By having his personal Fourth of July at Mount Rushmore, Donald Trump seems to have demonstrated a predilection to celebrate himself at public venues connected to racism.
Two of the four presidents on the mountain were slaveholders, and all of them are viewed by Native Americans as racist.
Trump’s July 3 South Dakota visit was part of his “comeback” campaign for a nation reeling from sickness, unemployment and, recently, social unrest. In the midst of a COVID-19 pandemic, Trump again spoke before a mostly unmasked crowd of Covidiots. The president himself, of course, was also not wearing a mask.
Concerning Trump’s decision to hold his rally in a place many consider to be racist, Theodore Roosevelt, whose image is among the four on Mount Rushmore, is reported to have said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are.”
The depiction of four of America’s greatest presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and 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 is Borglum’s ties to the Ku Klux Klan. The National Park Service makes no mention of that fact in its biography of the sculptor.
“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,” writes the Washington Post.
“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.”
Returning from Europe at the turn of the 20th 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, according to Taliaferro.
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.
He, of course, leapt at the proposal, creating a huge monument 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.
As D.W. Griffith released “Birth of a Nation,” the epic silent film about the Civil War and Reconstruction, Borglum was developing his creation.
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 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.
After an Atlanta theater agreed to donate its box office proceeds from a screening of the film to Borglum’s project, Plane wrote a gushing 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.”
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.
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,” writes Taliaferro.
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 “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.
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.
Native Americans have always contended that the Black Hills of South Dakota belong to them. It was their sacred land, and it was stolen from them after gold was discovered there. In 1980, the Supreme Court agreed, ordering the federal government to compensate eight tribes for the seizure of Native American land.
“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 last week.
At Mount Rushmore, fireworks were discontinued after 2009 due to concerns related to the pine beetle infestation that increased fire concerns in the Black Hills National Forest. The forest has since rebounded. But South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, federal Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and National Park Service Deputy Director P. Daniel Smith announced the resumption of fireworks for Trump’s visit. Noem said the agreement came after several months of meetings and discussions.
Trump has long shown a fascination with Mount Rushmore. Noem said in 2018 that he once told her straight-faced that it was his dream to have his face carved into the monument.
As close as he will ever get to his “dream” is viewing the monument from a deck and a telescope in the gift shop.