St. Louisans Know the Ferguson You Just Met


From Beverly Isom

This week the country converged on Ferguson, Missouri. I am visiting my hometown of St. Louis and I am very familiar with Ferguson which is a mere four miles from my mother’s home and the burned down Quick Trip is literally across the street from my brother’s house. For many people from St. Louis, there has long been a quite acceptance of the racial disparity and unsettling tension between residents and law enforcement in Ferguson and surrounding counties like Jennings and Florissant and even across the Mississippi River in Illinois. My brothers like other men of color are accustomed to unwarranted and frequent police stops that typically included reluctant conversations with police officers about where they were driving to and from.

The death of teenager Michael Brown simply highlighted for the nation a racial divide that is all too familiar. I was at the protest site and about five blocks along West Florissant have been transformed to a Beirut-like war zone. Hordes of protestors in gas masks, bouncing signs that proclaim “no justice, no peace”, curious onlookers, media satellite trucks, journalists, smart phones, video cameras, and of course police and more police with guns and gear in the ready position. But most interesting to me is the ever-changing national narrative and the media coverage.

It is difficult to miss the every-second up-to-the-minute breaking news that has taken place over the past 10 days. Race has a rich and storied history in St. Louis and St. Louis County. The history of race in St. Louis is complicated however you need look no further than a few miles away from the protest to Calvary cemetery where Dred Scott is buried to know how deep-rooted it has been. Dred Scott was a slave who had lived with his owner in a free state before coming back to the slave state of Missouri. But Scott argued that because he had lived in free states that he should be free. The Supreme Court disagreed and it resulted in an 1857 landmark decision that stated African Americans were not citizens of the United States and therefore had no rights to sue in federal courts. As a young student in the St. Louis School System the Dred Scott case was required reading.

Some national media commentaries have eluded to the notion that the Civil Rights Movement bypassed St. Louis. For many St. Louisans we might argue that the Civil Rights Movement didn’t miss St. Louis but the racial justice movement has definitely struggled to call St. Louis home. St. Louis is a story of two unequal societies that have coexisted since the 1800’s. For the first three days of this protest in Ferguson, neither politicians nor police recognized the imagery of militarization in national news stories and social media posts that shocked people everywhere……………except here. The police protocols failed, they employed strategies of power and force because community policing is not exercised in communities like Ferguson. The persistent presence of police, armored trucks and M-16s are not likely to quell the systemic tension in Ferguson that has been swelling for years. It has been ineffective to date.

I will return to Atlanta soon but this is a trip I will not soon forget and I will stay glued to the 24-hour up-to-the-minute news coverage until there is resolution. In between the political maneuvering and the legal posturing disguised as news coverage, I pray for peace in Ferguson and for the family of Michael Brown.

Will Georgia Voters Rebuff Republicans this November?

Twit-FacebookThe national media continues to probe Georgia politicians about the political campaign landscape in the statewide races, especially the Michele Nunn and Jason Carter races. There are discussions about the other statewide races but the national attention is focused on the Senate and gubernatorial races. The primary question to me is whether Georgia voters as diverse as they are—will rebuff the politics of Georgia’s Republican leadership? Or will the demographics shifts in Georgia make a big enough difference to ignite high voter turnout to sweep Nunn, Carter and others into statewide elected positions? In case you are wondering what some of the issues are take a look at Jason Carter’s recent release.

Rankings That Matter: Deal’s Record for the Middle Class

As Gov. Deal continues to trumpet a ranking from CNBC, let’s remember the rankings that show how the middle class is really doing under the governor:

  • A study released this week said that Georgia’s schools rank 32nd overall. The study shows that Georgia has the 4th highest dropout rate and the least safe schools in the country. (WalletHub, accessed 8/6/14)
  • Georgia has the 5th highest unemployment rate in the country (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, accessed 8/6/14).
  • Georgia is one of only two states in which real per capita GDP has declined in the last 15 years (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 6/20/14). Adjusted for inflation, the average Georgia family in effect makes $6,000 less than the average family did 10 years ago (Politifact, 1/23/14).
  • The same CNBC ranking that Gov. Deal is trumpeting found Georgia to be among the worst states for “quality of life” and “education,” ranking 32nd in both categories. (CNBC, 6/24/14)

Some other statewide issues like healthcare, transportation and water can be added to the Carter list. Many Georgians live with only emergency healthcare services because Governor Deal refuses to acknowledge the benefits of expanded Medicaid. Healthcare is a critical quality of life issue for Georgians. Without viable transportation solutions, the negative impact of snarled traffic in metro Atlanta will continue.

Our water challenges continue while Georgia enjoys a AAA bond rating in part because state funding of infrastructure isn’t a high enough priority for Governor Deal.

Deal does not advocate for the financing Georgia’s desperate need to expand, renovate and build reliable transportation networks of safe bridges, efficient roads, connected transit, trails and paths and statewide water supply, storm water and sewer systems. In fact, from our experience last winter there is evidence emergency service system and planning needs investment as well.

The data clearly illustrates the problems in Georgia; the only question now is will Georgia voters rebuff the Republican leadership this November.

Voter turnout in a midterm election is usually less than presidential elections. Progressive candidates are counting on a larger than usual turnout to sweep them into office. Georgia’s ineffective leadership and voters desire to change that leadership may be the perfect equation to make this year’s midterm election the exception to the rule.

Miami Herald’s Leonard Pitts Highlights East Lake Transformation

Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts’ highlights Tom Cousins in a recent column as one of the “good guys” for his use of his wealth and influence to make the world a better place. Pitts highlights Tom’s contributions to improving the East Lake East Lakecommunity. This neighborhood that housed the old East Lake public housing project where 90% of residents were victims of a felony every year, where few children achieved state standards in any subject, where the crime rate was 18 times higher than the national average, where adult employment was under 25% and where partnerships with strong local nonprofit organizations were virtually unknown. Tom along with East Lake leader Eva Davis and Atlanta Housing Authority CEO Renee Glover formed the leadership team that turned East Lake around. Today the Villages of East Lake, the East Lake YMCA, the East Lake Sheltering Arms and the Charles Drew School are forging new partnerships and setting a high bar for community engagement, student achievement and community wellness. The East Lake neighborhood model is used by civic leaders in neighborhoods in Birmingham, Charlotte, Houston, Indianapolis, New Orleans, Omaha, Rome and Spartanburg. Pitts column is a great read and a powerful reminder of what happens when partnerships work.


Defending the Indefensible

Georgia’s Attorney General Sam Olens as Don Quixote– jousting at legal windmills!

By: Gary S. Cox

OlensGeorgia’s “defense” of its voter approved constitutional ban against same-sex marriage, filed in response to Lamda Legal Defense Fund’s challenge in April 2014, is an indefensible position by any measure. The state’s arguments note, “Plaintiffs may well be right that our nation is headed for a new national equilibrium on same-sex marriage. Indeed, in the last several years, at least eleven states have decided to expand their definition of marriage to include same-sex couples through the democratic process … And it seems as though each month new opinion polls are released showing increased public support for such changes in additional states. But judicially imposing such a result now would merely wrest a potentially unifying popular victory from the hands of supporters and replace it instead with the stale conformity of compulsion. This Court should reject Plaintiffs’ invitation to disregard controlling precedent, decline to anticipate a future ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, and dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims in their entirety.”

Even after acknowledging the sea-change in public opinion on same-sex marriage in their brief, Georgia steadfastly has decided to stand “in defense of marriage,” (one man plus one woman), based on the assertion that the challengers are asking the court to find ” … the people of Georgia no longer have the right to decide for themselves whether to define marriage in the way every state in our Union has defined it as recently as 2003.” However, the state failed to mention in their refutation that nation-wide there are 77 cases challenging state marriage laws similar to Georgia’s. Thus far, there have been 28 wins and zero losses for the pro same-sex marriage challengers. A stunning record of victory! Even North Carolina recently dropped its defense of its constitutional ban but not Georgia!

Though Georgia is in the 11th Circuit Court, the State Attorney General, Sam Olens, has decided to play Don Quixote and joust at legal wind mills wasting taxpayer dollars all in the name of election year politics (Olens is up for re-election and does have a qualified Democratic opponent in Attorney Greg Hecht.) He knows that the tide of legal cases is against him. He knows that marriage is nothing more than a legal contract that allows two individuals to receive Federal, state and local benefits that single people cannot receive. The marriage contract grants inheritance rights, visitation rights, tax filing rights, federal spousal benefits, state spousal benefits – and the list goes on to more than 128 “benefits” at all levels of government. There isn’t anything sacrosanct or magical about a marriage license. It is a mutually signed and witnessed document filed in the county of one’s residence. A license bestows mutual privileges and allows for joint participation in legal arrangements – it holds the spouses communally and legally answerable to each other regardless of gender.

The state of Georgia has failed to note how current law equally protects all its citizens. The state offers no rational argument for allowing marriage laws that discriminate against LGBT citizens. The “marriage is for procreation” claim, offered in most of the 28 cases won thus far, was not seen as a rational reason. The same applies to the “marriage protects children” contention. Protects children from what or whom? Two loving and caring individuals who want to be legally recognized by the state – like Christopher Innis and Shelton Stroman who have a nine year old son? How does discrimination against plaintiffs Rashawn Chandler and Dyana Bagby, who are Atlanta Police Officers, benefit society? Without the right to marry, God forbid if something happens to either police officer in the line of duty. While the city of Atlanta has Domestic Partnership legislation, it is simply not strong enough to protect the legal rights for two women who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis. They need and deserve the right to marry and all the legal protections offered under this social contract.

We noted in the December 2013 edition of Blogging While Blue, “The last fourteen words of Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment were the key to striking down the Utah same-sex marriage ban and will be the key to challenging to Georgia’s constitutional same-sex marriage ban. It a matter of ‘just a matter of finding the right couple(s), just the right circumstances, just the right case(s) and we will most likely have legalized same-sex marriages in Georgia . . . it is just a matter time before that Trojan horse is left on the Federal Courthouse steps in Atlanta.” It seems Lambda Legal Defense Fund has found the right Georgia couples and the Trojan Horse seems to be on fire! An indefensible defense will not put out this fire.



The University of Texas-Austin Victory is a Win for Diversity



Whether the 2-to-1 ruling from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans decision to allow the University of Texas-Austin to use race in college admissions to achieve diversity will have an impact on other higher education institutions is not known. Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote. “It is equally settled that universities may use race as part of a holistic admissions program where it cannot otherwise achieve diversity.”

The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by Abigail Fisher, a white Texan who sued the university after she was denied admission in 2008. Last June, the U.S. Supreme Court said the federal appeals court should take another look at case. After the Supreme Court ruling, there was speculation that use of race in admissions policy at the University of Texas might be stuck down. Instead the Appeal Court upheld the decision. The University of Texas “10 percent” admissions rule states that Texas students who graduate in the top 10 percent of their high school classes can earn automatic admission. For the other 90 percent there is a combination of factors in the evaluation process and race can be one of them.

University President Bill Powers said in a statement, “We remain committed to assembling a student body at the University of Texas at Austin that brings with it the educational benefits of diversity while respecting the rights of all students. This ruling ensures that our campus, our state and the entire nation will benefit from the exchange of ideas and thoughts that happens when students who are diverse in all regards come together in the classroom, at campus events and in all aspects of campus life.”

This decision might provide a moment of comfort for colleges and universities that use race as one factor or criteria for admission but the moral obligation to admit diverse students in academic institutions will not likely be won, if it has to battled in court from state-to-state.

Let’s Stand With Jada

A recent national survey from more than 300 colleges and universities reflect serious problems in responses to student reports of sexual violence. It also indicates that colleges and universities across the nation are violating federal law by failing to investigate sexual assaults on campus.

Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) plans to use the findings for legislation that she is writing with bipartisan support that includes Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.). The bill is scheduled to be released this fall when students return to campuses. Schools are required by law to investigate when they ARE  made aware of a sex crime on campus. But more than 21% of “the nation’s largest private institutions” surveyed conducted fewer investigations than they reported to the Department of Education.

It is good that sexual assaults and the reporting of those assaults is now being addressed by higher education and by government. It is critical that the safety and protection of girls be taken seriously no matter what academic stage they are in. Which brings us to the rape of 16-year oljadad girl last week in Houston. Jada is the teenager who attended a house party with a friend who knew the host her rape was recorded and shared on social media. Once the video started to circulate online and her friends began to call her, Jada knew something horrible had happened. The video went viral but that did not shame or stop Jada from telling her story to a local Houston television station. “There’s no point in hiding,” she said. “Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am.” Jada was allegedly drugged and passed around by several men who raped her.

One of Jada’s perpetrators mocked her on social media by calling her a snitch and other derogatory phrases, which has encouraged cyber bullying. A disgusting social media trend has users posting photos of themselves bottomless and passed out mocking Jada. Recent reports from the ongoing investigation indicate that there may be other young girls who may have been victims. The police are asking for the publics’ help by asking young girls to call into the station if they see themselves in any videos online.

Jada’s case has gotten some very high profile help from actresses Mia Farrow and Jada Pinkett Smith. Jada Pinkett Smith recently posted on social media,”This could be you, me, or any woman or girl that we know. What do we plan to do about this ugly epidemic? #justiceforjada” Jada Pinkett Smith has also been a vocal public advocate for victims of human trafficking.

There are 237,868 reported rapes every year in America, every two minutes there is a sexual assault, 40% of the victims are under 18 and two-thirds of the attacks are by someone the victim knows. Here is how we can help Jada and every other victim of sexual violence. Acknowledge the facts. Pay attention to the reports of rape. Insist community leaders use the power of their influence to encourage training for schools and colleges and make the process for reporting and investigating sexual assault less traumatizing for the victims. Push police chiefs and law enforcement officials take immediate action to investigate and prosecute those who attack and violate girls and women. But most of all don’t be silent about assault.

Let’s stand with Jada and other sexual assault victims by pushing for fair investigations and laws that protects victim so that perpetrators will be justly prosecuted.

Will the Georgia State Legislature revisit religious freedom bills? Hobby Lobby ruling just may have opened a new door …

By Gary S. Cox

“Hobby Lobby stones gay employee to death,” read the recent headline on The Daily Currant, a self-described “global satirical newspaper.” Now that we virtueonlinehave your attention, of course, the headline isn’t true though it zinged around the web on social media as if it were a true story. Nonetheless, the point of the satire was that recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., best characterizes the “slippery slope” we are now on when it comes to practicing one’s faith in the workplace under the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The satire was emphasizing the fact that a “corporation” has the right to practice religious freedom. If this argument is taken to the extreme, then, could the company invoke Leviticus 20:13 which states, “If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood is on their own heads.” By claiming to be a Christian corporation that abides by Christian principles, how far can a privately held corporation take their religious beliefs? Could they refuse to hire or give service to gay people? Where is the bottom of the slope? No one really knows yet.

With the Federal government losing the Hobby Lobby challenge to mandated birth control coverage, Georgia’s extreme right political pundits are hailing the victory as an opportunity to have the General Assembly pass the previously failed Preservation of Religious Freedom Act. The prevailing argument is the ruling gives “political cover” to Senator Josh McKoon (R-Columbus, and State Representative Sam Teasley (R-Marietta) to re-introduce the legislation in 2015. Senator McKoon, in light of the ruling, is actively and openly courting support for his legislation. In a recent right-leaning editorial column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, McKoon was quoted as saying, “The protection of people of faith, it’s a foundational reason that America exists … Yes, religious freedom is a priority in Georgia.” What does he mean by these comments? In reading Senate Bill 377 we know his priorities, according to the Credo-Mobilize website, “ … would authorize any business to refuse services and goods based on religious convictions. This would open a Pandora’s box of possible discrimination and anti-civil behavior targeting gays and lesbians, women, racial minorities and certain religious groups.” Senator McKoon’s editorial comments make it sound like re-introduction of his failed Senate Bill 377 is a foregone conclusion. Would it fail again post Hobby Lobby? The level of uncertainty is too great that we must call attention to the issue now, before the legislative session starts in 2015!

As a reminder, the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) does not apply to state laws. This was determined in the City of Boerne vs. Flores – RFRA was struck down in 1997 as it applies to states, but left intact Congress’s authority to make it apply to the Federal government. In reaction to the 1997 ruling, a new tool, such as the McKoon legislative initiative, emerged to impose “religious protections” at the state level. Versions of RFRA have been passed in Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Texas. Thus-far-to-date, none of these states have legislation as broad as McKoon’s bill which was defeated in 2014 because of the backlash from Georgia’s corporate Fortune 500 giants.

Even though the U.S. Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act to extent protections to the LBGT community in the workplace, Speaker Boehner announced the legislation was “dead on arrival” in the U.S. House of Representatives. Under current law members of the LBGT community may legally be discriminated against in the private sector workplace with no legal avenue available to them to redress of their grievances of possible workplace discrimination. In Georgia at the state level, the LBBT community does not enjoy a status as a “protected class.” The fallout of Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., here in Georgia may very well be the re-introduction and ultimate passage of House Bill 1023 and Senate Bill 377. Those oft cited examples of signs in restaurant windows of “No Gays Allowed” could very well become true in less progressive areas of our great state.

Those of us in the progressive community will need to be ever watchful in the upcoming 2015 legislative session and call upon our friends in the business community and on civic leaders to speak out for equality and justice for all our citizens regardless of race, creed, ethnicity, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation.


The Legacy of Fort McPherson in 100 Years

LRAShortly after the start of my 2002 term as mayor, an influential Council member and I wrangled behind closed doors over an issue and we were unable to repair our relationship until years after I left office. The point of contention was whether the city should strongly encourage, almost insist, that a major retail development include a significant number of mixed income apartments and condominiums. Her argument was she didn’t want to lose the investment and the developer’s interest by insisting on the inclusion of mixed income housing.

In losing, I learned an important lesson as a leader. There are times when having the right answer means that public policy married with best practice may be illusive especially when a community has suffered years of disinvestment and disappointment.

Sometimes leaders and those they represent will accept less than the best answer because any answer seems better than the risk of no development at all. Best practice doesn’t always prevail. Fortunately, Atlanta has best practice economic and community development models for reference. Two key points are worth noting.

The transformation of City Hall East into Ponce City Market would not be possible without the public investments in the Old Fourth Ward Park, which in turn is accelerating the transformation of the Old Fourth Ward. The public investment in the Beltline is what is attracting the private investment in the adjacent commercial and residential real estate in neighborhoods around the 22-mile Beltline corridor. Public investments in infrastructure supporting Atlantic Station has generated investments and growth in West Midtown. Key to these success stories is that public investment is “unlocking the value” of properties that would otherwise not attract that type of investment.

Opportunities for public investments that can have transformative impacts on urban neighborhoods are rare. They should not be wasted. We now have general consensus on how these investments – when the opportunities arise – should be shaped and structured. The objective should be to make strategic public investments in infrastructure that will increase the quality of life in the surrounding neighborhoods and “unlock” the value of developable property in those neighborhoods. By attracting private investment in residential and commercial properties, those neighborhoods can put on a new trajectory.

The original plan for Fort McPherson followed this approach. The master plan as approved by the Board included a public investment in a 150 acre greenspace that would rival Piedmont Park in its size and amenities. The Board anticipated that this investment – combined with transportation and streetscapes – would attract private investment in residential and commercial properties yielding 4,600 units of mixed income housing (20% of it affordable and over 300 units of transition housing for homeless), and 4 million square feet of commercial property that could support nearly 5,000 new jobs.

At the insistence of then Governor Perdue, who some thought wanted to make the mixed use, mixed income, comprehensive revitalization of Fort McPherson part of his legacy, the implementation Authority was established by the Georgia legislature. Neither Governor Perdue nor the legislature ever adopted the policy or dedicated incentives to the development as expected then.  The Great Recession hit Atlanta housing industry hard, I left office in 2010 and Governor Perdue left the following year. ]

If the US Army wants to sell the base so be it, but this has been public land paid for and developed with public dollars for years. The base has been a stabilizing factor for this section of the city for decades and its’ purchase and redevelopment offers a rare opportunity for the surrounding neighborhoods to gain the amenities they have been without for decades.  It also allows the city to leverage the dollars spent on the purchase with the highest and best long term use of the 400 plus acres.

As a product of two mayoral terms before assuming office myself, changing course is not unfamiliar territory even when established best practice is documented. As one who embraced the concept of the Atlanta Beltline, the Atlanta Streetcar, the National Center of Civil and Human Rights, the name change of the airport, who championed the city and community’s $6 billion in water and airport infrastructure and who launched major initiatives to eliminate homelessness and human trafficking, I understand the power of a great new idea that shapes new policy and creates new economic development opportunities. I also understand the importance of balancing public interest with private interest and making sure the public benefit wins every time. As a student of Mayors Jackson and Young I learned underserved communities deserve the best investment of resources and talent and full access to the decision making process.

As a member of the Regional Commission on Homelessness I am equally concerned about the city’s and the Authority’s commitment to the spirit and letter of the Authority plan for addressing homelessness. This plan was negotiated in good faith, reviewed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and vetted in numerous public meetings by the Atlanta City Council. Atlanta remains a city with many people who have so little income they qualify as living in poverty. Thousands are homeless. Some 39% of Atlanta’s children live in families whose income qualifies them as living below the poverty line. Homeless children and their families need our focused attention and renewed commitment to use every available, reasonable and sensible resource to offer them opportunities to improve their economic condition.

Imagine a homeless family that relocates to the new Fort McPherson community who is able to reunite as parents and children in a transformed and planned community with other families of diverse backgrounds within a few Marta stops of the tens of thousands of jobs at Hartsfield Jackson airport and downtown. This community would be few blocks from the colleges and universities of the Atlanta University Center, a few miles from Georgia Tech and Georgia State University, two Marta stations connecting them with jobs, commerce, Emory Midtown Hospital Healthcare, Grady Hospital AND a new private investment from one of America’s most innovative entertainment and businessmen. The new community should be nothing less than inclusive of the aspirations and dreams of the current residents and businesses, those who are most in need and those who have the power and resources to invest tens of millions of dollars into new ventures.

This property represents the most important economic development asset for south Atlanta that the city fathers and mothers will have for a hundred years. Limiting the development options to one or the other seems short sighted knowing what Atlanta has learned about the transformative power of public infrastructure investments

The National Center for Civil & Human Rights Gives New Meaning to Independence Day

This 4th of July take your family and guests to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, it gives meaning to the Constitution and the Independence we celebrate. This is a brief excerpt from the Bitter Southerner on the new Center.

AndrewThomasLeeThe National Center for Civil and Human Rights

Atlanta’s Newest Landmark Will Teach Generations of Southerners What Doing the Right Thing Really Means

Story by Chuck Reece • Photography by Andrew Thomas Lee

Back when I lived in New York City, people would ask me what it was like to live in Atlanta. I heard the question so often I developed a standard response.

I’d say: “You know that old saying, ‘It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there’? Well, Atlanta’s just the opposite. It’s a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit there.”

This was my rather feeble attempt to express something that had gnawed at me during my years of living in Atlanta — the notion that there was no single place to visit that truly captured the heart of the entire city.

Other Southern cities were different. In Memphis, a tourist could easily touch its music-loving, barbecue-funky heart with visits to landmarks like Sun Studios or the Rendezvous. In New Orleans, the city’s genuinely unique, polyglot culture had created hundreds of ways for the visitor to feel its beating heart: through its foods, its architecture or that infectious Second Line beat that comes right out and says, “This is New Orleans music.”

And thinking about that begged other questions. What exactly was the heart of Atlanta? Where did one go to actually feel it beat? I suppose I’d grown up thinking that people thought the heart of Atlanta was in its rise from the ashes post-Civil War. But there were two problems with bringing that narrative to life for a visitor. One, it’s hard to see what remains of the ashes unless you do something hard, like go on a 10-mile hike through what remains of the Battle of Atlanta’s killing fields. And two, you wind up telling a story that goes something like this:

OK, our ancestors decided to fight a war that would allow them to keep people of color enslaved, and they lost that war, and in the process, my entire hometown got burned down.

Not exactly inspiring stuff.

But I knew — as did thousands of other Atlantans — that another story truly represented our city’s heart. Like the old tale, it was a story of struggle, but it was also a story of redemption, a story about a gift that Atlanta gave to the South, to America, and to the whole round world.

I also knew where that story began: on a half-mile stretch of Auburn Avenue in downtown Atlanta.

So when I moved back home and received out-of-town visitors, that’s where I took them. We’d drive or walk from Big Bethel AME Church at 220 Auburn, an African-American church whose roots reach all the way back to 1840, then eastward past Wheat Street Baptist Church at 359, and finally to Ebenezer Baptist at 407, just east of which lie the graves of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King.

These three churches, I would explain, gave birth to the American Civil Rights Movement. I would try to explain that in the 1960s, on this half-mile stretch of Auburn Avenue, America began to turn, to put aside its past and attempt to become a nation whose people, in the words of Dr. King, “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

But my feeble words never seemed enough. And it was hard to just walk or drive past three churches and a gravesite in that five-block stretch and really feel the magnitude of the idea that took shape there — that reconciliation could triumph over conflict, that non-violence could overcome violence. The heart of Atlanta was there on Auburn Avenue, but it was too big and too ethereal to really feel as you stood on the sidewalks. You couldn’t dance to it, like you could a New Orleans rhythm. You couldn’t taste it, like Memphis barbecue. But it was there.

When the Olympics came to town back in 1996, there appeared downtown (at no small cost and a considerable amount of upheaval) a new public green, Centennial Olympic Park. Sadly, it instantly became known not as a watershed in the history of downtown Atlanta, but as the site of a bombing by anti-gay and anti-abortion zealot Eric Rudolph.

But over time, as happens in cities, things began to spring up around the park, including two of Atlanta’s biggest tourist attractions: the Georgia Aquarium, which opened in 2005 and has drawn more than 11 million visitors since, and The World of Coca-Cola, which moved to its current location across Baker Street from the park, in 2007, and brought with it another million or so visitors a year.

But yesterday, something else opened over by that park, and for the rest of my days it will be the first place I take visitors to my city.


A Visitors View of the Center for Civil & Human Rights




Barbara Becker in her Huffington Post column hits the mark. With the grand opening of the Center this week the doors are open to what she describes as “skimmers, swimmers and divers”.

“My children were among the “skimmers.” Buzzing on sugar from the all-you-can-drink tasting room at the World of Coca-Cola next door, they stood gazing up at a life-size “villain” Idi Amin, the late brutal despot of Uganda, and “defender” Dr. Denis Mukwege of the Congo, a leading voice on ending violence against women in times of armed conflict.

For 10 minutes they watched and re-watched footage of Walter Cronkite announcing the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on national television, as well as Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy urging an assembled crowd in Indianapolis just learning of Dr. King’s assassination to resist violence and seek unity and justice.

The “swimmers” in our group followed the Center’s ebb and flow — making their way from the ground floor where a rotating selection of Dr. King’s private papers are displayed, to the galleries and exhibitions telling the story of the U.S. civil rights movement on the second floor, to the top level with its openly-designed 6,000 square feet focused on global human rights.

“Divers” were intent on drawing deeper connections between the legacy of the 20th century American civil rights movement and contemporary efforts to ensure universal human rights for all. One panel contains scenes from a civil rights-era graphic comic booklet of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, aimed at introducing non-violent resistance to a low-literacy audience. In recent years, the publication has been translated into Arabic and Farsi and distributed by activists throughout the Middle East.”
For Atlanta this Center tells some of the stories about the Civil Rights Movement repeated in political speeches, church sermons and school history programs. But never before have most Atlantans had such a convenient opportunity to view, reflect and discuss the Movement in the context of contemporary human rights struggles. From the quiet display or the Morehouse College Papers Collection including a photographic display of King’s library collection, his notes on a copy of the Letter from the Birmingham Jail to the stories of the Global Human Rights Movement.

Dozens of folks put their shoulders to the wheel, made substantial charitable donations and dedicated their time to the civic goal of designing and building the Center. Hundreds have visited the Center in just the first days and no doubt that will continue. There are lots of impressions from visitors including the story of one international traveller who, after reading about the Center used his layover at the airport to visit or Georgia State Senator Jason Carter who brought his young children one day or the local news anchor who returned after work hours to spend more time viewing the exhibits or the human rights activist who traveled from Los Angles to spend the day touring the Center. Atlanta has claimed its history and with the opening of the Center in downtown Atlanta offers visitors and residents a major glimpse inside.