By Maria Saporta
Atlanta really does have a great story to tell.
And it is a story that needs to be told for the sake of Atlantans and outsiders alike for generations to come.
That point was brought home to me over the weekend when I finished reading Frederick Allen’s 1996 book: “Atlanta Rising: The Invention of an International City 1946-1996.”
The book has been part of my collection of books about Atlanta — some read, some not yet — that I’ve been holding on to for that elusive period when I’ll have time to leisurely consume the information on their pages.
Atlanta Rising, written by my journalistic colleague, recounts stories of Atlanta’s past from the early days of Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, to the tumultuous transition from segregation to integration to the evolution of the small Southern town into a cosmopolitan city that culminated with the hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.
But it’s the stories of leaders that stand out. No one is portrayed as a saint or as a villain — but more as an honest mixture of people trying to navigate a city in changing times.
Rather than a simplistic tale of an Atlanta that had it all figured out when the rest of the South was resisting integration, the book reveals the complexities of the day. It tracks how leaders evolved as the times evolved — changing from a “separate but equal” mindset to one that accepted an integrated society.
I guess the word that struck me the most while reading the book was “texture.” The fabric of Atlanta was intricate and varied, yet somehow the city was able to keep its most extreme forces — on both sides — in check.
An example was Lester Maddox. When I was growing up, there was no greater arch enemy of progress in race relations than Maddox. It was something my family witnessed first-hand. We lived only a few blocks away from the Pickrick, Maddox’s restaurant.
One night when we were driving home, a black car screeched out in front of us and we were soon surrounded by angry men carrying axe handles and baseball bats chasing after the car. A couple of African-Americans had had the guts to try to get a meal at the Pickrick.
Our worst fears came true when Maddox became governor in 1967 (after one of the more sordid tales of Georgia election politics). And yet, Maddox surprised many of us when he appointed blacks to local draft boards and to the State Patrol.
“He even supported legislation aimed at preventing cross-burnings by the Klan, a stance that brought him a public rebuke from Klan leader Calvin Craig,” Allen wrote.
But it was the stories of Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.; Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill; Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson; and Jimmy Carter, who ran for governor as a “redneck” and was closely aligned with Maddox but who took office “vowing to be a ‘New South’ governor dedicated to progress.”
Allen recalled that at his inauguration, Carter said: “ I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.” According to Allen, that statement left “many of the people who voted for him flabbergasted.”
There are so many stories of how Atlanta avoided the fate of other Southern cities that fought integration and showed the underbelly of human nature. A common theme was that Atlanta business leaders saw the economic pitfalls of discord and the economic opportunity of creating a place of relative racial harmony.
It certainly helped that Atlanta had also attracted the best minds and hearts of the Civil Rights movement — including Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Xernona Clayton and so many others.
Given that Atlanta has such a great story to tell, I must tell you that I was disappointed when given a preview of the exhibits that will be on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights — which is set to open near Centennial Olympic Park in 2014.
While the Center will have areas where Atlantans will be featured, there is no set exhibit that will tell the Atlanta story.
I have long advocated for a civil and human rights attraction in downtown Atlanta — not only to tell of the remarkable tales of both movements, but as a way to help remind Atlanta of our unique place in history.
It does seem to me that there’s a missed opportunity for Atlanta and for Georgia if the center does not highlight Atlanta’s story — in how it has helped frame our nation’s efforts for human and civil rights.
More importantly, such an exhibit should invite visitors from around the world to experience the very places where history was made — from the Atlanta University Center (and the historic, but now vacant Paschal’s restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) to the King Center and the Carter Center.
As I said earlier, we have a great story to tell. What a shame it would be if we didn’t share that story with the world.