Monday, October 2, 2023 Oct 2, 2023
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Learning From Atlanta, A City "Too Busy To Hate"
By Ruth Miller Fitzgibbons |

We had intended to visit Atlanta to study a city on the long end of the hard-times stick; a city that weathered an economic downturn in the mid-Seventies and blossomed into prosperity again. The lineup of speakers who would address the Dallas Assembly’s annual seminar last April seemed well versed in the language of economic survival.

What took place, however, was somewhat more than that. At-lanta can boast a healthy economy, and we did ride MARTA and tour the Georgia Economic Relocation Center. But over two days of meeting with some sixteen leading Atlantans who spoke candidly about their city, what emerged was a picture of a city that is a virtual love feast for race relations. Black or white, politician or business leader, almost every speaker pointed to Atlanta’s harmonious race relations as the key to the city’s success.

That might strike some as odd-those who fear that our own racial problems are hurting us economically when we can least afford the blows; those who have trouble understanding how race relations can contribute to economic viability. But the lesson from Atlanta is one that Dallas needs to hear. This is not to gloss over Atlanta’s very real problems, but to offer a model for hope.

First, the fall. In the mid-Seventies, Atlanta experienced a building frenzy fueled by capital from Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITS). What looked for all the world like an unprecedented boom soon turned into a dismal bust (sound familiar?) as the city suffered plummeting occupancy rates, an outward migration to the north, red-lining by financial institutions, and a host of negative press.

At the same time that Atlanta was feeling the economic pinch, its political system was undergoing a radical restructuring. The white flow to the suburbs had left Atlanta proper majority black, and the blacks were beginning to exercise new muscle. In 1974, Atlanta elected its first black mayor-a Dallas native, Maynard Jackson. A rewritten city charter ushered in new city council districts and a “strong mayor” system. Rather abruptly, issues such as police reform, economic parity, and affirmative action moved up the priority list.

The city’s business leaders-who were, and still are, predominantly white-came to an equally abrupt understanding: if they were to survive, they would have to come to the table with the black politicians.

By all accounts they did. The city’s top CEOs-its Al Caseys and Jerry Junkinses and Ross Perots-sat down every Saturday morning with Atlanta’s equivalents of Diane Ragsdale and John Wiley Price. Both teams fielded their own players. Reportedly, the dialogue was often heated. But it was also honest, participants say. Over many months, they hammered out a blueprint for survival.

Though there were similar meetings in Dallas during the late Seventies, none of them met with much success. Black leaders believe that those efforts were rebuffed, if not sabotaged, by white power brokers who insisted on handpicking the blacks who could come to the table and then controlled the agenda. Paternalism rather than the sharing of power, blacks believe, was the rule of the day. “Race relations in Dallas,” says Pettis Norman, former Dallas Cowboy and community activist, “has always been viewed in terms of absence of conflict-not the presence of justice, or respect, or opportunity.” Many believe that the angry, confrontational style of leadership that dominates black politics today is a result of those earlier aborted efforts at a constructive dialogue.

Atlanta also has had its share of confrontational politics. Maynard Jackson didn’t ask politely for reform, he demanded it- and he had the political strength to back him up. A decade or so after those heady days of minority set-asides in public works projects and affirmative action (Jackson threatened to move municipal bank accounts to Alabama if the banks didn’t act to hire more minorities and to name minorities to their boards), Atlanta seems to have settled into a quieter political phase. Current Mayor Andrew Young’s style is far more conciliatory, and he is hailed by one and all as a tireless ambassador for the city’s business interests.

For a variety of reasons, Atlanta is a mecca for blacks. As the seat of the vigorous Atlanta University Center, a complex of graduate and undergraduate colleges and universities, Atlanta has turned out a black intellectual elite since the end of the Civil War. When the Sixties came along, the city was well prepared to become the nerve center for Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. According to Fulton County Board of Commissioners chairman Michael L. Lomax, Atlanta produced a new brand of black leader, one who would “agitate and demand human rights.” Says Lomax, “Dr. King was the quintessential evolution of what Atlanta had been attempting to produce.”

But when it comes to working through the city’s racial issues, no less credit is accorded to Atlanta’s white business leaders, the CEOs of the city’s largest employers, who, as one black leader put it, “sent the word of ’peace’ down from on high.” The two leadership structures combined, Lomax told us, “made a very powerful combination indeed.”

Atlanta’s decade or so of racial give-and-take has given rise to a thriving black middle class. But a growing black underclass is clawing at the seams of the city’s prosperity. The gritty realities of urban America-drugs, poverty, crime, teenage pregnancy, poor achievement in schools, unemployment, lack of adequate housing-threaten Atlanta’s racial reverie. Blacks are chiding blacks not to become too comfortable with their success.

Of course Dallas is facing these big-city problems as well, and without benefit of a decade of black-white dialogue. As we struggle to understand the changes that are upon us and to work toward solutions, we cannot look to Atlanta for answers. But we can be comforted by the lessons offered there. Our rival city to the east has faced many of the difficult issues before us and has thrived in spite of them.