Atlanta Benefits From Steps Taken Years Ago

Former Special Counsel to Contract Compliance for the City of Atlanta, Derek Alphran, offers his take on the history of the city’s disadvantaged business program

Thirty five years ago Atlanta’s political leadership decided to take the road less traveled and open the doors of business opportunity to women and men who had been largely excluded for well over a century. This program set a new course for national and international programs to level the playing field for hundreds of capable minority and female businesses to bid on government contracts. Over the years much has been written about Atlanta’s program. Recently, CNN political analyst Roland Martin referenced the importance of former Mayor Jackson’s leadership on behalf of disadvantaged businesses at the Airport Minority Advisory Council conference in Fort Worth, Texas.

A recent report commissioned by Georgia Common Georgia states that “friends” to former mayors received the vast majority of contracts awarded by the Atlanta airport, suggesting cronyism and favoritism. In addition, the report attacked the city’s minority business program alleging it was a front to award contracts to “friends” of the mayors of Atlanta. However, there is much more to the story than this report implies.

The story of outright racial discriminatory practices by previous administrations has gone virtually untold. A massive report commissioned by the Atlanta City Council in 1990 studied discrimination in the city of Atlanta marketplace and became known as the Brimmer Marshall Report (led by former Federal Reserve Board member Andrew Brimmer and former Labor Commissioner Ray Marshall). This report found that prior to 1973, less than 1% of contracts in Atlanta were awarded to minority-owned firms despite the city’s majority minority population. Outright racial discrimination against minority and female firms existed as explicit and implicit racial practices prior to 1973. Moreover, the Brimmer Marshall Report found that the city of Atlanta acquiesced in and or participated in bidding, contracting, procurement and other market places that effectively discriminated against minority-owned firms. Subsequent disparity studies have found similar exclusionary practices in the metro Atlanta marketplace.

When Mayor Jackson sought to remedy that discrimination by assuring fairness and inclusion of black business enterprises on the expansion of then Hartsfield airport he was met with great resistance by the white business community, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other political leaders. According to an article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ivan Allen, III said in a speech given at the Atlanta Rotary Club, “If the mayor would spend as much time getting the doggone thing built as he has insisting on black involvement, it would work out much better”. In an Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial supporting Ivan Allen, III, the newspaper condemned Mayor Jackson’s affirmative action program. A Fulton County grand jury was even impaneled to study reverse discrimination by the City of Atlanta.

Jackson‘s affirmative action policies prevailed in the end and the airport expansion was completed with minority participation and stands today as the single most important economic driver in metro Atlanta, and some say the Southeast. In spite of the early objections to Jackson’s insistence on equal economic opportunity in business at the airport and the all too predictable attacks from those who seek to demoralize the city and to distract Atlanta’s leaders from taking bold steps to close the current economic disparity gaps in business and employment, the city’s proud history of the 1970’s cannot be denied. The minority, female, small and disadvantaged business programs have proven to be one of Atlanta’s best examples of tackling tough, emotionally charged issues. The Atlanta model has been copied and magnified by federal and international agencies to undue past discrimination and to right the wrongs of exclusionary business practices. The programs’ successes, not its failures, offer a blueprint for the city’s legacy of commitment to equal economic opportunity.

This is the first piece in a series about equal economic and educational opportunity


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