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Maria's Metro

With such a great story to tell, Atlanta should share its tale with the world

By Maria Saporta

Atlanta really does have a great story to tell.

And it is a story that needs to be told for the sake of Atlantans and outsiders alike for generations to come.

That point was brought home to me over the weekend when I finished reading Frederick Allen’s 1996 book: “Atlanta Rising: The Invention of an International City 1946-1996.”

The book has been part of my collection of books about Atlanta — some read, some not yet — that I’ve been holding on to for that elusive period when I’ll have time to leisurely consume the information on their pages.

Atlanta Rising, written by my journalistic colleague, recounts stories of Atlanta’s past from the early days of Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, to the tumultuous transition from segregation to integration to the evolution of the small Southern town into a cosmopolitan city that culminated with the hosting of the 1996 Summer Olympic Games.

But it’s the stories of leaders that stand out. No one is portrayed as a saint or as a villain — but more as an honest mixture of people trying to navigate a city in changing times.

Rather than a simplistic tale of an Atlanta that had it all figured out when the rest of the South was resisting integration, the book reveals the complexities of the day. It tracks how leaders evolved as the times evolved — changing from a “separate but equal” mindset to one that accepted an integrated society.

I guess the word that struck me the most while reading the book was “texture.” The fabric of Atlanta was intricate and varied, yet somehow the city was able to keep its most extreme forces — on both sides — in check.

An example was Lester Maddox. When I was growing up, there was no greater arch enemy of progress in race relations than Maddox. It was something my family witnessed first-hand. We lived only a few blocks away from the Pickrick, Maddox’s restaurant.

One night when we were driving home, a black car screeched out in front of us and we were soon surrounded by angry men carrying axe handles and baseball bats chasing after the car. A couple of African-Americans had had the guts to try to get a meal at the Pickrick.

Our worst fears came true when Maddox became governor in 1967 (after one of the more sordid tales of Georgia election politics). And yet, Maddox surprised many of us when he appointed blacks to local draft boards and to the State Patrol.

“He even supported legislation aimed at preventing cross-burnings by the Klan, a stance that brought him a public rebuke from Klan leader Calvin Craig,” Allen wrote.

But it was the stories of Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr.; Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill; Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson; and Jimmy Carter, who ran for governor as a “redneck” and was closely aligned with Maddox but who took office “vowing to be a ‘New South’ governor dedicated to progress.”

Allen recalled that at his inauguration, Carter said: “ I say to you quite frankly that the time for racial discrimination is over.” According to Allen, that statement left “many of the people who voted for him flabbergasted.”

There are so many stories of how Atlanta avoided the fate of other Southern cities that fought integration and showed the underbelly of human nature. A common theme was that Atlanta business leaders saw the economic pitfalls of discord and the economic opportunity of creating a place of relative racial harmony.

It certainly helped that Atlanta had also attracted the best minds and hearts of the Civil Rights movement — including Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Xernona Clayton and so many others.

Given that Atlanta has such a great story to tell, I must tell you that I was disappointed when given a preview of the exhibits that will be on display at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights — which is set to open near Centennial Olympic Park in 2014.

While the Center will have areas where Atlantans will be featured, there is no set exhibit that will tell the Atlanta story.

I have long advocated for a civil and human rights attraction in downtown Atlanta — not only to tell of the remarkable tales of both movements, but as a way to help remind Atlanta of our unique place in history.

It does seem to me that there’s a missed opportunity for Atlanta and for Georgia if the center does not highlight Atlanta’s story — in how it has helped frame our nation’s efforts for human and civil rights.

More importantly, such an exhibit should invite visitors from around the world to experience the very places where history was made — from the Atlanta University Center (and the historic, but now vacant Paschal’s restaurant on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard) to the King Center and the Carter Center.

As I said earlier, we have a great story to tell. What a shame it would be if we didn’t share that story with the world.

Maria Saporta

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.



  1. Doug January 7, 2013 12:02 pm

    Maria – Can you imagine city leaders in San Francisco at wits end to tell their city’s story. Or New Orleans? Or Miami? Or New York? Or Nashville? Or Savannah? Atlanta has a story to tell but is “We’re better than Birmingham” it? Atlanta has had many wonderful slogans (“A brave and beautiful city,” “the city too busy to hate,” and even “Hotlanta” – all of which have been rejected for one reason or another by the establishment that runs the city. Even the Olympics failed to identify Atlanta. But I have an idea: Let’s spend $10 or 12 million and hire a PR firm to conduct a campaign.Report

  2. Mark January 7, 2013 3:04 pm

    When I was preparing to move to Atlanta in early 1999, this book was given to me by an Atlanta based friend who knew I wished to learn about what had been to help me understand what is and will be regarding my new home.  It was a fantastic gift which I’ve re-read a few times.  I also found other books including biographies of major characters such as Robert Woodruff, Bill Hartsfield, and Ralph McGill.  These further described actors and actions that have brought us to the current day.Report

  3. The Last Democrat in Georgia January 7, 2013 8:17 pm

    Ms. Saporta – Your article encouraging Atlanta to tell its great story to the world should serve as a very strong reminder of just how ovewhelmingly much Atlanta has changed over the past 50-plus years or so.
    Over the past six decades Atlanta has evolved from a provincial Southern town of less than a million people that was somewhat similar in size and scope to a Birmingham or a Richmond into an ultra-diverse super-multifaceted cosmopolitan metropolis and major population center of just under six million inhabitants.
    The gargantuan population boom that the Atlanta Region is a happening that can be considered no less than stunning.  It is the equivalent of going from the size and importance of Birmingham in 1950 to something that resembles Los Angeles in physical size and logistical and cultural importance, if not necessarily population (maybe the population of Greater Los Angeles in the 1950’s when it had the same population of under 6 million people that Greater Atlanta has now).
    An interesting tidbit that reflects just how much the Atlanta Region has dramatically changed over the past six decades is an article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle about how the population of the State of Georgia is projected to eclipse the 10 million-inhabitant mark and become the 8th most-populated state in the union sometime during the month of January 2013.
    If Georgia indeed does eclipse the 10 million-inhabitant mark early in 2013, that would mean that the Georgia’s population will have nearly TRIPLED in the past 63 years growing by a staggering 290-plus percentage points from an official count of 3,444,578 in 1950 to an unofficial projected count of 10,020,000 in 2013.  290 PERCENT population growth over the past six decades!
    At times during after hosting the 1996 Olympic Games during the late 1990’s and through the mid 2000’s, Metro Atlanta’s population was growing so fast that it was considered by many demographic experts to be the fastest-growing settlement in human history.Report

  4. ATLpeace January 8, 2013 11:31 am

    Ms. Saporta, you say “Atlanta should share its tale with the world.” In the best of ways, our city owes you a bundle of gratitude for the years of diplomatic prodding and healthy reminders that you’ve donated to us. In many individual ways, Atlanta is already sharing its tale with the world. It is my hope you continue enjoying the responsibility and honor of being a lead ambassador and emissary of our great city. What if there was a way to quantify how many citizens you have inspired to become champions of Atlanta? I like that you have publicly encouraged the new National Center for Civil and Human Rights to include an exhibit on Atlanta’s story. I’d like to recommend that they have a corner of that exhibit reserved for describing how YOU have been such an institution and inspiration for our great city. Deal with it. You’re great in the best of ways: “Everybody can be great because everyone can serve.” — MLKReport

  5. George Vecsey January 8, 2013 4:12 pm

    Maria: Downtown is the key, although what could be more pertinent to your home town than Sweet Auburn, the King Center, the Carter center?
    Birmingham has the Civil Rights Institute right across from the park and the 16th St. Church.
    I went there a few years ago and right on the corner I ran into a couple of guys who talked about “when we were in Greensboro with Jesse.” Critical mass of people leads to chance meetings like that.
    As somebody who learned to love Atlanta (your family helped), I look forward to 2014 and beyond.
    George Vecsey, New YorkReport

  6. scfranklin January 8, 2013 10:01 pm

    Thanks for reminding us about the value of Atlanta’s history and its relationship to our present condition.  Putting Atlanta and Georgia in the context of the broader history of the country and the world is equally relevant. .  Fortunately, the Center joins other major Atlanta and Georgia based institutions  (among them the King Center, the Carter Center,  the Atlanta History Center, the Georgia Archives, the Auburn Avenue Library,  the Robert Woodruff Library at the the Atlanta University Center and programs and collections at Emory University and University of Georgia) to do this.  The exhibits, lectures and programs offered by Center should continue to highlight the stories of people in Atlanta and beyond to remain relevant to youth and elders alike. On the other hand, the vision for the Center adopted by board (many moons ago) and supported by dozens of  generous donors has been national and international in scope to compliment the local story. One example is the Center’s robust annual celebration of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration conducted in collaboration with Atlanta institutions.  As one who embraced Evelyn Lowery and Andrew Young’s vision for the Center many moons ago, I expect the Center will become a gathering place for story telling and remembrance, while taking its place as a center of collaboration, partnership and activism on current civil and human rights issues. Atlanta’s one of the world’s most compelling stories, but there are many others.
    The  sustainability and success of the Center over the years, in my view, will be tied directly to the imperative and inspiration visitors have to act for the benefit of others and to advance human rights worldwide.  With our partners, some in Atlanta and Georgia and some in other parts of the country and world, we can knit together experiences and stories that educate and inspire people to act for fairness and justice for all.Report

  7. Terri Royce January 9, 2013 8:55 am

    I have lived in Atlanta for over 20 years, yet today I find myself with absolutely no pride in this city.Report

  8. PriscillaPadron January 30, 2013 11:37 am

    Yes, Atlanta really does have a great story to tell. I gave a speech about the Beltline to a meeting last week and all the great things from Atlanta’s past came to life for me again. I don’t think we need another moniker; the ones we’ve got are pretty powerful. Thanks to Maria for putting it all together.Report


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