Atlanta and the Powers That Be

In the second installment of a three-part series, The Root takes a look at who's really got the power in this Southern city that's allegedly too busy to hate.

Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed (Getty Images)
Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed (Getty Images)

When I moved from Los Angeles to Atlanta in 1994, a good friend and colleague told me that I would love the city. ”You’re going to love it here,” he said. ”Just remember one thing. When you leave [the city limits of] Atlanta, you’re in Georgia.”

He was right on both counts. I did love Atlanta, and even in 1994, a black person living there would recognize a noticeable difference between life inside and outside the city’s perimeter. In fact, like an urban oasis in the middle of a desert of racial segregation and sometimes open intolerance, Atlanta has spawned or attracted some of the nation’s best and brightest African-American talent in practically every field. Civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Julian Bond; Hollywood and hip-hop superstars Tyler Perry, Ludacris and Outkast; and former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield are but a few who have called Atlanta home at one time or another.

But while young, gifted and black talent thrives in Atlanta like practically no other city in the country, some question whether African Americans really run Atlanta. Even after electing five consecutive African-American mayors since 1974, the question still lingers: Do Atlanta’s black elected officials, including the current city council president, merely control the hole in the donut–with real power emanating from the bank accounts of Atlanta’s white power establishment in the city’s exclusive Buckhead community?

While mundane city laws and day-to-day management decisions–such as trash-collection plans and park-enhancement projects–are made downtown, the voices of wealthy, white north side power brokers, many of whom live in Buckhead, cannot be ignored.

”The African-American community definitely manages the politics of our city, the city of Atlanta proper,” says Sam ”the mayor of Buckhead” Massell, the last white mayor of Atlanta since Maynard Jackson was elected in 1974. ”But much of the finances, I would say, are still with the whites.”

According to Massell, an Atlanta native and co-founder of the influential, predominantly white Buckhead Coalition, Buckhead is only 15 percent of the city’s population but 45 percent of the ad valorem taxes. ”If we pulled out of Atlanta,” we would bankrupt Atlanta” Massell says.

Still, a closer look at Atlanta’s political history suggests that Buckhead’s deep pockets do not translate into pure political power. If it did, none of the city’s five black mayors could have been elected because none of them, including Maynard Jackson, ever had the full backing of Buckhead power brokers. The last mayor to carry Buckhead was Massell, who in his losing bid for reelection against Jackson in 1973, launched a billboard campaign that proclaimed: ”Atlanta is too young to die.” That prompted a scathing editorial reply from Hal Gulliver, then editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: ”Sam’s Issue: Niggers.”

Black mayors from Jackson to Shirley Franklin won with a combination of black middle-class votes, at least 20-25 percent of the white progressive/gay vote and just about 100 percent support of the working-poor blacks, according to a longtime political observer who has covered Atlanta politics since the 1970s. ”The housing project tenant association presidents were some of the most politically astute people in town,” says a longtime political observer who has covered Atlanta politics since the 1970’s. ”Maynard et al. courted them because they got their vote out, and when the races were tight and the in-town Atlanta boxes were counted late on election night, they always carried the day for the black candidates, especially the ones locked in interracial contests.”

That model changed after nearly all of Atlanta’s in-town public housing was razed and replaced by new market-rate housing drawing white buyers, while the poor blacks and working poor were forced out of the city. Recent stories in the New York Times and elsewhere about the increasing white population in Atlanta prompted speculation that Franklin would be the last black mayor. But Kasim Reed’s upset election earlier this year overturned conventional wisdom that had all but predicted Mary Norwood, the white candidate, would win because of the changing demographics–especially after she and Reed were forced into a run-off.