Population Doesn’t Tell the Whole Story

The recent national stories on the 2010 census figures have prompted me to reflect on the significance of Atlanta’s population changes beyond the obvious possible loss of federal grants and political representation under the Gold Dome and in Congress. The combination of a slight increase in population and the continued lagging of wealth among African Americans have hit Atlanta and Georgia hard. Although Atlanta and Georgia have a concentration of African Americans the city and the state are attracting a large number of immigrants.

The increasing immigrant population is not unlike the 1890’s according to historian Andy Ambrose. A mere three decades after the Civil War, Atlanta’s African American population was 40 percent and the city attracted an influx of European immigrants. We often describe our city as if the majority African American population or the cooperation between white and African American leadership have been the most significant factors in our history. Ambassador and former Mayor Andrew Young describes the city’s partnership and alliances between African Americans and white Atlantans as central to the city’s economic success model. Some refer to the “Atlanta Way” as a process of finding middle ground, as one of the most significant factors in the city’s development and political history.

The progress of Georgia has been fueled by the progress of Atlanta regardless of the size of its population, for at least a century. Atlanta has attracted those who have put down their roots here for commerce and those who recognized the value of higher education (Atlanta was home to eight colleges in 1890 including two women’s colleges and five black colleges). With the railroads, the colleges and the hospitality industry Atlanta opened itself to new ideas and innovation. Newcomers were welcomed and encouraged to visit, to invest and to settle.  Atlanta’s progressive history as the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement played a significant part in the winning strategy for the Centennial Olympic Games. Along with the development of the world’s busiest passenger airport and the contributions of countless business and civic leaders, mayors and other elected officials, Atlanta has been the economic engine of the South and the center of progressive politics as far back as the mid 20th century. It was the Atlanta City Council who adopted legislation allowing women to vote in municipal elections in 1919, one year before the nation ratified the 19th amendment.

Since the 1950’s Atlanta’s population has hovered between 400,000 and nearly 500,000. The Census count didn’t dampen the spirit of its leaders and the audacity of its residents at any point.   In this period Maynard Jackson became the first African American elected mayor of a major Southern city. Mayor Sam Massell and Chairman Manuel Maloof collaborated to launch regional transit. Mayor Ivan Allen testified in favor of federal Civil Rights legislation. Mayor Andrew Young joined Billy Payne to pursue hosting the Centennial Olympic Games. Progressive, visionary leadership in Atlanta isn’t new and won’t be lost by the ebb and flow of Atlanta’s population in the Census. But it can be lost. We lose if we settle for less than our heritage claims and maybe demonstrates. We lose if men and women demur from the risks of pushing the intellectual and progressive edge. We lose if we forget that for over a century Atlanta has been the place newcomers could realize their dreams.

It has been the size of Atlanta’s heart, the length of its reach, the daring of its leaders and the faith of its residents that Atlanta could accomplish BIG dreams; it has not been the size of the population that has distinguished the city. 


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