By Guest Columnist REV. JOSEPH LOWERY, a Civil Rights leader and former president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

We have come so far in this country in our efforts to bring forth harmony among all people – black and white, conservative and liberal, Democrat and Republican.

We have made great strides on so many issues when we have worked together for the common good.

In the South, and in our own city of Atlanta, we have emerged from the dark days of racial division that preceded the Civil Rights movement. Here, in Atlanta, we collectively made a conscious decision to usher in a movement of progress and prosperity for all in building a global mega- region.

Atlanta became the city “too busy to hate” by focusing on economic development that fostered the principles of equity, inclusion and diversity. Our community leaders brought together a coalition of black and white leaders to the table. They worked in a spirit of inclusion and transparency.

Rev. Joseph Lowery

It was this foundation that allowed us to be chosen many years later as the host city for the 1996 Olympic Games.

However, I am troubled now that the Atlanta region – which has traveled so far together – is on the verge of squandering our future progress and prosperity over an issue that should see no boundaries: Transportation.

Unlike many other social issues that have often divided us, the need for safe, reliable and affordable transportation is truly universal. Unfortunately, I fear that divisions are being unnecessarily created over an opportunity to improve transportation that should benefit us all.

The Atlanta region is now at a crossroads. The Transportation Investment Act of 2010 passed by state lawmakers presents us with a critical choice: Will metro Atlanta approve a penny sales tax referendum to finance major transportation improvements across the 10-county region?

How we answer that question when the vote is held next July will show the rest of the nation – and the world – whether we are still “too busy to hate.” First, however, we must bring everyone to the table before decisions are made to ensure a diversity of views and opinions are represented.

The best and only way for the voters of this region to have full confidence in the process leading to next year’s referendum vote is to guarantee they have a genuine stake in the outcome of decisions that are being made.

But so far, we’ve gotten off to a rocky start.

The first serious misstep was the treatment of MARTA in the legislation. As it stands now, the law explicitly states that MARTA cannot use any of the funds the sales tax would generate to pay for operations of its existing system.

As you know, the citizens of DeKalb, Fulton and the City of Atlanta have been paying a penny to support MARTA for more than 30 years. If the referendum passes, those citizens would wind up paying two pennies for transportation while most of the other metro counties would pay only one.

Unless the law is changed, this will place an unfair burden on those who have made great sacrifices to fund MARTA, which is an asset to the entire region.

If we truly wanted to start out on a level playing field, MARTA would be free to manage its own finances, and the citizens of the other eight counties in the region would be willing partners to help support MARTA.

Lawmakers should have used this referendum as a way to right the wrongs of our past in this state by demanding equity for MARTA and, by extension, those who had the foresight and courage to make it a crown jewel of transit.

The second misstep was the selection process for the Executive Committee of the Regional Roundtable, the group of elected officials charged with selecting projects to be funded by the new sales tax.

Originally, the committee was composed of all white men, mostly from the suburbs. This glaring imbalance prompted Rep. David Ralston, Speaker of the state House of Representatives, to intervene and request that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed be added to the executive committee.

The painful truth is that Ralston, a white Republican from the north Georgia mountains, should not have been involved in such a local issue.

It’s also telling that other committee members failed to recognize that they did not reflect the region’s diverse demographics. It certainly was obvious to many average citizens in Fulton, DeKalb or the City of Atlanta, who collectively represent 40 percent of the vote within the 10-county region.

A similar misstep was brought to light by Mayor Reed last month. During a meeting of the Regional Roundtable, Reed pointed out that a team of consultants selected to manage the $5 million referendum campaign is also exclusively composed of white men.

It is my understanding that proposals for this critical work were received from several credible firms with diverse teams, teams that would have been representative of the entire community.

As has happened too often in the past, those firms were not selected.

We know better, so now, we must do better. We should be wise enough to avoid these divisive situations. The governor or the speaker should not have to rescue us from ourselves every time we make a mockery of this public process.

If we continue on this current path, this referendum that would mean a renaissance for the Atlanta region – a new birth for the city that has risen like a phoenix so many times before – will fail.

Instead, we must build coalitions to ensure that diversity and inclusion are the first considerations for all decision-making, so that the voters – all of them – can trust that this process has been an honest and straightforward one.

If it isn’t, this referendum, and our hopes for a better transportation future, will have been in vain.

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  1. Why does Joseph Lowery always cast every issue in terms of race? Because, if your only tool is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.

  2. “The painful truth is that Ralston, a white Republican from the north Georgia mountains, should not have been involved in such a local issue.”

    I sincerely love and greatly respect and admire the Reverend Joseph Lowery alot for all of the work he has done in the civil rights movement, but dude, what in the heck are you talking about with this statement? David Ralston, the STATE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE, shouldn’t be involved with a “local” issue that involves AT LEAST 10 different counties in what is unarguably the most important REGION of the STATE. After all of these many years of the state being almost totally and completely disengaged and even uninterested in the issue of transportation mobility in the Atlanta Region, the honorable Rev. Lowery is advocating that the state not be involved yet again because the Speaker is a white Republican from Blue Ridge.

    HELLO! Last I saw, white Republicans were a major part of the population of Metro Atlanta, along with, of course, Black Democrats, so it made sense that Speaker Ralston would intervene because as a high-ranking state political leader, he knows that alot is at stake for the the entire state concerning the issue of transportation.

    Rev. Lowery did make some good points about having a more inclusionary process and moving towards tweaking the tax proposal so that it would be much more appealing to Fulton and DeKalb voters whom already pay a one-cent sales tax to fund MARTA.

    Though, one very significant thing to keep-in-mind is that proposals to make much-needed improvements to transit are not necessarily that hard of a sell to black (and white) Democrats or much anyone of either or any political persuasion who resides in Fulton and DeKalb Counties as much as is the current proposal to have those residents pay an additional cent that may not fully fund improvements in their counties on top of the one-cent that they’re already paying for MARTA while everyone else will only pay one-cent.

    The hardest sale is to get conservative white Republicans in outlying counties like Cobb, Gwinnett and ESPECIALLY Fayette and Cherokee Counties who are philosophically opposed to both tax increases and mass transit to support a new sales tax to fund mass transit extensions into their communities.

    Should the leaders of this undertaking and consultants to this process be more reflective of the increasing and overwhelming diversity of the Atlanta Region? Why, of course, they should, but we also need to keep-in-mind that conservative suburban and exurban white Republicans are the group that is the most skeptical about transit and will need the most persuasion if this thing is to have the support it needs to pass in the outer counties.

    Suburbanites and exurbanites led by white conservatives may be completely turned-off to a transportation tax proposal that is heavy on transit if they come to perceive is that this thing is being led primarily by black, liberal intown Democrats with an agenda that is completely counter to theirs

    The 40% of voters in Fulton and DeKalb Counties need alot less convincing about the importance of transit to the Atlanta Region than the 60% of voters in the other eight counties in the region that will also be voting on this thing.

  3. I respectfully disagree. The process reflects issues already infused into transportation spending. I don’t believe you can shame out a substantially better arrangement, and I doubt the city will be reborn by paving the way for metro commuters and accelerating our maintenance cost problem. A ‘no thanks’ vote may prove to be the better route.

  4. I too have a great deal of respect for Reverent Lowry and Mayor Reed, but I think their opionon on this matter are way off base. The committee that hired the company to run the TIA campaign is a diverse group that includes Aftican Americans among others. They collectively dedided on the best team for the job. I guess the problem here is that the committee was color blind and simply hired the best team for the job (and the team is diverse, only the four that met with the mayor were white and therefore did not meet his standards). To suggest that a different team should have been chosen based on the color of their skin is the purist definition of racism. To suggest that we are no longer a city “too busy to hate” implies that hate was involved in this decsion and that is reckless, irresponsible and wrong.

  5. I have exactly the same fears for Metro Atlanta as Dr. Lowery. One need only to look at cities who were on top of the world at the beginning of the 20th Century such as St. Louis, to see that success in one century does not guarantee that it continues. I fear that not only has Atlanta outlived it’s phenomenal success as the “city to busy to hate,” but our Nation is becoming more hateful as more and more wealth is concentrated at the very top of society. The very richest people in Atlanta and in America do not need anything to be “public” so as their taxes get lower, all of the rest of society has to contend with a lower standard of living. I am glad I will not be here at the end of the 21st Century because I fear that Atlanta and the United States of America will be “also rans”
    Winston Johnson

  6. The Rev. Lowery is right: We have a diverse region with varying and often conflicting interests, and if we want to move the transportation initiative forward we will need the capability to appeal to all of those interests. None of Lowery’s critics would hire him to sell the penny sales tax to North metro Republicans. Why, then, do they believe white Republicans can effectively sell African American communities on the project? Or do the votes of African Americans not count, since the referendum is being held (by design) during a Republican primary for president? If the approach is that black folks’ votes don’t matter in this referendum, don’t bother wasting $5 million on a campaign. The initiative will suffocate from its own political cynicism — and the anti-tax tea-partiers will finish it off and bury it dead.

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