Shannon Byrne pulls her black Honda Civic under low-hanging tree branches and, slightly askew, into a parking space near St. Michael & All Angels church. The building is about a quarter mile from the west gate of Georgia's Stone Mountain Park, but Byrne would much rather walk than pay the $40 annual parking fee. That price would be a bargain for someone like Byrne, who climbs the 825-foot-high granite dome almost daily, year-round—but she refuses to give a penny to the Stone Mountain Memorial Association, the entity that manages private funding for the state-owned land. She can't stomach the thought of her money being used to maintain a Confederate monument.
Byrne doesn't sneak through the park's gate. She glides defiantly past the booth attendant, who offers a nod of recognition but not a smile. Then she walks down Robert E. Lee Boulevard, past Confederate Hall—"Confeder-Hate Hall," she sneers. The columned antebellum-style mansion houses a theater playing the melodramatic 24-minute film The Battle for Georgia: A History of the Civil War in Georgia and a museum that details the carving of the infamous 90-foot-tall bas-relief of Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson into the mountain's north side. She holds her nose as she passes the terrace where the four flags of the Confederate States of America flutter above the foot of the summit trail.
Then she exhales.
Before her is a park of towering pine and Georgia oak populated with climbers of all ages, nationalities, and ethnicities. Some are tourists, checking off a scenic stop on their itinerary; others are locals getting in a workout. Some are here to commune with nature; others are here for fellowship. All have one destination, one mile ahead. "I wonder if some of these people know what a powerful act it is just for them to be here," she says. "Reclaiming the mountain from a history of hate."
Byrne wants the world to see the other side of Stone Mountain, the one of natural beauty and human diversity. For the past three years, she has traipsed up and down this ancient rock, welcoming guests as an unofficial ambassador and collecting personal stories of climbers from across the United States and from more than 80 countries, from Afghanistan to Japan. She posts these profiles to I Am the Mountain, a website she started in 2014 as a celebration of the gradual transformation of her hometown, the municipality of Stone Mountain, from site of the Ku Klux Klan's rebirth to multicultural melting pot. "It's amazing how a place can transform," she says. "It's not set in stone."
Byrne grew up in a ranch house about a mile from the park's west gate. The mountain always played a complicated role in her life. As a child, she saw the white-hooded Klansmen marching in town, not far from the park. She knew that they did not like her or her Mexican mother. At the same time, Stone Mountain was the focal point of the community: school trips, birthday parties, and Girl Scout meetings were held at the plantation-themed amusement park. In high school, her friends worked there serving food or taking tickets part-time and over the summer. When Byrne was 15, a boy told her he loved her there and the pair kissed in the shadows along the trail.
Byrne moved back to the area from Brooklyn in July of 2004, after the death of her father. She took legal guardianship of her disabled older brother and began caring for several family members. Soon, she needed to find an escape. One day, a friend took her back to Stone Mountain. "I just kept going," she says. "It became my means to heal, a head- and heart-clearing. The view, nature—so much of it was so arresting that I stopped worrying about the other types of stress." She also started noticing the people around her—not the homogenous crowd she remembered from her childhood, but a mix of ethnicities and cultures both from nearby Atlanta and from a town that had vastly diversified. "I remember being in awe at how vibrant it was," she says. "It reminded me of being in New York. I felt proud. 'Wow, we've come a long way.'"
I Am the Mountain became a means to track the demographic shift she was witnessing in her hometown, but it was also an opportunity to articulate the new way in which she was starting to view the symbol of racism that had overshadowed her childhood. "Fifty-four years after Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, 'Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia,' a diverse community thrives atop Stone Mountain, a mountain still considered emblematic of Old South racism," she writes. "This website humbly attempts to illustrate freedom ringing at long last and to celebrate all of the new faces that are reclaiming the mountain."
Over the last two years, Byrne's effort has been somewhat complicated by a surge in ethno-nationalist politics. In 2016, the park hosted a rally of "pro-white" demonstrators wearing "White Lives Matter" shirts and waving Confederate flags. Later that year, Byrne encountered more than a dozen 20-somethings self-identifying as alt-right, chugging beer, and wearing stars-and-bars capes. When she confronted them, the young men cursed her as a "Christ killer," "Jew," and "cunt."
Last fall, a state legislator floated a proposal that would make Stone Mountain a graveyard for all of Georgia's displaced Confederate monuments—and, Byrne fears, a potential mecca for zealots who still worship the Southern banner of white supremacy.
In response, Byrne has sharpened her tone. Where the site once offered only whimsical musings about foreign culture, it now publicly shames the alt-right pilgrims who've come to revel in the park's nefarious heritage. She wants to petition the state to step in and better regulate where the money the park earns is spent: funneling it away from Confederate hagiography and toward realistic portrayals of the mountain's hateful past.
She now worries that, without a concerted intervention, the mountain—the world's largest and most immovable Confederate monument—could become a battlefield where neo-Confederates from across the country make their last stand.
Despite all this, Byrne continues to map the contours of a new mountain, one she hopes will make white supremacists feel deeply unwelcome.
Today, she makes it to the peak without persuading anyone on the trail to speak with her for the site. After flirting briefly with a young man from Berlin, she wanders the bare, moon-like summit. She shields her eyes from the sun as she looks out at the cloud-shrouded Atlanta skyline, 14 miles west and several hundred feet down. From behind, two older women approach her, talking to each other in a foreign language. Byrne makes eye contact, and, before long, one of the women holds out her phone.
"You had that look," Byrne says, taking the phone for a picture. "What language are you speaking?"
"Hmong," says the woman. "We are originally from Laos."
Byrne soon discovers that the women are cousins. Byrne gets a quick lesson in Laotian culture.
"Laos has five 'tribes,' and the Hmong live at the top of the mountain," one of the women says.
After Byrne has taken the photos, she asks to take her own video for the website. The cousins enthusiastically agree.
"How do you say 'I am the mountain' in Hmong?" Byrne asks.
A quick translation comes.
"Now when I signal, just shout until your heart's content! 1-2-3!"
The two Hmong women raise their fists and leap into the air. They yell until their voices crack.