lot of women are going to come to view this sculpture.’ He pretty much said, ‘Yeah, thanks for your comments. The hat stays.’”
Partly on the basis of that, the ranger said, the working relationship fell apart.
I suggested that Borglum was a political guy, having helped his buddy Teddy Roosevelt run for president. Did the sculptor actually agree with the white supremacists who directed his prior commission at Stone Mountain?
“He joined the Klan. He had to!” the ranger said. “Not just to get the commission. He already got that. But to get the money. They were raising funds in many different ways, and he knew he was in the Deep South.”
Although Borglum the Pragmatic Klansman allegedly only joined to help Stone Mountain pay for itself, the ranger seemed to hope I wouldn’t think that joining the KKK made Gutzon a bad person. “He even had a black chauffeur at one point in his life,” the ranger said.
I think he could instantly see that this particular defense landed like another rock under the presidents, so the ranger immediately thought of a better example of Borglum’s warmth. “There was one winter here — our winters are very serious, very serious — the Indians down on the Pine Ridge Reservation were starving because they couldn’t get any buffalo coming in. He actually donated some of his own buffalo and cows to the Indian nation. He was a pretty good guy.”
Inside the visitor center, the story was different. When I visited, none of the exhibitions mentioned that Borglum’s prior commission — and indeed, the germ of the mountain sculpture concept of Mount Rushmore — had been funded by white supremacists. One sign said the gig was to carve a panorama of Southern “military heroes.”
“The KKK was the main sponsor of Stone Mountain, but he was just an artist,” another ranger told me. “He was not a member of the KKK.”
Mount Rushmore’s rangers were giving me different stories. And while it’s true that there’s no paperwork testifying to Borglum’s membership as a Klansman (there wouldn’t be, would there?), there’s plenty of evidence that he was entwined. It’s also true Borglum was involved in Klan politics, attending meetings and helping smooth spats between leaders. It’s also true that when he was replaced by Henry Agustus Lukeman in Georgia, Borglum told a friend, “Every able man in America refused it, and thank God, every Christian. They got a Jew.” It’s also true that he was friends with Klansmen. A letter to one of them reads, “While Anglo-Saxons have themselves sinned grievously against the principle of pure nationalism by illicit slave and alien servant traffic, it has been the character of the cargo that has eaten into the very moral fiber of our race character, rather than the moral depravity of Anglo-Saxon traders.”
Even if none of that evidence of Borglum’s racist and imperious attitude existed, He only joined the Klan for the money is probably not a defense that lends much protection to the artist responsible for Mount Rushmore.
At Rushmore, Borglum didn’t need the KKK or the UDC. The U.S. government paid for more than 80 percent of the project, which means those four iconic stone heads are not a patriotic homage by citizens, as you might have thought. That’s the way it appears from the hero worship of Borglum in the site’s interpretive materials, but in fact, Mount Rushmore is pretty much a party that the government threw for itself.
Borglum’s mania for mountain shaping, which began at the UDC’s KKK-linked Stone Mountain site, began a chain reaction that caught on in the Black Hills. It inspired a second epic sculpture.
This one is of martyred Oglala Lakota leader Crazy Horse, and it’s still slowly being carved out of a mountain 17 miles away from Rushmore. Infuriated by the desecration of Six Grandfathers, Sioux elders hired immigrant Korczak Ziolkowski to blast a bigger, badder likeness, a larger rebuttal, of out of another mountain.
Today, its still unfinished and it barely seems to progress despite the incessant clang of cash registers and relentless donation-begging throughout the visitor center. Its signage isn’t much more forthcoming about the origins of the project than Rushmore’s is. There’s scant mention of Crazy Horse, his biography, and why he would be worth this effort, although one sign offers that he was “accidentally bayonetted while talking peace” at age 34.
The gift shops have become the reason for the Crazy Horse project. When I was there, the visitor center sold “Oriental Salad” with “chow mien noodles” in the Laughing Water Restaurant, which was ironic given the cultural insensitivities that inspired the artistic rebellion that created this place. It even sold Crazy Horse shot glasses, which, given the obscenely high alcoholism rates among Native Americans in that part of the country, feels at best tone-deaf and at worst shameless.
But there is money that must be made. Thanks to the UDC’s botched scheme for a grand white supremacist mecca at Stone Mountain in Georgia, it’s now big business in the Black Hills of South Dakota to reshape mountains into the image of men that’ll teach enemies a thing or two. The hills are no longer quite so sacred.
Jason Cochran is the author of Here Lies America: Buried Agendas and Family Secrets at the Tourist Sights Where Bad History Went Down (Well Hall Books). He is Editor-in-Chief of Frommers.com.