Ivan Allen Jr. and the Roots of Modern Atlanta

By Todd M. Michney

Ivan Allen mayoral office
Mayor Ivan Allen shortly after taking office in 1961. Image courtesy of the Ivan Allen Jr. Digital Collection, Georgia Institute of Technology

As mayor of Atlanta from 1962 to 1970, Ivan Allen Jr.’s legacy looms large.  Long before Allen, of course, local business and political leaders engaged in boosterism and pushed economic development, carefully managing the city’s image amid sometimes tense race relations.  From the choice of a phoenix and “Resurgens” (Latin for “Rising Again”) as the symbol and slogan of rebuilding in the immediate post-Civil War period; to eager promotion of the New South paradigm as a way toward racial “peace,” best symbolized by the 1895 Cotton States Exposition (with Booker T. Washington seeming to agree); to worries about negative publicity as a result of international reporting on the horrific 1906 race riot; to the launch of “Forward Atlanta,” a 1925 advertising campaign that persuaded numerous companies to establish their headquarters in the city, Atlanta has long been about self-promotion.  While certainly a political innovator, Allen’s basic approach was to continue along the path laid out by his predecessor William B. Hartsfield – which as explained by historian Kevin Kruse, was to enlist middle-class whites in a coalition with African Americans to support gradual civil rights reforms as evidence of progress, moderation, and modernity.  After all, it was Hartsfield who in 1958 had coined the phrase of Atlanta as a “City Too Busy to Hate” amid a climate of rising tension that culminated in the bombing of a Reform Jewish Temple that same year.

Ivan Allen 1963 cartoon
1963 editorial cartoon by Charles Bardowski showing Allen as a cautious architect of Atlanta’s rising civil rights edifice, with African Americans in a supportive but clearly subordinate role. Image courtesy of the Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies, University of Georgia

Ivan Allen, who passed in 2003, garnered much acclaim over the years for his comparative racial liberalism in an era fraught with growing controversies over the South’s and the country’s legacy of white supremacy and racial inequality.  Considering the intransigence of most white Southern politicians in the face of a growing civil rights movement, many of Allen’s actions were commendable.  Despite having previously voiced segregationist sentiments in a 1957 gubernatorial campaign, he actively courted African American support in 1961 to defeat the blatantly racist Lester Maddox, and carried through on his campaign promises to hire Atlanta’s first black firemen and desegregate the city’s parks and pools; strikingly, he ordered the removal of race-specific signage from city offices on his first day as mayor.  Allen sponsored meetings at City Hall with the Atlanta Summit Leadership Conference, a coalition of local civil rights groups, soon after its formation in 1963, and managed to organize an interracial celebratory banquet after native son Martin Luther King, Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, over the skepticism of many prominent whites.

Ivan Allen Summerhill 1966
Mayor Allen at the scene of rioting in Atlanta’s Summerhill neighborhood in September 1966, waiting his turn to address the crowd after student activist Joseph Means. Image courtesy of the Ivan Allen Jr. Digital Collection, Georgia Institute of Technology

But some black Atlantans were already impatient with the slow pace of change by the time that Allen took office.  African American students had launched a widespread sit-in movement to desegregate establishments serving the public in 1960; in fact, as a result of this activism, Allen as head of the Chamber of Commerce had negotiated an agreement to initiate the desegregation of downtown businesses in tandem with the city’s public schools.  In 1962, Allen accommodated the wishes of white residents in southwest Atlanta by building a barricade across Peyton Road, which they hoped would slow the pace of African American home purchases in the area; ordered removed by court order, he later regretted the resulting damage done to Atlanta’s reputation.  In 1963, at President John F. Kennedy’s urging, Allen became the only mayor of a major Southern city to testify in favor of a federal law guaranteeing equal access to public accommodations like restaurants and hotels –- although it should be recalled that he favored allowing individual municipalities to voluntarily desegregate, even while admitting that progress in Atlanta had been slow, and recognizing that local businesses would have little incentive to integrate without any legal requirement.

But it is perhaps Allen’s economic development priorities that had the greatest lasting impact, with the trajectory he charted stretching even into our present.  With his roots in the business community, Allen envisioned the transformation of Atlanta from a regional commercial hub to national and even international prominence.  Like Hartsfield before him, he utilized new federal programs like urban renewal to build highways and civic facilities intended to shore up downtown property values and boost tourism.  Projects like a new stadium that successfully attracted Atlanta’s first professional baseball team, along with a combined civic center and auditorium, represented the city’s new modern face; however, these projects specifically targeted for demolition older, higher-density neighborhoods that were disproportionately African American, thereby exacerbating a scarcity of affordable housing and an already tense racial climate.  In the summer of 1966, Mayor Allen had to personally plead for calm when rioting broke out in the Summerhill neighborhood, which was suffering on numerous counts in the wake of the new Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s construction.  Rather than admit the collateral effect of the city’s recent redevelopment projects, Allen blamed the disorder on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) which was actively organizing residents in the area, although he subsequently shifted emphasis toward building public housing estates to rehouse residents displaced by urban renewal [1].

The economic development strategies set in motion under Ivan Allen’s administration were continued into the subsequent decades, notably in the building of the World Congress Center, Georgia Dome, and the numerous projects associated with the 1996 Olympic Games.  Despite heavy promotion by city officials and the local business leaders, all have provoked controversies due to their disastrous effects on nearby low-income, historically African American communities.  Concerns brewing around current projects include the new Falcons Stadium and whether livability can be restored in the neighborhoods just south of downtown following the Atlanta Braves’ upcoming decampment to Cobb County.  Even the BeltLine, a former railway corridor revamped as a bike- and pedestrian-friendly trail frequently promoted as a green fix to the city’s transportation woes, is widely expected to exacerbate Atlanta’s accelerating gentrification.

Historical interest in Allen is on the rise.  A documentary on Allen premiered in 2015, joining two other films in the works on his successors, notably Atlanta’s first African American mayor Maynard Jackson (who died within a week of Allen, coincidentally).  The Georgia Institute of Technology named its Ivan Allen Jr. College of Liberal Arts in his honor in 1990, as a way of appreciating his leadership and complex legacy during a turbulent era.  In 2013, the College debuted an Ivan Allen Jr. Digital Collection containing photographs, editorial cartoons, film clips, select memorabilia, and interviews collected by Professor Ronald Bayor with individuals who worked alongside Mayor Allen.  The Atlanta History Center (AHC) recently made available to researchers the records of Allen’s mayoral administration; Professor Bayor along with Visiting Assistant Professor Todd Michney, also in the School of History and Sociology, recently won grant funding through the Digital Integrative Liberal Arts Center (DILAC), established with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to collaborate with AHC in digitizing some of these records to make them more accessible.  It is our sincere hope that by revisiting the legacy of Ivan Allen Jr., that we may gain deeper insights into Atlanta’s recent past and in the process, empower more engaged civic participation on issues impacting the city’s most economically vulnerable residents.
[1] For an extended analysis, see Irene V. Holliman, “From Crackertown to Model City?  Urban Renewal and Community Building in Atlanta, 1963-1966,” Journal of Urban History 35, no. 3 (March 2009): 369-386.

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