Bill Clinton’s Stone Mountain Moment

In 1992, Bill Clinton spoke from the mecca of American white supremacy to launch his “tough on crime” agenda.

Bill Clinton at Stone Mountain Correctional Facility, Georgia, 1992.

The following is adapted from the new book Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America. Each week, Jacobin will be publishing new excerpts.

On Thanksgiving evening in 1915, William J. Simmons gathered fifteen men and ascended the windy summit of Georgia’s imposing Stone Mountain, just outside of Atlanta. Atop the mountain, they built an altar of sixteen boulders, upon which they placed an American flag, a copy of the Holy Bible, and an unsheathed sword.

Then, standing in the moonlight, they raised an enormous wooden cross and set it alight.

With “the angels” watching over them “shout[ing] hosannas,” Simmons and his men pronounced the Ku Klux Klan newly reborn, and inaugurated a new and terrible phase for an organization that had lain dormant for several decades. This was the beginning, they declared, of a new imperial empire.

1915 was the year of D. W. Griffith’s notorious Klan-glorifying blockbuster Birth of a Nation, which romanticized the role of terrorist posses in the post–Civil War South and created a nationwide burst of nostalgia for the great halcyon years of white supremacy. It was also the year of the Leo Frank lynching. Frank, the Jewish director of an Atlanta pencil factory, had been wrongfully convicted of strangling a thirteen-year-old employee at the factory, Mary Phagan. When Frank’s death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, a mob of local worthies (including an ex-governor and the future president of the state senate) tore him from his prison cell and hanged him from a tree in Marietta.

It was in the fervor of white bloodlust emerging from the Frank killing and the Griffith film that William J. Simmons and his band of enthusiastic bigots ascended Stone Mountain. They would initiate what is known as the “Second Klan,” which eagerly and viciously picked up where the first left off. The organization’s original anti-black mission statement expanded to encompass all-new violent intolerances, such as anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

In the years following the Klan’s resurrection ceremony, Stone Mountain became an iconic site for American white supremacists. The group held regular events there. In the 1920s, they began fundraising with the United Daughters of the Confederacy, for the purposes of erecting an enormous monument to the Confederacy on the mountain’s face.

Over the next fifty years, dedicated Georgians gradually managed to commission the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world: a breathtakingly imposing carving towering four hundred feet above the ground and measuring 1.5 square acres, depicting Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee astride charging stallions. The initial sculpting of the stunning monument was by a Klansman named Gutzon Borglum, who would become well-known for his work on what is perhaps the only more physically impressive monument in America: Mount Rushmore.

Stone Mountain Park became a gathering spot for America’s un-Reconstructed neo-Confederates. For most of the twentieth century it held the Klan’s annual Labor Day cross-burning, and well into the 1990s it hosted an “antebellum jubilee,” “complete with hoop skirts and a decked-out pre–Civil War plantation.”

The streets around the park were (and still are) named for Davis, Jackson, and Lee, and the summertime laser shows it projected onto the mountainside had an elaborate final sequence featuring an enormous Confederate flag and a recording of Elvis singing “Dixie.” (Black laser enthusiasts would occasionally boo at the grotesque finale.)

All of this made the mountain a site of deep contention over racial symbolism, in fact “one of the most sensitive locations in Georgia.” Georgia congressman and civil rights legend John Lewis said that when he first moved to the Atlanta area, “we didn’t dare go to Stone Mountain because that’s where the Klan had rallies.”

The rallies persisted until 1991. A speaker at the 1985 event called for a new wave of “white vigilantes” across the country. “Death to the race mixers,” he said, forecasting that “when the hour of retribution strikes, there will be ten million dead ones in America.” A firsthand report from another 1980s event described the surreal sight of “kiosks selling popcorn, soft drinks, and KKK T-shirts.”

The town of Stone Mountain itself also became a “white supremacist mecca,” sitting as it did in the shadow of the “shrine of the Ku Klux Klan.” In 1988, it voted to name a park after the notorious Imperial Wizard who had been instrumental in building the monument, and who had also designed the Klan’s second-generation robes. (After controversy, the decision was rescinded. Instead, he got an official plaque in the park and had a small lake named after him.)

There was a reason, then, that in Dr Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, he made sure to single out a specific plea: “let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” A dream that freedom could ring from Stone Mountain was ambitious indeed; perhaps no other location in the country has remained so closely associated with white supremacy for so long.

Bill’s Nation

Bill Clinton was a New Democrat. And New Democrats, unlike the old Roosevelt liberals, were tough on crime.

With the Democrats having lost three presidential elections, Clinton argued that political success required the jettisoning of many of the Left’s most cherished tenets. In particular, Clinton aimed to woo the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” the somewhat socially conservative white voters who had fled the party during the 1960s and 1970s. Doing this, in part, required what Michelle Alexander calls “signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.”

Crime was a key issue on which Clinton tried to distinguish himself in this respect. In 1988, Michael Dukakis had been relentlessly and effectively criticized by Republicans as “soft on crime”; Dukakis was dogged by a Republican televised advertisement showing a hairy, menacing black inmate who had raped a woman while free on a furlough scheme that Dukakis had approved as governor.

Bill Clinton was determined not to suffer the same kind of attacks; nobody would accuse him of coddling “inner city” criminals. “I can be nicked on a lot,” he said, “but no one can say I’m soft on crime.”

So he shed his platform of any soft liberal pity for the rights of criminal defendants and brought his anti-crime rhetoric in line with that of the Republicans. He even made sure to take a detour from the campaign trail and return to Arkansas to preside over an execution.

Clinton was concerned, first and foremost, with sending a carefully tailored message to white America. And one of the most effective deliveries of that message came in the form of a press conference held at one of the most infamous sites in the South: Stone Mountain.

In the early 1990s, though it was a town with a population of less than six thousand, Stone Mountain was home to a small state correctional facility. The complex was nestled directly at the mountain’s foot, at the outer edge of the park, just off Robert E. Lee Boulevard at 5500 Venable Street — a road named the after the same legendary local Klan leader, James Venable, who ran the rallies and designed the uniforms and nearly got a park dedicated to him. (The prison might as well have been at 5500 Ku Klux Klan Avenue.)

It was here that Clinton’s campaign arranged an astute campaign photo opportunity, just before Super Tuesday. Clinton traveled to the out-of-the-way facility alongside other prominent conservative Southern Democrats. These included Georgia’s governor, Zell Miller (later known for splashily ditching the Democratic Party with a bombastic speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention, before co-chairing Newt Gingrich’s 2012 bellyflop of a presidential campaign) and Senator Sam Nunn (notorious in Congress for firing staff members if he found out they were gay and for launching a relentless public crusade against the scourge of homosexuality in the American military).

Tagging along with Nunn, Miller, and Clinton was Congressman Ben Jones, previously best remembered for his supporting role as “Cooter” on the Dukes of Hazzard and more recently becoming a prominent advocate for the public display of the Confederate Flag. (According to Jones, it represents “courage and family and good times.”)

At the Stone Mountain Correctional Institution, the four men gave a press conference, of little apparent purpose except to show them standing in front of a phalanx of dour jumpsuited inmates, all but a sprinkling of whom were black.

The resulting photograph, printed in the next day’s newspapers, sent an unmistakable message. If President Clinton wanted to “signal to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been,” he could hardly have done better than to stand in front of a shackled mass of black men at the base of Stone Mountain.

There is little question that Clinton knew what he was doing in going to Stone Mountain. As Christopher Petrella explained in a recent Boston Review article about the incident, the site was too consequential and notorious, and the photo-op too perfectly aligned with Clinton’s open goal of reassuring the white populace, for it to have been anything but completely deliberate:

It is hard to imagine the DLC would not have been aware of Stone Mountain’s significance as a theater of white supremacy when it staged Clinton’s campaign event at the prison there. In fact, the choice of that particular place as a campaign stop — arranging white political leaders in business suits in front of subjugated black male prisoners in jumpsuits — is illegible except in light of this history.

By picking such an allusive location, Clinton managed to quietly convey to the right parties that, even though he might be no white supremacist, he was not the sort of Democrat to go ripping the Stars and Bars off every last Dixie flagpole, nor one who would let members of the more troublesome races go swarming freely across the land.

Nobody mistook the message at the time.

Clinton was instantly criticized by his opponents for the repugnant racial undercurrents of the event. Iowa senator Tom Harkin said the Stone Mountain photo offered an ugly depiction of the Democratic Party’s priorities: “What this picture demonstrates is an insensitivity . . . A picture is worth a thousand words, and we can’t afford to have pictures like this going around America in major newspapers because it sends the wrong message about what we want to be as Americans.”

California governor Jerry Brown was even more forthright, saying that Clinton and the other politicians looked “like colonial masters” trying to tell white voters “Don’t worry, we’ll keep them in their place.” Brown said the implication was clear: “Two white men and forty black prisoners, what’s he saying? He’s saying we got ’em under control, folks.”

Defending himself, Clinton accused his opponents of playing “racial politics,” and insisted that the facility was for “youths” who were “get[ing] their lives back together.” (It is mysterious why Clinton thought it made it better rather than worse that the inmates were youths.) Clinton spokesman George Stephanopoulos called Harkin’s criticism “the act of a desperate man.”

But the event doesn’t look any better with hindsight than it did on the campaign trail. Re-examining the visual record, Tom Harkin seems less desperate than accurate: after all, the photo shows a buoyant Clinton standing in front of black kids stored in a pen at the base of an infamous Confederate monument and pilgrimage site, only a year after its Klan picnics had finally stopped.

For a clutch of white politicians to pose in front of black inmates would be mildly nauseating in the most innocuous of locales; that Clinton did it with a pair of open bigots at the entrance to the “Confederate Rushmore” should churn the stomach.

From the beginning, though, Bill Clinton had made a priority of appealing to “Reagan Democrats,” the group of white “middle American” voters whose support the Democrats had steadily lost during the McGovern-Carter-Mondale-Dukakis years. Clinton solidified the political cliché of targeting “the forgotten middle class,” what he referred to as “the people who used to vote for us.”

What this meant in practice was assuaging the fears of white voters in particular. As Democratic strategist Ted Van Dyk phrased it, Clinton’s New Democratic politics were intended to signal to “Reagan Democrats that it is safe to come home to their party because poor, black, Hispanic, urban, homeless, hungry, and other people and problems out of favor in Middle America will no longer get the favored treatment they got from mushy 1960s and 1970s Democratic liberals.”

Clinton pollster Stanley Greenberg, in an article that the American Prospect’s editors called “widely recognized for its influence on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign,” wrote that the Democratic Party had become “too identified with minorities and special interests to speak for average Americans.” Clinton thus called himself “a different kind of Democrat,” which observers interpreted to mean that he was “a centrist candidate more attuned than his predecessors to the concerns and values of the white, middle-class voters who had deserted the party.”

Clinton thus intentionally avoided paying any attention to racial injustice. In their 1992 campaign book, Putting People First, Clinton and Al Gore included only one mention of race: a criticism of racial quotas. They did feature a chapter on civil rights, but this was “mostly about people with disabilities.” As political scientist Corey Robin writes, Clinton intended to “win over white voters by declaring to the American electorate: We are not the Party of Jesse Jackson, we are not the Rainbow Coalition.

The cynical reasoning was that since black voters were hardly likely to vote Republican, but white voters were, Democrats’ political platforms should focus on issues that matter to white people. Because black voters were reliably loyal to the party (their only alternative being the party of Trent Lott, Jesse Helms, and Strom Thurmond), there was nothing to gain electorally from the pursuit of racial equality. The irony, of course, is that this meant selling out the party’s strongest supporters precisely because of their support.

A major part of the new white-focused agenda involved prioritizing the issue of crime. The crime rate in the 1980s and early 1990s was especially high, and with the devastating attack on Dukakis, Republicans had shown they could successfully capitalize on the widespread fear of crime in order to achieve political success. Clinton and the New Democrats believed that Democrats should never again cede this issue to the conservatives who had traditionally parlayed it into electoral success.

But while getting tough on inner-city criminals had always been a favorite mantra of the Right, it had also always been met with charges that by “inner-city criminals,” Republicans just meant “poor blacks.”

When Richard Nixon accepted the Republican nomination in 1968, his “law-and-order” policies were so widely seen as a euphemism for ending civil rights gains that in his convention speech he felt the need to specifically address “those who say that law and order is the code word for racism.” (Confirming nearly every word of his critics’ charges, the defense Nixon gave of “law and order” in his speech largely involved denouncing “government programs for the unemployed” and “programs for the poor.”)

Clinton’s embrace of Republican anti-crime rhetoric was therefore unprecedented, and “signaled a dramatic shift in Democratic priorities.

Previously, many Democrats had resisted pressure to placate white fears with “get tough” rhetoric. During a 1988 debate, Dukakis was asked whether he would support the death penalty even if his wife were raped and murdered. “No, I don’t,” Dukakis replied. “I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.” Dukakis received intense criticism for the response, for reasons he professed himself unable to fathom.

The previous generation of liberal politicians had been unwilling to surrender their ideological commitment to compassion, even as they paid a strong electoral price for it. The 1992 Clinton campaign jettisoned that commitment, reasoning that winning elections was more important than maintaining a purity of principle.

Some of this, however, was not simply the politically expedient discarding of liberal sympathies but reflected longstanding conservative commitments on Clinton’s part. Capital punishment in particular was not a “compromise” with the electorate, Clinton having consistently supported the death penalty throughout his career in politics.

Clinton had never commuted a death sentence while serving as Arkansas governor, and “from 1983 to 1993, he repeatedly ordered the Arkansas Department of Corrections to schedule execution dates for Arkansas death row inmates.” On Saturday Night Live, Phil Hartman’s impersonation of Clinton caricatured the governor’s over-the-top punitive stance, with Hartman’s Clinton bragging that “no state is tougher on crime. Last year we passed Florida to become #2 in executions by lethal injection, and first in crushed by heavy stones.”

The newer, tougher Clinton stance caused other Democrats to follow suit, since, as Daryl Carter explains, “Clinton actually sat at the head of the Democratic Party, thereby forcing Democrats to place crime prevention at the top of their domestic agenda.” Along with his other more conservative “New Democrat” proposals (such as ending welfare), Clinton’s raising of the crime issue would help build a Democratic-Republican consensus around a number of ideas that had previously been the sole provenance of the right.

The strategy worked, insofar as it successfully kept Clinton from being painted as a bleeding heart during the 1992 election.

As University of Texas criminologist Mark Warr noted, by positioning himself as harsher than the Republicans, Clinton “neutralized that issue in a way no Democrat has been able to do for thirty years.” After that, it simply “becomes a macho competition: Who hates criminals more?”

Upon taking office in 1993, Bill Clinton seemed determined not to let the Republicans win that competition. Once Clinton became president, passing a “crime bill” became a major Democratic priority. Clinton’s senior adviser Rahm Emanuel said in a memo that the bill would be “a vehicle to communicate to the public a set of strongly-held values that the President embraces, as well as the President’s tough stance on crime and criminals.”

The resulting bill, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, signed by Clinton in 1994, was perhaps one of the harshest laws in the history of the country. But the New Democrats embraced it as being representative of their new face. Senate majority leader George Mitchell proudly claimed the crime bill for his party. “This is a Democratic bill,” Mitchell declared. “The author of the bill is a Democrat. The principal supporter for this bill is a Democratic president.”

The crime bill overflowed with new provisions and programs. It allocated nearly $10 billion for the construction of new prisons, expanded the number of death-penalty eligible federal crimes from two to fifty-eight, eliminated a statute that prohibited the execution of mentally incapacitated defendants, created special deportation courts for noncitizens accused of “engaging in terrorist activity,” added new mechanisms for tracking sex offenders after they had served their sentences, introduced a “three strikes” law that gave mandatory life sentences for third offenses, gave $10.8 billion dollars to local police departments to hire one hundred thousand new officers, introduced “truth in sentencing” requirements and allowed children as young as thirteen to be tried as adults.

Truth in sentencing” (TIS) was a delicate political euphemism for “no more parole.” Previously, it had been customary to grant a prisoner’s release long before the end of his sentence. By the time of the crime bill, on average, people convicted of violent crimes served 55 percent of the sentences that they had been given on paper. In the new era of limitless toughness, the idea of letting murderers and members of juvenile wolfpacks out of prison early was politically toxic.

The crime bill therefore required states to enact “truth in sentencing” laws if they wanted to receive a portion of the billions earmarked for prison construction. (Evidently, states lobbied Congress heavily against the truth-in-sentencing requirement, fearing that incarcerating people for longer stretches would mean “a huge increase in the number of people in state prisons, and a huge cost in prison construction programs.”)

The degree to which the federal TIS provisions actually ended up prodding the states to become more punitive is still debated, though the Annenberg Public Policy Center concluded that the crime bill “did create incentives for states to build prisons and increase sentences, and thereby contributed to increased incarceration.”

In the aftermath of the bill, parole in the country continued to rapidly disappear. As the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) explains, by 1999, twenty-nine states had removed discretionary parole and adopted the 85 percent criterion specified by the crime bill. Eight states eliminated parole altogether the same year as the Crime Act (and by 2001, eight more had done so). As the EJI documents “[i]n return, the federal government awarded states $2.7 billion in grants to construct, expand, or renovate correctional facilities between 1996 and 2001 . . . And the tough sentencing laws states enacted in order to get those federal dollars continue to keep people in prison today.”

The Crime Control Act also took college funding away from inmates. Previously, prisoners had been able to apply for federal Pell Grants in order to cover the cost of pursuing a college degree. Clinton’s bill made prisoners ineligible for the grants, a policy that remained in place for twenty years until Barack Obama began to reverse it.

Cutting the grants was not exactly a consensus policy. Of all people, conservative Washington Post columnist George Will publicly urged caution in removing prisoner Pell Grants. Calling out “Sheriff Clinton” and a Congress full of “would-be Wyatt Earps” and their “fight-to-the-finish” against crime, Will sympathetically profiled a Maryland prisoner nicknamed Peanut who was using a Pell Grant to educate himself:

Peanut’s given name is Eugene Taylor. He has spent about half of his 42 years situated as he now is, behind bars and barbed wire, sentenced to life plus 25 years for murder and armed robbery. He dropped out of school in the 9th grade. The school, he indicates, had no strong objection. Sentimentalists who think there is no such thing as a bad boy never met Peanut in his misspent youth . . . In his well-spent years in prison he has passed the eight-hour examination for a high school equivalency certification, and using Pell grants he has taken enough courses for a community college degree. But a provision of the crime bill the Senate has passed would make prisoners ineligible for such grants, which subsidize post-secondary education for low- and moderate-income students.

Will concluded by suggesting that “Congress should consider the fact that Peanut may be at large in a few years, at which time Baltimore’s streets, which he left long ago, may be a bit safer than they would be if he had not acquired some social skills with the help of his Pell grant.” Another Post writer, liberal columnist Colman McCarthy, wrote that “[i]f calls from the Justice Department were as loud for 100,000 prison teachers as they are for 100,000 more police, a decrease in crime would be in sight.”

Even the man from whom the Pell Grant takes its name, Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, entered his vociferous objection into the Congressional Record. “We must maintain our commitment to corrections education,” Pell said. “Criminals should be sentenced and incarcerated, but let us also be concerned with their rehabilitation so that prison does not remain a revolving door.”

As the proposed cut was under discussion, a prison English instructor published an op-ed in the Baltimore Sun entitled “Cutting prison Pell Grants would be a crime,” quoting the personal pleas his students made in letters written to President Clinton:

I teach freshman English in Essex Community College’s prison program at the Maryland House of Correction in Jessup, a medium-security prison where some 156 student-inmates are enrolled in college programs out of a prison population of 1,400. Some 75 percent of the inmates lack a high school diploma, and many are functionally illiterate. Without Pell Grants to pay for student tuition and books, our two-year degree program most likely will shut down. That would leave the state’s general equivalency diploma program as the only real rehabilitation service at the overcrowded prison, known by staff and inmates as “The Cut.”

The instructor quoted letters his students had written to President Clinton. One said: “What society fails to comprehend is that prison is a college within itself, and ignorance needs no textbooks or formal teachers to promote criminal mentality.” Another inmate-student John Sipes said: “Without college, I would be entering the city streets with no job skills, and having served ten years in prison for narcotics violations, I would be at a loss. I feel I can do things on my own for the first time . . . I have gained self-respect.”

The inmates’ letters to Clinton did nothing. The president remained silent on the subject of the Pell Grant elimination, quietly signing it into law without a hint of opposition or reluctance. Their primary source of funding gone, many prison college programs quickly folded. In 1994, 71 percent of prisons had offered associate’s degree programs, while by 1998 only 37 percent did. Likewise with bachelor’s programs, which dropped from 48 percent of prisons in 1994 to 20 percent in 1998. Altogether, over 350 prison college programs disappeared in just a few years.

Among the 1994 crime bill’s many heartless initiatives, the prisoner Pell Grant elimination is perhaps comparatively among the less significant. But it stands out for its sheer pointless mean-spiritedness.

A large body of evidence shows that correctional education is not simply a handout to prisoners; because prisoners who receive education while in prison are less likely to re-offend, thus giving high school and college courses ultimately saves money for the state. An obsessively comprehensive 2014 meta-analysis from the RAND Corporation, which reviewed nearly every single study on correctional education and its effects, concluded that “we no longer need to debate whether correctional education works.” Investing in prisoner education yields considerable returns.

From a moral perspective, whether or not to distribute education should not strictly depend on whether doing so saves the government a few dollars on something else. And speaking of the “returns” and “yields” of an “investment” in prisoners implies that they are a form of capital to be maximized, rather than human beings with basic entitlements.

Making pure “cost-saving” arguments can be dangerous, because often the humane option and the cheap option are not the same; the theory of liberal arts education, to the extent that one can be discerned, is that the “life of the mind” is self-justifying, that learning should not be nakedly oriented toward preparing students to take up their place in a job market. So it may be that a program is good and necessary even though it doesn’t produce much as far as the spreadsheets are concerned.

But in this particular case, every last nickel spent on the program was likely reaping benefits in reducing crime, which usefully demonstrates that Pell Grant elimination was solely about vengefulness. Here was an efficient policy, one that even George Will recognized as being pragmatic and sensible. There was no evidence of abuse or fraud in the program. Yet “tough on crime” politicians took it away, denying prisoners the ability to rehabilitate themselves, and deliberately starving their minds for no good reason.

Today, the correctional education system is a flimsy patchwork, and for many, attaining meaningful qualifications while in prison is impossible. With a decentralized network of fifty state corrections departments, each with their own varying degree of enthusiasm for rehabilitative philosophies and practices, plus an opaque and sprawling federal system, the level of education offered is both inconsistent and arbitrary.

Jeff Smith, a former Missouri state senator who wrote a memoir after a campaign finance violation landed him in federal prison, recalls that the only actual class offered in his facility was “hydroponics.” Those inmates who had no use for learning how to “grow tomatoes in water” were left without additional options.

The elimination of prisoner Pell Grants is only a partial cause of the present state of affairs. But it did destroy a number of successful programs. With a stroke of Bill Clinton’s pen, tens of thousands of prisoners were kept from bettering themselves.

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