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Leadership in Atlanta continues to change and evolve

SunTrust Plaza

A view of SunTrust Plaza looking through the water feature at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The Center played an important role during Super Bowl LIII (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.

woodruff foundation

Robert W. Woodruff Foundation home page

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.


Former Rich’s Department Store (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.

Turner Field

The Hank Aaron statue watches people going to the last Braves game at Turner Field on Oct. 3, 2016 (Photo by Maria Saporta)

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.

SunTrust Plaza

A view of SunTrust Plaza looking through the water feature at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. The Center played an important role during Super Bowl LIII (Photo by Kelly Jordan)

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.

Leadership Atlanta

At the 2019 Leadership Atlanta’s Power and Influence Day: Maria Saporta and former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (Photo by Meria Joel Carstarphen)

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.

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.


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  1. Faset "Bill" Seay March 26, 2019 10:40 am

    Maria, you do a fantastic job explaining out what is really going on in Atlanta as opposed to just reporting the “news du jour”. Thanks!Report

  2. ATLBooster March 26, 2019 11:46 am

    Good luck with that. Metro Atlanta is a dump and it’s the product of greed and carelessness with growth that is now exposed. The time for leadership was 30 years ago. The time now, and what is happening, is places are walling themselves off from the rot and decay here. Theyll do so by density which will cause prices to rise. By far Atlanta is the worst subnet city and will perform behind the rest going forward.Report

  3. Alexis Davis Smith March 26, 2019 11:54 am

    Maria, this is a wonderful article, providing a great historical perspective on our city. I moved here 26 years ago straight out of college so some of this I’ve witnessed but a lot, I did not know. I’m appreciative of Atlanta’s history and its ongoing progress and evolution. It is an amazing city. So thank you for teaching me a little more about the place I call home.Report

  4. Dianne Wisner March 26, 2019 1:25 pm

    Interesting observations. Some of those who led this city also helped lead the charge to change. Robert Woodruff & Ivan Allen called on community leaders to ‘show up’ for Dr. King’s celebration of being honored with the Nobel Peace Prize; the Olympics started with those same ‘white’ guys who then insured the event was a celebration that included everyone; Andrew Young led our city in attracting international business disregarding race or gender. With all of our troubles, the least is about race but, instead, about integrity, full disclosure, unselfish service, a calling to serve. These choices will lead us to be a better city, a better place to raise our family.Report

  5. Sam Williams March 26, 2019 5:22 pm


    You and Mayor Franklin give us the kind of reflection that recognizes those leaders on whose shoulders we now stand. And there will be other leaders who follow which puts a burden on us today to be mentors to explain how ATL got to be so successful. .

    I think the “old guard” made a self conscious evolution in the early 70s when they created the Atlanta Action Forum where ten white and ten black leaders met once a month. These men, there were no women, insured ATL would get through the civil rights era and have open communication. I served as the note taker for two years when I was with Research Atlanta and later sat on the Action Forum when I worked at the Portman Companies. The discussions were blunt and no issue was too sacred to put on the table. Herman Russell, Jesse Hill, Bill Calloway, C.T. Vivian and other black leaders helped the so called white establishment understand the transition to bi-racial leadership that continues today.

    Your examples of companies that have gone away or been acquired point to the evolution of our city as a global center of commerce. Atlanta Fed retired President Dennis Lockhart refers to the “creative destruction” of businesses and competitive forces that result in new enterprises and leaders that are not apparent today. This is true for political interest groups, non profits and local governments. The internet, financial markets, employee volunteers and the public demand for transparency have revolutionized the role of employers in society.

    I would advocate that the “city” has changed to a metropolis and surrounding jurisdictions must be included in these kinds of leadership decisions in the future as well as ethnic leaders and of course women.


  6. Jon Carlisle March 27, 2019 12:48 pm

    if mayor bottoms had but a smidgen of the black girl magic shirley franklin possesses (let’s resurrect the missing/murdered children case to deflect from city hall graft & corruption)…Report

    1. Chris Johnston March 29, 2019 2:00 pm

      Mayor Bottoms bears the taint of her mentor Kasim Reed. Magic is in short supply at the City of Atlanta as the chickens come home to roost and the buzzards circle.Report

  7. Robert Dinwiddie March 29, 2019 4:49 pm

    Maria,, another good article on 20th century Atlanta history. I have one observation and one question. First, my guess is that the number of power brokers in the city is about the same as in 1969, just, of course, with different names. Second, is Atlanta better “run” now than then? My guess is that it is not.Report

    1. ATLBooster March 29, 2019 10:59 pm

      Atlanta is spades richer now and much more diverse. Wait, the metro is diverse and rich and not the city. The city is exclusive of all bit one type of person and thus the metro is the dog to which is Atlanta is but a tail that thinks it’s the dog. This is why it matters not who leaas Atlanta but matters more who leads E Cobb and Gwinnett and Alpharetta.Report

  8. mary gonzalez March 30, 2019 12:40 am

    after spending hours trying. to report batch number0396340 to the coke a cola compiny because it tast like pesticids i read this we all know anything worth wild takes time. so why so down on herReport


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