By Maria Saporta
In the 1960s, a small group of about a dozen white businessmen held a tight grip on power in Atlanta.
That group included Robert Woodruff of the Coca-Cola Co., the top Atlanta bankers of the day – Mills B. Lane of Citizens & Southern; Billy Sterne from Trust Company Bank; James D. Robinson Jr. of First National Bank; Jack Tarver of the Atlanta Journal and the Atlanta Constitution; Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. (who ran the office supply business started by his father); Larry Gellerstedt Jr. of Beers Construction; the top executives of Southern Bell, Georgia Power, Atlanta Gas Light among others.
Neither women nor blacks nor ethnic leaders had seats at the power table. They were relegated to being on the outside looking in. Fortunately, Atlanta had amazing leaders outside the room – Benjamin Mays, Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, Andrew and Jean Young, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, Xernona Clayton, Marie Dodd, Vernon Jordan, Julian Bond, Jesse Hill and Herman Russell – to name a few.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and I made a joint presentation on the evolution of power in Atlanta from the 1960s to the present at last week’s “Power and Influence Day” for the current Leadership Atlanta class.
While I was preparing for that presentation, it really hit home that nearly all of the institutions with key seats at the power table in the 1960s have either disappeared or are a shadow of their former selves.
Rich’s – once Atlanta’s flagship department store – is no more.
The announced merger of SunTrust with BB&T, coupled with the news that the combined bank will be based in Charlotte, N.C., is just the latest casualty of the old Atlanta power structure.
It is the last of Atlanta’s key legacy banks to exit from the scene. In 1985, First Atlanta merged with Wachovia, and the bank’s headquarters gravitated to Winston-Salem, N.C. And in 1992, C&S Bank was acquired by NCNB – initially renamed NationsBank and later Bank of America – with its headquarters in Charlotte.
Today, the Atlanta Newspapers (as they were called) are not the force they once were when Ralph McGill, the editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, set a tone of tolerance for the city. And our daily newspaper (now merged into one) is no longer even based in within the Atlanta city limits.
The Ivan Allen Co. was acquired by Staples. The phone company was acquired in a series of several transactions, and it is now owned by Dallas-based AT&T. Beers Construction was sold. In 2016, Georgia Power acquired Atlanta Gas Light, then one of the oldest companies operating in the state.
And the Coca-Cola Co. no longer holds the kind of sway it once did.
Back in 1990, Raymond Riddle – then the CEO of First Atlanta and the incoming chair of Metro Atlanta Chamber – told me something I’ve never forgotten.
“Nothing happens in this town without it first going by North Avenue,” he told me in explaining how things got done in the city. He was referring to the importance of going by Coca-Cola’s headquarters on North Avenue to get the blessing from the top executives of the day – Roberto Goizueta and Don Keough (as well as Ingrid Saunders Jones, who was the community liaison and managed the company’s philanthropic efforts).
Although Coca-Cola continues to be a vital corporate citizen in Atlanta, it no longer is necessary to go by North Avenue to get a project or initiative blessed by the company’s executives.
Over the decades, new players have come on the scene. Turner Broadcasting System became an exciting media, entertainment and sports company and the first broadcaster in the world to introduce the concept of 24-hour cable news – CNN. Under the visionary leadership of Ted Turner, it also owned the Atlanta Hawks, the Atlanta Braves, TNT, the SuperStation, Turner Classic Movies, the Cartoon Channel and numerous other entities – all based in Atlanta.
That center of gravity changed when Time Warner bought Turner Broadcasting. Still Atlanta continued to serve as a key center for Turner Broadcasting’s operations and earnings. The latest wrinkle, however, is that now AT&T is acquiring Time Warner (including Turner Broadcasting), and it is planning to dismantle anything and everything that used to carry the Turner name.
This follows the sale of the Atlanta Braves and the subsequent move of the baseball team from Turner Field to Cobb County’s SunTrust Park. Of course Turner Field has been rebranded into Georgia State University’s football stadium. And who knows what SunTrust Park will be called when the Atlanta bank becomes part of the North Carolina bank and gets a new name.
Thankfully, in the last three or four decades, Atlanta has witnessed the growth, relocation and launch of a number of key corporate players – Delta Air Lines, UPS and the Home Depot, to name a few.
But power has changed. It has become much more dispersed and fragmented over the decades. Business leaders who used to spend their entire professional careers in Atlanta are now more transient and globally focused.
On the other hand, other institutions have become even more important as we have tried to rebuild our leadership infrastructure. Our foundations have become the backbone of our town – including the Robert W. Woodruff Foundation, the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, the Marcus Foundation, the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and the James M. Cox Foundation – to name some of the major ones.
And then there are the numerous nonprofit organizations that serve as the glue in our town – United Way, Metro Atlanta Chamber, Atlanta Committee for Progress, the Atlanta Regional Commission, Central Atlanta Progress, Buckhead Coalition, Buckhead Community Improvement District Midtown Alliance, Westside Future Fund, Junior Achievement, Junior League, the Atlanta Board of Education, the Atlanta Police Foundation, Park Pride, Atlanta Bicycle Coalition, PEDs, Urban Land Institute, Southface, Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership, Atlanta BeltLine, PATH, Woodruff Arts Center as well as hundreds of other organizations and institutions that keep Atlanta moving forward.
As Atlanta evolves, it is natural that our leaders will also change. Our metro area has continued to grow with an ever-increasing number of local governments that make up our fragmented region. Metro Atlanta is no longer just a profile of black and white, but one that has become much more diverse with growing Asian and Latino populations.
Mayor Franklin and I did not spend enough time talking to the Leadership Atlanta class about today’s leaders and the challenges we face in creating consensus and a grand vision for our region.
But I hope we communicated that today’s leadership landscape is much more complex and textured.
While we should all be thankful that Atlanta’s table of power is no longer a dozen white guys calling all the shots, it would serve us well to develop and identify the up-and-coming leaders who can pull our region together.