Black Atlanta on the rise
There's a lot of chocolate cities, around
We've got Newark, we've got Gary
Somebody told me we got L.A.
And we're working on Atlanta
- Lyrics from Parliament's "Chocolate City" (1975)
Parliament released "Chocolate City " 21 years after Brown v. Board of Education, 10 years after the 1965 Voting Rights Act and two years after Maynard Jackson was elected the first black mayor of Atlanta. By 1975 Atlanta, along with a myriad of cities across the nation, was in the midst of a transformation. Parliament's lyrics were not only an affirmation of that transformation, but were also evidence of the excitement that ran through many Black communities in the post-Civil Rights period. Yet, Parliament probably never imagined how prophetic those lyrics would become.
Here's a brief history of Black Atlanta and how Atlanta came to be voted the number one city for Blacks in a blackenterprise.com poll in 2004.
A city that began as a major railroad hub, Atlanta had always been a city characterized by constant motion and endless reinvention. For Atlanta's Black community, the current reinvention would be pegged by many to the 1962 Peyton Road Barricades.
In 1962, Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., erected barricades on Peyton and Harlan Roads in an attempt to prevent the Peyton Forest neighborhood from being integrated. Delineating the black and white sections of the city, the barricade attracted national and international attention. Soon local black activists began picketing the barricades with signs that read "We Want No Warsaw Ghetto," and equated the barricades with the Berlin Wall. In defiance of the blockade, activists like Dr. Clinton E. Warner, Jr., purchased homes in the area.
In light of the intense media scrutiny—the editors of Town & Country nearly killed a spread labeled "The Miracle in Atlanta"—and after a judge declared they were unconstitutional, Allen pulled the barricades down.
A year later the city integrated its municipal swimming pools. In a move to repair the harm done by Mayor Allen's wall, Atlanta leaders such as John Sibley and his bank and trust company formed an investment group that pumped in a million dollars in loans to develop new housing for blacks.
At a speech not long afterwards, Martin Luther King, Jr., told a Philadelphia audience, "We're building, as you know, a new South...And in a real sense, Atlanta is a one of the brightest and most promising spots of the new South."
The eight years following the Peyton Road Barricades seemed to support King's statement. Blacks would go from comprising less than 30 percent of Atlanta's population to over half by 1970. Paschal's, a restaurant frequented by King and other prominent Civil Rights leaders, expanded by adding a 120-room motel. Lou Rawls, Aretha Franklin and other famous entertainers would later headline at the motel's nightclub. Citizens Trust, the city's prominent "Black bank," moved into a new 11-story headquarters.
In the 70's Black Atlanta's political might continued to grow. In 1973, Maynard Jackson became Atlanta's first Black mayor and the first Black mayor of a large Southern city. Andrew Young in 1972 became Georgia's first African-American congressman since Reconstruction and would be re-elected to the position twice more before his appointment as United States ambassador to the United Nations in 1976.
Signs of promise were everywhere. The same year Maynard Jackson was elected mayor, the Atlanta Life Insurance Company (started in 1905 as Atlanta Mutual) had expanded into 11 states and accrued over $356 million insurance in force.
In 1974 Sidney Poitier released the film Uptown Saturday Night. Set in Atlanta, it not only featured the famous Ebenezer Baptist Church—the spiritual home of Martin Luther King, Jr.—but was also one of the first movies to prominently depict Atlanta's Black working and middle classes on film.
The same year Uptownwas released, Hartsfield Airport was second only to Chicago's O'Hare Airport as the busiest in the nation. With 400,000 flights annually, Hartsfield had only become an international airport a scant three years earlier.
But it was also during this time that Black Atlanta and Atlanta as a whole hit the first of several road bumps. Once boasting a record one-percent jobless rate, the city's unemployment soared to 9.5 percent and reached well into double digits in the black community. The murder rate also increased dramatically and Alberta King, mother of Martin, was counted among the victims. She was killed as she played the organ at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
As bleak as Atlanta's social and economic picture was beginning to look, there were still bright spots. Despite the recession the Omni International—a complex that included a hotel, six movie theaters, an indoor skating rink, two office towers and various upscale retail shops—was completed in 1976. In 1977 the long-gestating project to build a $500 million terminal complex at Hartsfield finally began.
By the end of the decade, Atlanta's prospects appeared decidedly mixed.
Atlanta—and Black Atlanta—continued to experience its share of bumps and bruises as well as triumphs.
Completed on time and within budget, Hartsfield's new terminal opened in September of 1980. Atlanta's brand new library also opened to great fanfare. Andrew Young was elected the second Black mayor of Atlanta in 1981. In 1972, black-owned firms participated in one percent of the city's business, but by 1981 that figure had climbed to 28 percent.
However, the mean income of Blacks was only 70 percent of that of Whites. Maynard Jackson's infamous battles with the Atlanta business community—even after admitting that he needed to work with them and not over or around them—had created a racial and economic rift that would be remain for years. Yet the most traumatic episode in Black Atlanta's history wouldn't be economic, but the harm it would see done to its children.
While Northern and Western cities like L.A., Chicago and New York saw major racial conflict in the years following the Civil Rights movement, Atlanta for the most part had avoided such incidents, priding itself as "The City Too Busy To Hate."
The horrific series of murders of Black children that commenced in the summer of 1979 and continued for two more years couldn't help but leave an ugly bruise on Atlanta's soul. While the crimes of such renowned serial killers as the Zodiac Killer and the Son of Sam weren't to be unexpected in places like New York and California—in the minds of Atlantans, who still clung to the illusion of living in a Southern city where such atrocities were unheard of—the killing of dozens of its own children shook the city to its core.
Most importantly though, because the all the victims were black and nearly all were male, it was a reminder of the days when lynching was commonplace. This underlined the fact that regardless of whatever slogan Atlanta chose to promote itself, the city couldn't easily dismiss that its social, economic and political frameworks were still rife with racial tension.
Two decades later, Toni Cade Bambara and Tayari Jones would each write books based on the murders. While fictional, both books shared the central theme that the murders were devastating reminders that much of the promise of the Civil Rights movement had been left unfulfilled.
Still, Mayor Young, capitalizing on his years of experience, continued the long in progress push for Atlanta's growth in both status and economic power (a movement evidenced by such initiatives such as the 1962 "Forward Atlanta" program). From 1981 to 1989 foreign investment in Atlanta grew from $4.6 billion to $13.9 billion.
By the early 90's, the post-Civil Rights cohort was coming of age. As they started to enter the workforce and political life en masse, it was becoming apparent that maybe that while the generation who had carried most of the load in the Movement hadn't felt or seen real progress, that maybe—like Moses, who was only allowed to see the Promised Land but never to enter it—it was their children who would reap the most benefits.
If one date were to mark the second half of Black Atlanta's rise, it would have to be 1990. In that year Atlanta's long bid to be seen as an international city was validated when the International Olympic Committee selected Atlanta to host the 1996 Olympics, beating out Athens for the bid. And while Metro Atlanta's Black population increased by 270,000 souls from 1970 to 1990, the growth from 1990 to 2000 was even more dramatic. In but one decade, the number of Black residents increased by 630,000, bringing the city's total Black population to over 1.2 million by the end of the millenium.
Beginning in 2000, the economic numbers also started to reflect what was until then a general feeling: the promises of the Civil Rights movement were finally bearing fruit in Atlanta.
While a sizable underclass of Black poor in Atlanta still existed, the overall income of Black Atlanta had seen a positive shift. In 2000 the median income of the 10-county Atlanta region was $47,784, which was roughly $6,000 higher than the national average and nearly $19,000 higher than the average for Black citizens nationwide.
By the year 2000 Georgia Tech was graduating more African American engineers—including 11 doctoral degrees—than any other institution in the country. Increasing by 206 percent since 1990, the buying power of residents in Georgia as a whole grew to $49.5 billion. Georgia's number of black-owned firms also grew by 62 percent. Between 1997 and 2002 the total had reached nearly 91,000.
Atlanta's Black music scene continued a trend that began in the mid 90's. Home to Jermaine Dupri's So So Def label and acts such as Toni Braxton, TLC, OutKast, Goodie Mob, Usher and Ciara, Atlanta was a formidable presence on the R&B, rap and pop charts worldwide. In 2004 OutKast would win the Grammy for Album of the Year for Speakerboxx/The Love Below. Diary of a Mad Black Woman demonstrated Atlanta's potential to be the " Hollywood of the South" when it scored a $22 million opening weekend box office.
Founded in 1987 the National Black Arts Festival found new focus and expanded its mission in 2001, going from a biannual to a yearly event. Held the third week of July, the festival is a ten-day celebration of music, dance, theater, film, literature, and the visual arts showcasing work by artists of African descent. The creative energy of Black Atlanta was on full display.
With all the positives there would still be the inevitable losses. First in 2000 with the death of Hosea Williams, a well recognized and controversial Civil Rights figure who had for years successfully shepherded his Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless campaign. Then in 2003 Atlanta suffered the passing of Maynard Jackson. Most recently, Atlanta experienced a loss that reverberated world wide, the death of Coretta Scott King. Just as the younger generation was benefiting from the path they had paved, the older generation was starting to pass on.
In 2006 Metro Atlanta encompasses 28 counties, 135,000 businesses, and 4.7 million people. The median income of Metro Atlanta was nearly $8,000 higher than the national average in 2004. Since 1990 the numbers of Asians and Hispanics who call Atlanta home have more than doubled. Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport continues to battle Chicago's O'Hare, only now it's for the title World's Busiest Airport. The headquarters of thirteen Fortune 500 companies call Atlanta home.
That Atlanta is seen by the many as the city for Black folk to be is of little surprise. As a result, Atlanta has truly become a "Chocolate City."
Atlanta has had several nicknames over the years: "Jewel of the South," the "City of the 21st Century," "Black Mecca," the " New York of the South," the "City Too Busy to Hate." Historian and philosopher W.E.B. Dubois, however, best described Atlanta in Souls of Black Folk, his most famous work. More than a century later it's still amazingly accurate:
South of the North, yet north of the South, lies the City of a Hundred Hills, peering out from the shadows of the past into the promise of the future. I have seen her in the morning, when the first flush of day had half-roused her; she lay gray and still on the crimson soil of Georgia; then the blue smoke began to curl from her chimneys, the tinkle of bell and scream of whistle broke the silence, the rattle and roar of busy life slowly gathered and swelled, until the seething whirl of the city seemed a strange thing in a sleepy land. – The Souls of Black Folk – 1903
Charles Judson is a local screen & comic book writer and a regular contributor and film critic for CinemATL.
Sources & More Reading:
Frederick Allen. Atlanta Rising. Atlanta: Longstreet Press, 1996
Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. New York: Basic Civitas Books, 1999
Alexa Benson Henderson. Atlanta Life Insurance Company. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989
David L. Sjoquist. The Atlanta Paradox. Russell Sage Foundation New York, 2000
Robert D Bullard. In Search of the New South: The Black Urban Experience in the 1970s and 1980s Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989
James C. Cobband William Stueck. Globalization and the American South. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2005
Southern Hospitality: Three's the Charm
Exposition: Women, Film and the South
Flashback/Flashforward: Black Atlanta on the Rise