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