By Guest Columnist CEASAR MITCHELL, president of the Atlanta City Council and practicing attorney with the global law firm of DLA Piper
At exactly 3 p.m. on last Wednesday Aug. 28th, millions joined in bell ringing ceremonies in Washington D.C. and other cities, towns and hamlets around the globe. This ceremony coincided with the beginning of the “I Have a Dream” speech delivered by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the 1963 March on Washington.
Inspired by the clarion call of Dr. King’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, I hosted a bell ringing ceremony at Atlanta City Hall. This ceremony attracted a diverse array of Atlantans including civic leaders, business people, foreign consuls, community advocates and other electeds who joined with members of the Atlanta City Council and other city employees to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.
The occasion created an opportunity for us to pause and reflect on the past, celebrate the moment, and consider the prospects for the future. For me, as a native Atlantan, whose parents were both teenagers in 1963, this occasion provided the impetus for me to consider what their world was like back then.
As president of the City Council, it also made me ponder how much things have changed. As a husband and a father of two beautiful girls, I was further compelled to muse both the glorious promise and daunting challenges facing our nation in the days ahead. The stark contrasts between our promise and our challenges are perhaps nowhere else more profound than in Atlanta.
It is without debate that Atlanta is a special and unique place. No other city has the legacy of so many leaders and events that profoundly shaped the direction of the Civil Rights Movement which dismantled the legal and legislative barriers that denied African-Americans basic human dignity and unfettered access to economic opportunity.
While other southern cities struggled in building coalitions to grapple with the moral contradiction of Jim Crow segregation, forward thinking Atlantans understood the connectivity between social equality and economic progress. Our ability to come together and build consensus around this promise in a challenging time provides a clue into our city’s success. It also has been instructive for me as a son of this city who envisions Atlanta to be the best place in the world to live, learn, labor and love.
Atlanta’s promise is captured in our distinct characteristics. Our climate and geographical location on the map makes us not only a focal point in the Southeast, but a strategic global hub for activity – a fact bolstered by our airport, three intersecting interstate highways and a commercial seaport within 3 hours of our doorstep.
We are home to several fortune 500 companies, numerous foreign consulates and many world class institutions of higher education. We have three major league sports teams, a thriving entertainment and film industry and consistently remain a top ten city for convention and tourism.
This collection of civic assets are to be envied by any city. But for a city founded on a rail tie in the middle of a hilly forest hundreds of miles from the sea and with no significantly navigable body of water or impressive snowcapped mountain vistas, these attributes suggest our most impressive asset of all – our people and the tenacious “can do,” “let’s go together” spirit we possess.
It is that indomitable spirit that is at the heart of our promise as a community and puts us in the “Goldie lock” zone for creating a world class city. All of our major strides have been born out of coalitions of equal partners created to rally around a vision or cause. Government, business, neighborhoods and philanthropy have never done it alone. Whether it was MARTA, the Olympics, the airport or the BeltLine project, a coalition of stakeholders were at the table. Achieving our future potential will take each of these stakeholders working together in a spirit of respect, inclusion and collaboration.
The perennial challenges we face as a community, whether self-inflicted or exposed and even exploited by others, are real.
For example, the recent article in the New York Times which cited our barriers to income mobility actually issued us a challenge. But as others assess and even judge us, we have the demonstrated capacity to answer the call of any challenge. We never stop at hurdles, explain away our problems or defend the status quo.
Our history reveals that with our capacity for respectful and inclusive collaboration, coupled with our aspirational spirit, we have masterfully transformed our challenges, and critiques of such, into marvelous opportunities to thrust Atlanta forward.
Our ability to seize these opportunities and capture the promise of Atlanta’s future rests in our willingness to weave the principles of the beloved community and the prosperous community into one harmonious and indistinguishable tapestry.
Toward that end, may Dr. King’s seminal plea for unity and inclusiveness on that sweltering August day in 1963 serve as our guide:
“They have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny…They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead…I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together…”
This is Our Atlanta.