Remembering when Atlanta stood for something — hoping we will again

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta. We used to stand for something.

When other cities in the South were being torn apart by hatred and racism, Atlanta emerged as a city of tolerance, pragmatism and good will.

The willingness of the community’s leaders to gracefully change from a segregated city to an integrated city helped give Atlanta an aura of progress and patience — a reputation that served it well as it grew from a small Southern town to a metropolis.

What set Atlanta apart was its leaders — people who provided inspirational and aspirational leadership for a city that always wanted to enter an international stage.

While working on my Masters degree in urban studies from Georgia State University in 1980, I began to appreciate and understand the influential role that the Atlanta business and civic communities have played in leading the city with vision and with heart.

That education provided me an excellent foundation throughout my career as a business and civic journalist covering metro Atlanta. A collection of amazing people set Atlanta apart from the rest of the South — setting a tone of a community that was “Too Busy to Hate,” and a community that instinctively knew that its progressive stance would lead to economic prosperity.

Over the past three decades as a reporter covering movers and shakers in the city, I was able to see first-hand what special visionaries we’ve had over the years.

Thanks largely to these leaders — Atlanta used to stand for something.

Atlanta stood as the open-minded city in the South — a city that believed in equality, opportunity, integration, human rights and civil rights — and a city that earned its international recognition for being a tolerant and progressive place.

Atlanta’s leaders had big dreams — a rail transit system, an international airport with connections to cities around the world, professional sports teams, a 24-hour cable news channel, universities conducting cutting-edge research and the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Atlanta has had a host of renowned architects, developers and business leaders — from John Portman, Tom Cousins, Larry Gellerstedt to Herman Russell — people who built a city for the present and the future.

Atlanta used to stand for something. We had brave voices — from Henry Grady to Ralph McGill, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Ivan Allen Jr., from Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young to Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, from Ann Cox Chambers to Ted Turner and Jane Fonda to Robert Woodruff and Roberto Goizueta, from Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank to Bill Bolling and Shirley Franklin.

These leaders believed we could become the city we dreamed of — a city that welcomed the future and inspired the world.

We stood for something. We weren’t stuck in politically correct messages of mush — the pro versus con, liberal versus conservative mindset. We had loud, clear voices that changed people’s hearts and minds for the greater good. In the words for Ivan Allen Jr., we believed in a “Platform for Progress.”

Today, we need to remember what we stood for. For starters, we need to fully build out the winning design for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights — an edifice that can help us recapture our place as an international leader in non-violent social change.

We also need to embrace our unique role as a center for global and public health. We are a city with institutions and leaders who can help eradicate diseases around the world. We are a city that can help improve the quality of life of the billions of people who are less fortunate than us.

It was no accident that Bono, the lead singer of U2, challenged Atlanta leaders at the King Center’s Salute to Greatness dinner in 2004 to expand its messages of civil and human rights to communities around the globe.

At home, we need to complete the original vision for MARTA by developing a sustainable regional transit system that brings our metro area together. Remember that our city leaders in the 1960s knew that we would never be a world-class city without a world-class transit system. It’s time for us to implement that grand plan.

And we need to create more beautiful places where we want to live and work — a walkable city with healthy trees, lively parks complete with multi-use trails — a city of strong neighborhoods with great cultural institutions.

We can not let ourselves be dragged down by divisive social issues that tear us apart rather than bring us together.

We can not roll up the welcome mat with anti-immigration laws pushed by people with narrow agendas —at the same time that our state leaders hope to attract international investment and trade.

Atlanta needs to welcome the world by forging multi-cultural and multi-racial partnerships that can help heal the sick, feed the poor and house the homeless while nurturing our soul.

Yes, Atlanta. We used to stand for something.

Let us stand for something again.

Note to readers: This column was based on a talk that I gave on Tuesday, May 8 when I was inducted into Georgia State University’s Business Hall of Fame. The J. Mack Robinson College of Business has inducted 75 people — some of Atlanta’s greatest leaders — into its Hall over the last 28 years. For more information on the Hall of Fame, please go to: www. robinson.gsu.edu

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.

12 replies
  1. ScottNAtlanta says:

    Maria, I dont think Atlanta is lacking for vision or great leaders.  What we are lacking are partners at the the State house who feel the need to micromanage every detail they can.  When you have people like Jan Jones pushing to split Fulton so the wealth in the north is siphoned off from the rest of Fulton/Atlanta, when you have Chip Rogers trying to define broadband as basically dial up and removing local control because ALEC handed him a piece of legislation with a 5,000 check, when you have a Lt. Governor is is more interested in petty intra-party score settling than removing the 50/50 barrier to MARTA funding use…what can you do???  These people are not elected by Atlanta, yet they control most of what we can achieve.  They even screw us when we try to go it alone by meddling.  Something needs to change or all the vision in the world wont matter if its killed by the state over ideology and faux factsReport

    Reply
  2. Question Man says:

    Why are aiming so low? Why not encourage our Mayor to lead on issues such as gay marriage, rather than allowing him simply to become a voice to handicap elections? A City that respects and protects its heritage, rather than tearing down its historic buildings? A City that protects and conserves public spaces, rather than steadily converting the nicest ones into nifty places for special interests? A government that listens to and solicits the opinions of all residents, rather than relying mostly on those in the right circles? Report

    Reply
  3. Burroughston Broch says:

    @ScottNAtlanta
    The cities in North Fulton are sick and tired of being milked by Fulton County to subsidize the City of Atlanta and unincorporated south Fulton County. They were together 83% of the population of the City of Atlanta in 2010 and will surpass the City in 2020. The Fulton County Commissioners and their friends at Atlanta City Hall have only themselves to blame for this situation. Jan Jones is not a legislator with a vendetta – she is a legislator responding to her constituent’s desires.
     Report

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    • ScottNAtlanta says:

       @Burroughston Broch Ok then everyone affected by the change should vote on it…I agree that the Fulton Co. commission is scum, but thats why you VOTE and have representation, and the State has the power to downsize the Fulton County Commission which would be too easy wouldn’t it. Then you cant take the money and run.  As I recall the city subsidized the northern parts of the county for quite some time.  The wealth in the north is a fairly recent thing (as in last 20-30yrs).  As for vendetta…proof is in the legislation.  She wrecked the whole MARTA deal 2 yrs ago with “poison pill” additions so spare me the Jan Jones is lovely crap.  She is more to blame because she is in a leadership position.  Leaders lead…and there is responsibility to ALL of the citizens when you place yourself in that role  Sometimes you have to consider the State and health of the region…and thats exactly the problem and whats missing with things now…A bunch of people whining “where’s mine” at the expense of what is needed to make everyone prosper…its called visionReport

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      • Burroughston Broch says:

         @ScottNAtlanta  @Burroughston Broch Why should the residents of Atlanta and unincorporated South Fulton have a say in continuing the present practices? Of course they want the status quo continued.
         
        As for Atlanta subsidizing North Fulton, the subsidy (if you can call such a pittance a subsidy with a straight face) was until 1970, or 39 years after the 1931 merger of Milton County into Fulton County. It is now 42 years since 1970, so North Fulton has been subsidizing Atlanta and South Fulton for longer than it was subsidized. Compare the South Fulton subsidies of today with the North Fulton subsidies of 40-50 years ago and you will find that South Fulton is by far getting the sweeter deal.
         
        Jan Jones is leading, but you don’t like the direction. Too bad for you. And what she is leading toward will have no effect on the State and health of the region, so spare us the tears.Report

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        • andrieumoray says:

           @Burroughston Broch Wow, such mass generalizations of the entire Atlanta city community.  I think that first paragraph simply reduces your credibility. Midtown and Buckhead are part of Atlanta too, and we are working hard to bring Atlanta to the next level. There would be no North Fulton if there was no Atlanta. You want to use our infrastructure during the day and on weekends but you dont want to foot the bill. Its pathetic.Report

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        • Burroughston Broch says:

           @andrieumoray You seem to think that everyone in Metro Atlanta comes to the City to work and to play. You are dead wrong. The City has only 8% of the population and 9% of the jobs in Metro Atlanta. 91% of the population of Metro Atlanta works outside the City and doesn’t use “your infrastructure” during the week. Most of the 92% of the population of Metro Atlanta rarely comes to Atlanta on the weekends, and rarely uses “your infrastructure” then.
           
          It is debatable whether there would be a North Fulton without Atlanta being first established, but that is idle talk and irrelevant to today. North Fulton has been milked for decades to subsidize Atlanta and South Fulton. If there had been no North Fulton to pay an outsized share of the cost of Atlanta and South Fulton, both would be in a much worse condition than they are today.
           
          I’ll worry about my credibility and you worry about yours. Yours looks pretty shabby and discredited to me.Report

          Reply
  4. Atlanta Native says:

    As an Atlanta native who has witnessed its growth, I see the city and much of the metro area – including surrounding counties and all the new city fiefdoms – as awash in money-grubbing bureaucrats and overcome by greed, justified as “in the best interests of the people”. Every time you turn around, another politico-corporate fat-cat is found with dirty hands and flithy ties to anything other than the true interests of what is right and just. Shortsighted thinking and self-interest amongst our leaders has transformed what could have been a great city, a city of inclusion, a city of trees, a city of high-spirited vitality and culture, into a hotbed of ignorance. The cheating scandal of the APS is a microcosm of the mindset of too many government leaders.Report

    Reply
  5. yourkidding says:

    Atlanta Native:  you nailed it!  We now only stand for government corruption.  In the County I live in we have seen commissioners cousins get millions dollars for simply putting a water line thru there cow pasture.  We have seen Splost money buy buildings that should be torn down under the lie that it will save taxpayers money.  This buildings are in such bad shape that the good old boys will milk them form millions in fixing the horrific problems at the same time we lay off county workers and do furloughs with lost benefits.  I could go on and on and on and I know that my fellow Georgians are seeing the same thing all over the state…..
    And the government covers up for their own………..there is never justice for taxpayers.
    So get real Maria!!!!   Are you that lacking in what is going on?
    And TSPLOST will be a historical boondoggle…………….no one believes government serves anyone but themseleves.
    And there is no way to change this corruption as many has tried.  Media goes along with it or is to lazy to expose it.Report

    Reply

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