Atlanta and the Powers That Be

Save
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.''

Advertisement

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.''

Advertisement

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.

Advertisement

''Reed is interesting in that he is new school/old school,'' says the longtime Atlanta political observer. "He is a child of Southwest Atlanta, a Howard Law School grad, and former state senator who seems to cast his lot with a traditional Atlanta black political power base rather than some new biracial coalition, with the exception of gays.

''The same thing could be said of Ceasar C. Mitchell, the 40-ish city council president,'' the observer continues. ''It seems that the return of Buckhead's political clout to match its unparalleled financial power might have been a better story if the white woman had won. When she didn't, nobody seems to have explained why and what it means for the future of the black Mecca.''

Advertisement

While racial politics is still very much alive in Atlanta, it seems like both the city's black and white leaders believe that maintaining good relations between whites, who make up about 38 percent of the population, and blacks, who comprise about 58 percent according to 2007 Census data, is critical to the overall image and success of the city. Consequently, both groups continue to embrace the post-civil rights era, ''city too busy to hate'' mantra.

According to Forbes, Buckhead is home to the ninth-wealthiest zip code (30327) in the nation and the only one in the Southeast to make the magazine's top 10 list; Internet sites such CityData report the area has an average household income of $340,000 in 2008. Its real estate market, which includes the governor's mansion, has an average detached home value of over $1.2 million.

Advertisement

Meanwhile, demographics for the entire city paint another picture. CityData reports Atlanta's 2008 average household income, Buckhead included, is only $48,865 and the average detached home value is $254,600.

Following the tumultuous civil rights movement, Atlanta business, political and development leaders got wise and drew up a blueprint for transitioning Atlanta into the Mecca it is today. Leaders learned the hard way that Dixie racism makes national headlines and hurts tourism, development and property values—in all parts of the city. Thus, Atlantans from all racial backgrounds are ''on the same page'' when it comes to economic prosperity for the city, influential residents say.

Advertisement

The result has been a sometimes uneasy partnership between black political clout and white financial power that has helped Atlanta move closer to its goal of becoming a world-class city. That partnership brought Atlanta the nation's busiest airport when Hartsfield was constructed during Maynard Jackson's tenure. It helped the ATL host the 1988 Democratic National Convention, the 2000 Super Bowl, the 1996 Olympics and many more lucrative business conventions and civic events.

''Atlanta benefited more than any other city in the history of the Olympics,'' A.D. Frazier, the chief operating officer for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, told the Chicago Tribune last year. ''Afterward, we had no debt and we left behind a legacy of privately funded structures the city would not have seen otherwise.''

Advertisement

''Winning the games is the most uplifting, prideful, beat-on-your-chest moment Atlantans ever experienced,'' said Payne, whose bronze statue stands in Centennial Park. ''If you win a Super Bowl and a World Series and multiply it by 100, that is the passion and pride you feel about the opportunity to welcome the world to your community.''

None of it would have happened if the city's black political leaders and white financial power brokers had not learned to share power and work together for the common good of the city.

Advertisement

Rev. Eric Thomas, a 43-year-old Atlanta native who placed third out of seven in a 1998 race for a state representative seat that Mayor Reed won, said Buckhead cooperates with influential south side leaders because they know it is best for the city.

''I think whites on the north side of the city work on consensus,'' said Thomas, a Baptist pastor who was among the first wave of African Americans to integrate the Buckhead's elite Woodward Academy in the 1970s. ''They know that when Atlanta looks good, Buckhead looks good, too.''

Advertisement

Massell, himself a sign of Southern progress when he was elected the first Jewish mayor of Atlanta in 1969, agrees.

''We know it is important to us that Atlanta as a whole be strong and have a positive image. So on the one hand, we will compete with midtown and downtown, but we also cooperate, and we have mutual interests,'' he says.

Advertisement

Case in point: Lolita Browning Jackson, a southwest side resident and the first African-American president-elect of the Buckhead Business Association.

Like many younger black professionals in Atlanta, Jackson says she is just as concerned about Buckhead as she is about southwest Atlanta. In her current position, she has quite a bit of power already as the person in charge of recruiting speakers such as Mayor Reed for the group's Thursday morning meetings.

Advertisement

''I think the regions surrounding Atlanta are just as powerful as Atlanta,'' Browning, a Georgia Power manager, said after a recent association meeting. ''We are a diverse region in many ways … Leadership and power comes from all over the city.''

Sylvester Monroe has lived in Atlanta three different times, as acting Atlanta bureau chief for TIME from 1994-95, as TIME's South Bureau Chief from 1997 -2000 and as Sunday National Editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution from 2004-2006.

Advertisement

Janita Poe contributed additional reporting from Atlanta.

DISCUSSION