By Maria Saporta
It was one of the most inspirational moments in Atlanta’s history.
Sixteen years ago, when Atlanta was hosting the 1996 Summer Olympic Games, tragedy struck. In the wee morning hours of July 27, a bomb went off in Centennial Olympic Park — killing two people and injuring countless others.
July 27 just happened to have been the day 16 years later that London held its opening ceremony of its Summer Olympic Games. The energy and excitement surrounding the 2012 London Games brought back memories of similar feelings during 1996 Atlanta’s Games — that lasted from July 19 to Aug. 4.
The bombing was a devastating experience — a sad, brutal event that marred what had been a festive occasion — a concert in Atlanta’s newest urban park during the city’s 17 days in the international sun.
Three days later — on July 30, 1996 — Atlanta responded in its characteristic way — as a city rising from the ashes.
It was on that day that Atlanta reopened Centennial Olympic Park in a ceremony that reaffirmed the city’s belief in the human spirit and the power of good over evil.
The man of the hour was former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young — co-chair of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who also was serving as chair of the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
Throughout his life, Young has given hundreds of incredible speeches — all with his own special brand of wisdom and optimism in people, nations and our economic system.
But of all the great speeches I’ve heard Young give over the years, the reopening of Centennial Olympic Park was the best. (See full text below).
Young was able to transform a horrible sequence of events into an uplifting opportunity to show what kind of city we were — an international city that was like a phoenix, a city that could find a common bond in all the highest ideals of the Olympics and humanity.
When Atlanta — led by spokesman Andrew Young — met with members of the International Olympic Committee, the message was that Atlanta was a beacon for human and civil rights – a city that could show the world how people could work out their differences for the public good.
All those thoughts came back to me on Saturday, July 28 when a host of Atlanta’s leaders returned to Centennial Olympic Park — this time to hold a rally supporting the regional transportation referendum.
Young had been scheduled to come to the very park he had reopened 16 years ago. But after attending two funerals in as many days and given the temperature hovering in the mid-90s, the former mayor was unable to come.
So it was current Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed who remembered the dreamers of yesteryear. He asked the crowd to pause for a moment and look around at Centennial Olympic Park and the impact it has had on downtown.
It was a group of dreamers who developed the park and brought the Olympics to Atlanta — people who had been laughed at and ridiculed for their far-fetched ideas.
“What are we going to say we did when it was our time,” Reed asked the crowd. “What did we do in our time? I want to be able to say that when it was on the line, where were you? You were at the rally today that led to the movement that led to a vote to change the region forever.”
Then Reed told the crowd: “We are going to win this thing. You are going to remember this day… This is our generation’s moment.”
While this generation’s moment is still being written, it gives me comfort to remember how Atlanta — through the words of Andrew Young on that glorious Tuesday morning in 1996 — shined brightly after a period of darkness.
Thanks to the Federal Document Clearing House, here is the full text of Andrew Young’s speech given at the reopening of Centennial Olympic Park on Tuesday, July 30, 1996
We are here to proclaim a victory. We are here not to wallow in tragedy, but to celebrate a triumph, a triumph of the human spirit. We are here to remember the lives of Alice Hawthorne and Melih Uzunyol. Two wonderful citizens one from America and one from Turkey, who sought to come here to celebrate with 197 nations of the world — the possibilities of this planet living together into the 21st century, with a new measure of peace and prosperity.
We are here because the 111 victims of a tragic and ruthless incident lay in the hospital. And as Jesse Jackson and I visited with them on yesterday, we did not find a single proclamation of despair. We didn’t see a single incident of resentment. If there ever was a triumph of the human spirit it was in the young people from Georgia, from Connecticut, from Kentucky, from England, from all over the world who were there victims of this incident. Who were only looking forward to getting on with their lives, and many of them hoping to get out of the hospital in time to get back to the games.
We are here because the athletes said that they had not come — except to compete peacefully on the fields of athletic endeavor. And indeed we have seen that we have seen some remarkable triumphs, from young and old, from one part of the world and the other, seeking to celebrate their triumph over their own minds and bodies and spirits, representing the best that their nations and this planet can put forward.
So we are here on what will be a memorable occasion. Indeed, it will be an unforgettable occasion. It’s unfortunate that our lives are too often defined by the tragedies and suffering that we experience. And yet it’s because those tragedies and those sufferings have often been the incidents which bring us to our senses and remind us who we really are.
Yes, we enjoy the frivolity we loved this park. We still love this park. We will love this park on into the future.
This has been in every sense of the word a people’s park. You didn’t have to have a ticket to come here. You could meet with all of the people from all over the world. And all of the people from all over the world came to this park. And more than a million people enjoyed this park in the days that it was open. And we didn’t have a single incident, a single fight, people didn’t even get too drunk.
We learned to celebrate the joy of humanity. And we learned that we were brothers and sisters regardless of our race, regardless of our religion, regardless of our national origin.
And unfortunately, some people felt like they didn’t belong. Like they weren’t invited, but the whole world was welcome here. And the whole world remains welcome here, and we want everybody to know that there’s no need in being alienated from that loving community.
There is nothing that keeps you out except an unwillingness to open your heart, and open your mind to the love and fellowship that this planet offers to all of its citizens.
Unfortunately, had it not been for the tragedy of Saturday morning, we — all of us — might have taken this joy for granted.
We are the privileged of the world. We are the brightest and best of all of the nations on the face of the earth. And we come together in peace because we know an enormous level of prosperity.
And we might not have taken account and given thanks for all of our blessings we may have taken them for granted had it not been for this, what we felt to be needless, certainly unearned suffering. But Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us that unearned suffering is always redemption.
There is no religion on the face of the earth that doesn’t give recognition to the power of the suffering servant. To the need for renunciation of the things of this world. That you might be lifted up into a new power of the human spirit of a divine spirit that really is the basis of our unity.
And so we say to those who suffered here, that we assure you that your suffering is not in vain. We assure you that we the children of the world will learn new lessons from this experience. And we are sure that the 21st century will remember the joy, the wonderful, the celebration, vitality of the people of the earth gathered in this park. And that we will define the future, not hatred, not bitterness, not alienation, but joy, happiness.
The celebration that we see here this morning, we have been wonderfully blessed by our presence together. I don’t know what the future holds. But I know you represent the future. You are the people of the future. The people…can solve all of the problems of the planet together and we have no need for hatred and violence.
We love you. We thank you. God bless you.