By the light of a blazing cross, the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed its 20th century rebirth on the granite mountain that gives the town its name. For decades white-hooded Klansmen flocked here for annual gatherings, and Confederate heroes are sculpted into the side of the mountain.
Today, the mayor’s office once held by an imperial wizard of the Klan is about to be filled by a black man, who also lives in the former KKK leader’s house.
Elected with biracial support, Chuck Burris is more concerned about getting new sidewalks and more police than with Stone Mountain’s old image of racial division.
Burris, a city councilman, defeated a six-year incumbent in the Nov. 4 election and will lead a black majority City Council in January.
The election campaign focused on the need for more sidewalks, drainage, police and economic development, rather than race. But he acknowledges the historic benchmark of a black mayor in the town where Klansmen held that formative assembly in 1915.
“I’ve lived in the South all my life,” reflected Burris, 46. “I’ve seen the South change, and I’ve seen it remain the same. My becoming the mayor of Stone Mountain wasn’t so much a question of race - but it still is a step forward.”
He grew up in Louisiana, a son of educators, and said he twice witnessed cross-burnings there, one in his family’s own yard.
He entered Morehouse College as a teenager, early enough to attend some lectures by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and later attended law school. He worked as a crime analyst in the administration of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, and held other city jobs in the 1970s before helping to start a computer consulting firm.
Stone Mountain has 1,681 white and 1,812 black registered voters, but only 568 people voted in the mayor’s race. Burris got 49 percent of the vote against two other candidates.
White businessman Arthur Bourdon said he supported Burris “for what he wanted to do for this city. I think he’s going to do an outstanding job.”
“What we wanted was the best-qualified candidate, one that will get some things done,” said T.J. Weatherly, a white civic activist and 58-year resident.
Burris and wife Marcia live in a two-story brick home they bought last year from the family of James R. Venable, a one-time mayor who died in 1993. Venable, as an imperial wizard of a Klan order, orchestrated annual Labor Day weekend gatherings that brought Klansmen here by the busloads until the 1980s.
Burris recalled that during his first run for City Council, the then-elderly Venable readily let him put up campaign signs in his yard.
“We have had good racial relations here for many years,” said Weatherly. “It has not been a racist-type city. That was an image brought about mainly from outside.”