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Charleston, S.C. today offers Atlanta a vision of its former self

Charleston Charleston, S.C. - a classic Southern city that is ready to embrace the future (Photo by Maria Saporta)

By Maria Saporta

I’m in awe of how Charleston, S.C. has responded to one of the worst crimes of hate and racism that the South has experienced in decades.

Instead of responding with hate, violence and vindictiveness, the fine people of Charleston responded with grace, forgiveness, tolerance and a belief in the ultimate good in the human race.

What was most amazing was how unified Charleston – and even most of South Carolina – appeared to be.

There was the emotional strength and inner beauty of the families of the nine black victims gunned down by a 21-year-old white racist in the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Family members told the gunman – Dylann Storm Roof – they forgave him.


Charleston, S.C. – a classic Southern city that is ready to embrace the future (Photo by Maria Saporta)

Black and white leaders in Charleston were united in their condemnation of that hateful act of violence and came together wanting to fight injustice using the warm weapon of love to overpower the evil of violence.

“A hateful person came to this community with some crazy idea he’d be able to divide, but all he did was unite us and make us love each other even more,” said Joe Riley, Charleston’s beloved mayor for more than 39 years.

The enlightened and empathetic leadership reached the highest office in South Carolina. Republican Gov. Nikki Haley initial reaction came from the heart – sharing her feelings from a mother’s perspective.

“My children saw what true faith looks like,” she said. “My children saw that true hate can never, never triumph over true love. My children saw the heart and soul of South Carolina start to mend.”

A few days later, Haley and South Carolina’s two U.S. senators called for removing the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds.

“Today, we are here in a moment of unity in our state, without ill will, to say it is time to move the flag from the Capitol grounds,” Haley said.

A day later, state Sen. Paul Thurmond, the son of segregationist Strom Thurmond, stood on the floor the South Carolina Senate making a compelling plea to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol.

Scott Smith

T. Scott Smith, the South Carolina developer who is buying Underground Atlanta, is proud of his state’s leadership (Photo by Maria Saporta)

“I am proud to be on the right side of history regarding the removal of this symbol of racism and bigotry from the statehouse,” the younger Thurmond said.

Even U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a conservative candidate for president, joined the chorus to remove the Confederate flag.

All of a sudden, Charleston and South Carolina reminded me of Atlanta and Georgia during the 1960s. That’s when Ivan Allen Jr. was Atlanta’s mayor; Carl Sanders was Georgia’s governor; and when Civil Rights Movement was blossoming with the visionary leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., Benjamin Mays, C.T. Vivian, William Holmes Borders, Helen Bullard, Vernon Jordan, Ralph McGill, Xernona Clayton and so many other provided a beacon of sanity in the South.

In many ways, during these past 12 days, South Carolina has taken the mantel of progressive leadership in the South away from Georgia. Nationally the messages that have spread from Charleston have put the beautiful Southern city on a new plateau of progress.

Scott Smith, who lives in north Charleston, has felt great pride in how his city and state have responded.

“Between Mayor Riley and our African-American citizens, the leadership that came out of Charleston was just outstanding – beginning with the families,” said Smith, CEO of WRS Inc., which is redeveloping Underground Atlanta. “The entire Charleston area became one, and then South Carolina became one. Now it seems as though the whole South is becoming one.”

Smith did credit Mayor Riley for having set a tone of tolerance in Charleston over the past four decades. Riley’s style of leadership has been to listen and work with diverse constituencies and give everyone a seat at the table – hoping to reach a community consensus on city issues.

Riley, who is not running for re-election this year, had not expected such a tragedy to interrupt his last year in office. He has had a “to do” list of what he wants to accomplish before he leaves City Hall.

Mayor Joe Riley

Charleston Mayor Joe Riley was in Atlanta in January as part of a GSU real estate alumni program. Had the good fortune to moderate the event (Photo: Special from GSU)

Top on his list is to build an International African American Museum.

“We are making great progress with out museum,” Riley wrote me in an email on June 3. “The design work continues. It will be a beautiful and very inspirational building. The museum will not just focus on the period of enslavement but will seek to present a comprehensive story, obviously condensed, of African American history beginning with the communities in Africa where the Africans were captured, and continuing up to present time.”

Forty percent of all the slaves entering the United States came through Charleston. Juxtapose that with the events of this past week when our nation’s first black president gave the eulogy at the service of the slain pastor Clementa Pinckney. The respected leader also was serving as a state Senator when he was killed.

Because all the state legislators knew him, now the surprise would be if two-thirds of them did not vote to remove the Confederate flag from the Capitol’s grounds.

Timing is everything.

Just ask former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who said he has no regrets that he changed the state flag during his first term as governor – even if it may have contributed to him being a one-term governor.

“Leadership matters,” said Barnes, remembering a conversation he once had with the late U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell about Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

“They are there waiting for a crisis – to arise with leadership,” Barnes said, adding that Gov. Haley did just that.

Site Selection state ranking

Site Selection’s 2015 State Rankings based on 2014 data (Special: Site Selection magazine)

“In my opinion, she’s going to be on the national Republican ticket next year,” Barnes predicted.

Most importantly, the messages I heard loud and clear all week was: “Love wins over hate.” “Open hearts triumph over closed minds.”

As proud as I was by South Carolina, I found myself worried about Georgia – a state that used to hold the moral high ground in our region.

Both Site Selection magazine and CNBC released their ranks of top states to do business. In both, Georgia fell from the top spot to No. 10 and No. 5 respectively.

Why did we slip backwards?

Among the issues that were cited included the continuing legislative battle over the religious freedom bill, the refusal to expand Medicaid and provide insurance to the uninsured, and short-sighted immigration policies that are unfriendly for global businesses.

If Georgia wants to compete in the future, it can look back to the 1960s when Atlanta and the state stood above the fray of hate by embracing everyone.

Or we can look to South Carolina, and learn.

When love overpowers hate, we all win.

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.



  1. scfranklin June 30, 2015 9:43 am


    I, too, marvel  at the compassionate leadership we witnessed in South Carolina. Thanks for this post.Report

  2. JaniceLMathis June 30, 2015 9:56 am

    Governor Haley’s reaction evolved over the week following the Charleston massacre.  Her initial statement indicated, “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another.”  Roof was absolutely clear about his motive – racial hatred.   By week’s end (after seeing the families forgive and getting calls from Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney and Jesse Jackson among others) she was shedding tears of grief, calling for the death penalty and removal of the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds. I commend her ability to adapt and hope the lesson learned is lasting.https://www.facebook.com/NikkiHaley/posts/10153009278423226LikeLikehttps://www.facebook.com/NikkiHaley/posts/10153009278423226Report

  3. Tom Eblen June 30, 2015 10:01 am

    Well done, Maria.Report

  4. John R Naugle June 30, 2015 11:32 am

    Maria, your articles are always inspiring, informative and calling us to higher ground. In your final words, I see your adaptation of Jimi Hendrix’s great quote: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” Thanks also for referencing a couple of Georgia’s challenges. You stated:

    “… Site Selection magazine and CNBC released their ranks of top states to do business. Georgia fell from the top spot to No. 10 and No. 5 respectively. Why did we slip backwards? Among the issues that were cited included the continuing legislative battle over the religious freedom bill, the refusal to expand Medicaid and provide insurance to the uninsured, and short-sighted immigration policies that are unfriendly for global businesses. If Georgia wants to compete in the future…”

    Maria, as “Georgia: The Peace State” (our organization’s brand) finds better ways to count its greatest blessing; being the birth-state of Dr. King, one of human history’s most globally-respected peace builders, then it will come into its own. As many know, Dr. King’s service and civic-action example has inspired transformation in millions worldwide. One may easily see his and Gandhi’s immense beneficent “touch” (affect) upon “the world’s largest movement”… as described in this VERY FAVORITE speech by Paul Hawken:


    Also, Gandhi’s & King’s phenomenal influence upon the birth of the Peace Millennium can be seen within these words of activist Tom Hurley who stated: “We live in extraordinary times. Around the world we face systemic and deep-seated challenges in virtually every field. At the same time, in part because of these challenges, we are coming to see ourselves, one another, and our home planet in new ways. We have an unprecedented opportunity to realize age-old dreams of abundance and create our institutions in the service of all humanity and life.”Report

  5. BPJ July 2, 2015 12:25 pm

    Good column, and I too admire Charleston’s response under Mayor Riley. However, I don’t buy the part about Atlanta’s “former self”, or South Carolina taking progressive leadership in the South. I believe their policies on Medicaid or immigration are no more progressive than Georgia’s. South Carolina is like what Georgia would be without Atlanta (Charleston’s Georgia counterpart being Savannah). Yes, Atlanta was progressive in the 60s and has remained so, but while we voted for Ivan Allen as mayor over Lester Maddox, Maddox became governor. Atlanta remains the South’s progressive capitol by any measure – let’s not ignore that.Report


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