Remembering Another Atlanta: Gate City
By Julian Bond
Vol. 18, No. 2, 1996 pp. 22-24
“South–that part of the United States south of Mason’s and Dixon’s line, the Ohio River, and the southern boundaries of Missouri and Kansas.” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, Second Edition, G. & C. Merriam Co., 1956).
My forty-year-old dictionary gives this equally ancient definition–stark and geographical, it barely describes the South, its cultures and peoples, its peculiarities, the distinctions that made it different from the rest of the nation.
Over time, this distinctiveness has given way to the sameness that afflicts all of America–similar fast foods sold everywhere, dialects and accents disappearing, once-regional musics now enjoyed by all, and the history of racial oppression no longer a territorial taint.
But the South I returned to almost forty years ago, as a college freshman in 1957, had much to commend it. My family had lived for the first five years of my life in rural Georgia on a college campus where my father was president; as a child of the leading figure in that small world, I harbor pleasant childhood memories–a supportive cast of students, college professors and townspeople, lush orchards of juicy peaches, bright cotton fields and warm sunshine.
Now, after twelve years north of Mason’s and Dixon’s line, we were coming back.
The South we came back to had its attractions, and I was old enough to appreciate them. It was warmer than the North I left behind, and the people seemed warmer, too–their accents, white and black, were soft and pleasant, unlike the clipped speech of rural Pennsylvania; their words more welcoming because of their slowness; their smiles more eagerly produced and, seemingly, more sincerely meant.
My grade and high school years had been spent in rural Pennsylvania, and my new classmates at Morehouse College were quick to spot my Northernness–my non-Southernness.
My speech and clothing were giveaways. Coca-Cola was “pop” to them; movies were the “show.” Policemen were “po-licemen.”
No one wore the “highwater” trousers that I did.
They also quickly spotted my unfamiliarity with what made the South utterly different then from the rest of America, if you were black. They knew the racial etiquette that governed relations between the races, and while never yielding to it, felt more comfortable than I did navigating downtown Atlanta.
That whites held absolute power over Southern blacks was a given to them. It had only been a distant truth to me. That any white person could strike or kill a black person without fear of retribution became gospel in Atlanta, more real than the distant preachments of black newspapers that had come into my Pennsylvania home. Once we relocated to Atlanta, the far-away horrors they reported took on substance and encouraged me to spinelessly leave the ordinary task of buying a suit for college to my mother–surely not even the worst Klansman would dare molest her, and her cowardly son could remain at home, safe from harm.
Atlanta was then short years away from declaring itself the “City Too Busy To Hate,” its Babbitt-like explanation for the absence of violent racial conflict over the integration of a handful of black children into formerly all-white schools. It was too busy making money. It had long considered itself exceptional among Southern towns–the South had few real cities then. With Birmingham as a brutally severe example of what Atlanta was not, the city’s business community touted its airport, its many regional offices of national firms, and its benign race relations as reasons why Atlanta was different, the city never too busy to hype.
And it was.
At home, on the Morehouse College campus, and in the business blocks that boasted more wealthy black individuals than any other city, I was surrounded by women and men who gave the lie to my skewed picture of the South.
On Hunter Street–renamed Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard today–and on Auburn Avenue, black businesses abounded. A bank, insurance companies, a savings and loan, real estate companies, the country’s only daily black newspaper and only black-owned radio station, gas stations–these and other, more usual enterprises made Atlanta Booker T. Washington’s dream writ large.
(That a black man owning a gas station was remarkable demonstrates how sharply race limited black opportunity and made the smallest, most ordinary accomplishment a triumph for the whole race.)
Atlanta’s sizeable black middle class–public school teachers and administrators, professors and administrators from the four black colleges, its graduate school and collection of theological schools, doctors, dentists and lawyers, even the nation’s first black Certified Public Accountant–made Atlanta special.
Most lived on the sprawling West Side. Unlike northern ghettoes, however gilded, where blacks inherited homes whites had abandoned, many of Atlanta’s middle-class blacks lived in homes built by black contractors with black labor, sold by black realtors. And what homes!
Our out-of-town visitors in the late fifties didn’t want to see downtown and couldn’t see the present-day city’s most visited site, the Martin Luther King Center For Nonviolent Social Change; in the late 1950s, King still pastored Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. In the late fifties and early sixties, these visitors wanted to see the black homes on the West Side, with their swimming pools and multi-car garages.
Black Atlanta was a self-contained world. Unable to join white professional groups like the Atlanta Bar Association, blacks named their organizations the Gate City Teachers Association or Gate City Bar Association. If you lived in “The Gate City,” you could travel through life from birth to death without having to see anyone who lived in “Atlanta.”
Gate City could be wonderful. It had joys that made it a college student’s delight. Sweet Auburn Avenue’s nightclubs–the Auburn Avenue Casino, the Royal Peacock–presented the best in entertainment. Restaurants like Frazier’s Cafe Society and Paschal’s served the best in food.
Gate City was what sociologist Aldon Morris calls a “protest community.” It was dotted with organizations and institutions that kept alive a tradition of challenge and resistance. Walking down Auburn Avenue or Hunter Street, you could see the man or woman who had mounted
a fight against racial restrictions. It had living, breathing heroes and heroines.
From this environment Atlanta’s sit-in movement was born in 1960; Lonnie King, Jr., and Joseph Pierce, fellow students at Morehouse College, approached me in early February at an off-campus hangout, Yates and Milton’s Drug Store, to suggest we imitate a sit-in protest four North Carolina A T students had begun in Greensboro a few days before. With a how-to description of the Greensboro sit-ins printed in the Atlanta Daily World as our guide, we organized students from Clark, Morris Brown, and Spelman colleges, Atlanta University and the Interdenominational Theological Seminary, and by mid-March launched sit-ins at segregated downtown restaurants.
We knew we had borrowed inspiration and organization from the Greensboro sit-ins, but had little notion that we were building on a foundation others in Gate City had established before us. I knew my grandfather, James Bond, had been arrested in Atlanta in the early 1900s for “moving onto a white street,” but, like my comrades, had little knowledge of Gate City’s rich history of protest and rebellion that predated our 1960s action.
Daily college assemblies brought us the major black figures of the clay. We were introduced early on to the larger, current world outside the campus, but had little knowledge of the rich tradition on which we would build.
We did not know that the Atlanta NAACP, inspired by Morehouse College’s first lady, Eugenia Burns Hope, had established six-week citizenship classes to teach potential voters in 1933. We did not know that young Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. had led a 1935 march on City Hall to demand voting rights. We did know that our college campus was surrounded by slums, and those crowded projects and sloping shacks were nesting places for crimes and despair. But that world was alien to most of us then, as it is foreign to too many Atlantans today.
Our efforts were supported by many of the elders who had paved our way; by the middle 1960s, spurred by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Atlanta had become an “open city.” Racial barriers fell, and the black electorate that had moderated the city’s earlier politics became supreme.
Yesterday’s Atlanta–a mean milieu, tainted by white supremacy, rife with unfairness and inequality despite neonationalist utopian fantasies that recall a united, nurturing community–hopefully can never exist again.
Atlanta today is both product and prisoner of its past. In Race and The Shaping of Twentieth Century Atlanta, Georgia Tech history professor Ronald H. Bayor explains in detail how race shaped the city’s physical development from the Civil War through the 1980s.1
His sober study is a warning to today’s visitors, who, dazzled by skyscrapers and stadiums celebrating a succession of black mayors and enumerating the wealth of the city’s sepia millionaires, cannot see the serious problems these monuments obscure.
He writes about the history of race relations in America’s cities and its effect on Atlanta:
This legacy remains very evident in present day Atlanta. Politics, the school system, neighborhood development, highways and roads, traffic patterns, public housing placement, city service delivery and amenities, the transportation network, and employment still show signs of its impact. Racial issues, now increasingly combined with class factors, still strongly influence policy. One recent example is the dispute arising out of Olympic site development in neighborhoods that were urban renewal victims decades earlier. The mistrust of city government generated years ago has carried into present discussion of housing removal and resident relocation, even though city officials are now black.2
Gate City and Atlanta are still two different places. Atlanta has the largest percentage of poor people living in public housing of any American city except Newark, New Jersey. In spite of the electoral accomplishments of some and the enrichment of a few, most black Atlantans remain untouched by the latest in a series of New Souths.
Gate City is still barely there. Walk down Auburn Avenue. Drive out to Collier Heights. Stroll across the Morehouse Campus. Read the World or the Inquirer or the Voice. Eat at Paschal’s.
Today’s visitor ought to remember this past, while rejecting any attempt at resurrecting yesterday’s mythic organic community, where everyone had–and knew–their place. That Gate City is better left in memory. No fond nostalgia for simpler and better worlds calls for its rebirth.
Gate City and Atlanta remind us not of what we’ve lost–a wholly imagined and false romantic remembrance of a world where family values triumphed in a classless community upon which whites never intruded. That world never was. It cannot–should not–be renewed.
Instead, they remind us of how false the victories we thought we had won really were, of how little we may have actually gained.
Julian Bond is a Distinguished Professor In Residence at American University and a History Professor at the University of Virginia. He lived in Atlanta from 1957 to 1987.