By Maria Saporta
The city of Atlanta is facing a “Birmingham moment,” Mayor Kasim Reed told the Bultler Street YMCA’s Hungry Club Forum today.
“There’s a new day in Atlanta,” Reed said. “Atlanta is at a new Birmingham moment, a 2010 Birmingham moment.”
Then he explained that in the 1960s, Birmingham was the dominant city in the Southeast with a “robust steel industry.” But it elected a self-proclaimed racist, George Wallace, as governor; and Birmingham’s police chief Bull Connor became a national symbol of bigotry.
Reed said that by comparison, Georgia elected a moderate, Carl Sanders as governor; and Atlanta elected Ivan Allen Jr. as mayor. Allen “risked his career” when he went to testify in Washington, D.C. in support of the Civil Rights Act, the only elected official from the South to do so.
Because Atlanta became a symbol of the New South, companies decided to ”invest in Atlanta and Georgia because we worked harder at inclusion,” Reed said.
That led to metro Atlanta’s rapid growth while Birmingham remained stagnant.
“When you’re in Birmingham right now all the signs point to Atlanta,” Reed said.
Then Reed went on to explain why Atlanta is in its own Birmingham moment, but he said that today’s issue is not race.
“The new issues that face us today, that jeopardize our city today as the dominant city in the Southeast, is transportation, education, water and the arts,” Reed said. “Charlotte has its eye on our position.”
Atlanta is getting left behind. North Carolina was part of $1.5 billion in a high speed rail service from Charlotte toward Washington, D.C.; and Florida also received nearly $1.5 billion for a high speed rail project. All Georgia received was a $750,000 high speed rail planning grant that needs a local match.
“This can not stand,” Reed said, adding that he hopes the city and the state will be able to enact a “cease fire” and start working together to make sure that people in Atlanta and Georgia don’t continue to lose out.
Given the city’s financial situation, Reed said he does not plan to initiate major new projects while he’s mayor.
Instead, he wants to be known as “a person who came in at a very difficult time and set the city on a sound financial footing.”
He went on to say: “I want a well-run city that meets its obligations where I keep the people safe every single night. I don’t believe we are in a space to have a big view. Atlanta needs to close things out.
“You won’t hear a lot of new initiatives from me,” Reed continued. “I want to do a small number of things very well. I will remain committed to the Beltline and to arts organizations and try to pass dedicated funding. We are going to build the Center for Civil and Human Rights. I will be the person who gets the done. None of these are initiatives of my own.”
Reed received some of his warmest applause when he talked about wanting to spread the city’s business to many small businesses. For example, when the city issued another $1.6 billion in bonds for Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Reed said that ever firm that entered a bid got work.
During the campaign, Reed said one of the refrains he kept hearing was that the same people got all the work time and time again. He assured the audience that he would spread the city’s business.
The mayor now has been in office for less than 70 days. After having heard him speak in dozens of forums during the campaign and after he was elected mayor, Reed is becoming a more forceful and comfortable speaker who is able to connect with audiences all over the city.