Passing the Torch, Torching the Past

Passing the Torch, Torching the Past

By Barry E. Lee

Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 21-22

Known as many things since its founding in 1837–a city resurrected from the ashes of the Civil War to lead the South in commerce and industry, a city supposedly above the racial intolerance which has typified the United States, and a city poised to join the international metropolitanmetropolian [sic] ranks–Atlanta enjoys a reputation that is the cumulative handiwork of generations of local business moguls, newspaper publishers and editors, politicians, and civic boosters. One of the most extended and impressive public relations campaigns waged in this century of PR has constructed the climate that envelops the daily lives of so many greater Atlantans. With a shrinking population inside Atlanta’s city limits that is increasingly black and poor, the polishing of the metropolitan image is being taken over by movers and shakers who live in the affluent, predominantly white, suburbs to the north.

Atlanta’s advertisements for itself began in earnest in the wake of the torching given by General William T. Sherman’s troops during the Civil War. Henry Grady, part owner and managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution after 1880, set the tone of a New South intent upon the money-making potentials of reconciliation with the North. The symbol of this resurgence, the phoenix, remains attached to the city in a series of Olympic-year print and TV ads, or the iron grates of the newly rebuilt Woodruff Park.

It was the administration of Mayor William B. Hartsfield (1937-1940 and 1942-1961) that boosted Atlanta past other Deep South cities. In the wake of the 1946 Supreme Court decision declaring white primaries unconstitutional, Hartsfield combined a liberal rapprochement with such Atlanta black leaders as Grace Towns Hamilton, A. T. Walden, and Warren Cockran with a campaign for increased business investment and infrastructure improvement. By the 1950s Atlanta was the leading commercial and industrial city in the South.

By the 1960s, nearly one hundred years had been invested in grooming Atlanta’s image, but the agitation for social and political equality by African Americans threatened the luster. While cities like Birmingham, Montgomery and Jackson, Mississippi revealed themselves as havens of racial violence, Atlanta worked to camouflage its underlying tensions. This effort was personified in 1961 when Mayor Hartsfield reiterated the phrase he had coined, a phrase which had become the city’s manufactured hallmark for race relations. In announcing an end to the boycott of downtown businesses and lunch counters on March 7, 1961, Hartsfield concluded that the agreement proved once again that “This city is too busy to hate.” When the South was exploding with racial violence, a powerful biracial coalition of elites had formed for the explicit purpose of keeping the peace.

In 1970, the Journal-Constitution published a special Sunday supplement entitled “Amazing Atlanta, 1960-1970,” celebrating the “the psychology of success.” A year earlier, National Geographic had featured an essay “Atlanta, Pacesetter City of the South.” So grew the image of Atlanta as a city booming with economic growth, groomed by progressive leadership, and stabilized by social and racial harmony.

The African American leaders certainly held up their end of the bargain. According to Austin Ford, a local Episcopal priest and community activist at the time, “there was a triumvirate of blacks who ran things. It was Sam Williams, and Jesse Hill, and Leroy Johnson. You know, Martin Luther King, Jr., never had a SCLC chapter here during his lifetime. The establishment just was not going to have Atlanta disrupted if they could help it.”

Anyone living in Atlanta (luring the modern Civil Rights Movement knows that the city was racially polarized. This was particularly evident during the battle to desegregate the public schools. During the fifteen-year struggle, which officially ended in 1973 with drafting of a compromise agreement, African American students never achieved more than token desegregation of a few formerly all-white schools. By the time the desegregation suit was settled, white flight had rendered desegregation a moot point.

Urban renewal became a buzzword in the 1960s, and the new mayor elected in 1961, Ivan Allen, Jr., was determined to maintain Atlanta’s progressive profile. Allen used federal urban renewal dollars to “stop the spread of urban blight” by demolishing what was labeled dirty, filthy, substandard, overcrowded slums to make room for new development. During this period, more than 67,000 people were displaced from predominantly African American communities–such as Buttermilk Bottom and Summerhill–which were poor, yet stable, to make way for “civic improvements” better known as Interstate Connector (I 75/85), the Civic Center, and the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Reflecting the city’s changed demographics, Maynard H. Jackson became Atlanta’s first African American mayor in 1973. He arrived as downtown began to fade as Atlanta’s center of commerce and trade. With the support of white business elites, Jackson pursued the construction of several new buildings–Peachtree Center, the Hyatt Regency, the Westin Peachtree Plaza, the Omni complex and the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC).

Peachtree Center, created by developer John Portman, was billed as the “Rockefeller Center South.” By the early 1980s, Atlanta boasted of great convention facilities, abundant hotel space, Southern hospitality, a first-rate airport, boundless shopping and good restaurants.

During the 1988 Democratic National Convention, Atlanta appeared clean and prosperous, thanks to a sweep of the homeless off downtown streets. While many large urban centers with African American mayors were crumbling, Atlanta seemed to thrive.

The world travels of Andrew Young, known as an absentee mayor during his tenure in office from 1982 to 1989 , paid off in 1991 when the city was named host for the 1996 Olympic Games. Young’s reputation with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) combined with the energy of former University of Georgia football player-turned-lawyer Billy Payne to advance Atlanta’s bid.

Given his involvement in the civil rights movement, his ties to the King family, and his international visibility, Young was the ideal spokesperson. Atlanta portrayed itself as the embodiment of civil rights and American justice.

As the Games begin and the city’s homeless are swept out of view, beneath the surface of what is now generations of image building, not only is the city’s infrastructure crumbling–with many bridges and sewer lines in need of repair and replacement–but unaddressed realities of class and racial division threaten sooner or later to collapse the happy scene.

Barry E. Lee is a graduate student in the Women’s Studies Institute at Georgia State University