The depiction of four of America’s greatest presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — has always been considered a grand tribute to the ideals of American democracy. That’s exactly what its mastermind, sculptor Gutzon Borglum, intended. Less well known: Borglum’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan.
Borglum was born the son of Danish Mormon polygamists in 1867 in Idaho. A talented artist, he spent his childhood on the Western frontier and plains, in Utah and Kansas until leaving for Europe in the early 1880s to study sculpture. There, Borglum became fascinated with art on a grand scale with nationalistic subjects, which suited what many described as his bombastic, egotistical personality.
“Borglum was imperious, he was cocky. He was prone to angry outbursts,” said John Taliaferro, author of the 2002 book “Great White Fathers: The Story Of The Obsessive Quest To Create Mount Rushmore.”
In Europe he was heavily influenced by ancient colossal sculpture from the Egyptians to the Greeks. The 66-foot Sphinx of Giza and the 70-foot carved guardians of Memnon’s Temple on the upper Nile became examples of the kinds of works he wanted to create in the United States.
Returning from Europe at the turn of the century, he set up shop in New York and then Connecticut and began to sculpt statues of statesmen and generals that memorialized American history, including a bust of Lincoln for Teddy Roosevelt’s White House that now sits in the Capitol Rotunda.
Then, in 1915, Helen Plane, the founder of the Atlanta chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, approached Borglum about a possible project.
After the Civil War, the North began an “orgy” of Civil War monument building, Taliaferro writes in his book. One of the primary missions of the Daughters of the Confederacy, founded in 1894, was to even the score, he wrote.
The group began erecting statues throughout the South, including many that are being removed today in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.
Plane asked Borglum whether he would be interested in working on the group’s biggest project ever: a monument to the Confederacy on Stone Mountain outside Atlanta.
Right away, Borglum was interested in sculpting on such a grand scale. After visiting the site, he saw the potential to build a colossus of his own, a tribute to what he considered great men. He immediately accepted and drew up a proposal featuring Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and J.E.B. Stewart riding in a cavalry carved in deep relief across a 1,200-foot-span of the mountain’s eastern face. The fathers of the confederacy would be 50-feet-tall, surrounded by stampeding horses and cavalrymen.
Plane loved the concept, signed Borglum on and began fundraising.
At the same time that Borglum was drawing up his plans for Stone Mountain, D.W. Griffith released “Birth of a Nation,” the epic silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction. In the film, the Ku Klux Klan rescues the South from white carpetbaggers and freed slaves who had turned the great Confederacy into a drunken Sodom.
The film, which opened in January 1915, grossed an unprecedented $60 million in its first run. It also inspired a resurgence of the Klan, which coincided with Borglum’s development of the Confederate monument. The Klan soon became a major funder of the memorial.
Plane worked out a fundraising scheme whereby an Atlanta theater donated its box office proceeds from a screening of the film to Borglum’s project, Taliaferro writes. When Plane wrote a cheery letter to Borglum announcing the development, she added: “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 might be immortalized on Stone Mountain.”
She requested that Borglum represent the Klan in his sculpture, Taliaferro said in a phone interview. The plan conflicted with Borglum’s greater vision, and publicly the artist claimed he didn’t want to hurt his patron’s feelings, so he agreed to add a Klan altar for the base of Stone Mountain.
But in truth, Borglum had much deeper ties to the white supremacist group.
“He never came out and said he was a member of the Klan,” Taliaferro said. “But he sure was at the table with them a lot.”
Throughout his work on Stone Mountain, from 1915 until 1923, Borglum became intensely involved in Klan politics related to Stone Mountain, and on a national scale as well.
He attended Klan rallies, served on Klan committees and tried to play peacemaker in several Klan leadership disputes, Taliaferro writes.
“On a strictly mercenary level, he saw the Klan’s burgeoning, highly organized network throughout the South and the Midwest as a source of funds for his expensive undertaking. More than that, however, he came to view the Klan as a promising grass-roots movement with the potential to reshape the political map of the nation,” according to “Great White Fathers.”
Borglum was a racist long before arriving in Atlanta. The sculptor referred to immigrants as “slippered assassins" and warned that America was becoming an alien “scrap heap.” But the Klan might have hardened Borglum’s existing prejudices, Taliaferro writes.
In a letter to a friend in New Jersey in the early 1920s, Borglum asked, “Is it true you joined the Ku Klux Klan? I hope so. They’re a fine lot of fellows as far as I can learn and if they elect the next President, by gosh I’m going to join ‘em.”
The artist became close friends with the Grand Dragon of the Realm of Indiana, Klansman David “Steve” Stephenson of Indianapolis. In one letter to Stephenson, Borglum wrote, “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,” according to “Great White Fathers.”
But by 1924, work on Stone Mountain had stalled. In addition, the Daughters of the Confederacy and the committee backing the project became tired of dealing with the mercurial sculptor. By February 1925, the committee accused him of faults including “disloyalty, offensive egotism and delusions of grandeur” as well as an excessive concern for money and notoriety.
After 10 years of work, Borglum was fired from the project. In a fit of rage, he destroyed all of his models for the monument and raced out of Atlanta before police could charge him with destroying private property.
He already had a new project waiting for him. A few months earlier, he’d been contacted by South Dakota’s state historian, Doane Robinson, who wanted him to sculpt a tribute to the American West in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Robinson had originally planned to include American frontiersmen like Lewis and Clark and Native Americans, including Sacagawea. But Borglum, eyeing an opportunity to make a national statement, dissuaded the historian. Instead they settled on the four American presidents, two of them slaveholders and all of them viewed by Native Americans as racist.
“Lakota see the faces of men who lied, cheated and murdered innocent people whose only crime was living on land they wanted to steal," said Harold Frazier, chairman of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, who called for the removal of the monument earlier this week.
Native Americans have always contended that the Black Hills of South Dakota belong to them, and that the sacred land was stolen after gold was discovered there. In 1980, the Supreme Court agreed, ordering the federal government to compensate eight tribes for the seizure of Native land.
From 1927 until his death in 1941, Borglum and his team of 400 workers dynamited more than 450,000 tons of granite to carve the Mount Rushmore memorial. For many Americans, it remains a stirring tribute to democracy.
But the National Park Service makes no mention of Borglum’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan in its biography of the sculptor.
“We want our stories of America to be simple,” Taliaferro said. “We want Mount Rushmore to be shorthand for everything that’s great about America.”
But actual history, he said, is sometimes much more complicated.
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