“Atlanta: A Crossroad”
November 29th, 2017
Since the 1970’s, the city of Atlanta has frequently been referred to as the “black mecca” of the south, a term referring primarily to the economic possibilities for African Americans in the largest city in Georgia. These possibilities are often considered more abundant in Atlanta compared to the rest of the south. Atlanta is also well known for its history in the Civil Rights movement, as the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the founding of many historically black colleges and universities. Despite all of the progress, Atlanta also continues to be a hub for racism as evidenced by discriminatory housing policies and policing practices. Atlanta’s racism is not solely a modern issue; it can be traced back to the era of slavery with massive plantations and monuments to confederate soldiers. The historic and contemporary advantages for African Americans in Atlanta are starkly contrasted with the modern and historic examples of racism. This culminates in a confusing crossroad of ideals in Atlanta’s collective memory. The recent erection of a statue honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. within site of Confederate memorials on the grounds of the state capitol is an apt metaphor for the conflict.
The Black Mecca
Atlanta is an economic haven for African Americans living in the south. This relative economic safety has lead to Atlanta being referred to as “the black mecca.” The economic prosperity is only greater enhanced by the abundance of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), which can be found throughout the city. These colleges were originally
created because African Americans were not permitted to attend most colleges in the United States, due to segregation. In response, some African Americans created their own colleges. Many of these have survived into the modern era and are now thriving centers of higher education which promote the cultural and economic empowerment of African American citizens. “Because of the very nature of their founding, one of the main contributions of HBCUs, whether intentionally or not, has been to culturally empower individuals of the African American community” (Freeman).
As early as the 1960’s, Atlanta was branded as the “city too busy to hate,” because, despite being deep in the heart of the Jim Crow segregationist south, Atlanta has always been far more progressive than many other southern cities in the region. According to Michael J. Klarman, a Law professor at the University of Virginia, in “… 1948, blacks were casting 40% of
the total vote in Atlanta elections” (1994). As well as being ahead of many other southern cities in voting rights, Atlanta was also ahead in organizations designed to protect the rights of African Americans, such as the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching which was created almost three decades before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was also born in Atlanta. The latter was imperative in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. These organizations promoted awareness and protections of African American citizens while neighboring states and the so-called “Dixiecrats” were fighting to keep Harry Truman off the ballot because of his support of the civil rights platform (Buchanan).
Atlanta is simultaneously the “city too busy to hate” and the “black mecca” while also influencing the Civil Rights Movement. The culmination of these two ideals can be seen by the construction of a statue to memorialize civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on the grounds of the state capitol. This statue glorifies the leader of the Civil Rights Movement by
immortalizing him and, because of its location, adds respect and shows the pride Atlanta has in its historical and modern examples of tolerance and acceptance.
Atlanta’s Racist Roots Grow Deep
Despite evidence of the “city too busy to hate,” Atlanta has not been able to totally shed its southern, racist roots. Though there are many examples throughout Atlanta’s history of it being a town ahead of its time, there are equally as many which tell of its similarity to the rest of Southern society. Standing in front of the newest statue on the capitol grounds one could see monuments, similarly erected, to glorify leaders not of civil rights but of oppression. The statues include one dedicated to Richard B. Russell. Russell who was a state legislator. It is said that he was merely a state’s right’s activist however, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he once wrote a constituent saying, “I believe that the Negro is entitled to equal and exact justice before the law and that he is entitled to every right that I enjoy. There is nothing in our Constitution … however, that says we must enjoy these rights together at the same time and in the same place” (PHOTOS: Controversial Georgia State Capitol statues). And if the continued celebration of a man who would write these things to a voter were not enough evidence, the incessant justification for the preservation of the monument at Stone Mountain should be. The monument is “…an enormous hunk of rock [which] looms over the countryside. Over 800 feet tall and a mile and a half wide…that depicts three legendary leaders of the Confederacy – Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis — all astride horses, each holding a hat over his heart” (Engebretson), a testament the Atlanta’s racist roots.
It could be reasonably said that these monuments are not acceptable arguments of Atlanta as a town embedded with racism due to their age, however there are plenty of modern examples which show the inherent racism. In what should have been a routine traffic stop in July, 2016, a
suspect began telling an officer she was about to reach for her cell phone but was afraid of what may happen due to recent new coverage. To this, the officer, Lt. Greg Abbott, a 28 year veteran of the police force responded, “But you’re not black. Remember, we only shoot black people” (Lutz). Certainly one racist police officer is not an indicator of an entire system of institutionalized racism. However, when the same police force, Cobb County, was analyzed by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, they concluded, “Cobb County police must acknowledge and address public perceptions of racism and discriminatory policing…” (Lutz). While these are examples of overt racism, there are more subtle versions which are ingrained throughout the city’s culture. These less obvious examples include housing policies which are supporters of modern segregation. A federal study conducted in 1979 found “ …white applicants in Atlanta were given preferential treatment in 45 percent of rental apartment complexes tested…” and “[a]s recently as the year 2000, Americans of color suffered an estimated two million instances of such discrimination a year” (Lasner).
Atlanta celebrated the creation of the King statue, with state representative Calvin Smyre stating, “The King statue will inspire and give hope to generations to come” (Kaufman). More than 800 people attended the dedication of the on August 28, 2017 including many Atlanta dignitaries (Associated Press). On the opposite side of the building sits a statue depicting John B. Gordon. Gordon was vehemently opposed to the civil rights Dr. King was fighting so hard to gain (Groce). In 1903, Gordon published a memoir titled “Reminiscences of the Civil War” in which he overdramatized his role as a leader of the confederacy and advocated for the “old south.” This “old south” ideal is one which Dr. King would spend much of his life attempting to breakdown.
The “city too busy to hate” commissioned a statue meant to immortalize one of America’s greatest civil rights leaders on the same land as a similar immortalization of a man- John B. Gordon- who was “[g]enerally acknowledged as the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia…” (Groce) in walking distance. The city’s ideals are at war with each other, a man who dreamed of the future and a man stuck in a misremembered past, separated by nothing but a building, in the middle of Atlanta.
The “city too busy to hate” also seems too busy to bandage its old wounds and heal those it mistreated. Atlanta’s gallimaufry of economic and educational advantages for African Americans is paralleled by its institutional racism and virtual apotheosis of violent oppressors. The city’s multitude of historically black colleges and universities provide educational opportunities that are found in very few other southern cities. Even before the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Atlanta had a black voter turnout of 40%. Yet, despite these advantages, the town glorifies leaders which would oppress and abuse a significant portion of its citizens. In the modern era, it does not want those same citizens to have an opportunity to desegregate nor does it want to put policies in place which protect these citizens from those who are supposed to protect them. Atlanta is working with two opposing forces, progress and pride, and hatred and discrimination. These ideals could not be better exemplified than by the statue erected on the land of the state capitol building. The King statue will be a lasting tribute forever glorifying the civil rights leader. Yet, its location and proximity to similar leaders on the opposite side of the spectrum clearly demonstrate Atlanta’s dichotomous attitudes toward race. This juxtaposition provides a collision of ideals in Atlanta’s collective memory. This statue is an example of Atlanta’s progress and yet it’s neighbors are an example of how far Atlanta must still go.
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