Revisiting Atlanta’s 45-Year Reputation as the “Black Mecca”

By Todd M. Michney

This blogpost is in commemoration of Black History Month, a tradition started in 1926 by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) and which the Georgia Institute of Technology observes by sponsoring an annual lecture.

In 1971 Ebony magazine, the nation’s premier and most widely-read African American monthly serial, published an article by staff writer Phyl (Phyllis) Garland titled “Atlanta: Black Mecca of the South.”  Although it was not the first U.S. city to which that label was applied[1], the moniker stuck.  Coming on the eve of Maynard Jackson’s ascent to the mayoralty, the implications of Atlanta’s singular achievement and rising prominence among Southern cities, embodied in the term “mecca,” fit well with the city’s rapidly growing economy and carefully-managed image of steady progress toward racial equality.  Furthermore, as alluded to by the author herself, Garland’s article appeared at a time when opportunities for African Americans in larger Northern and Western metropolises were looking far less promising, with deindustrialization setting in and frustrations in many such cities’ black neighborhoods becoming manifest in a succession of riot-torn, “long, hot summers.”

black-mecca-tp
First page of the original Ebony article “Atlanta: Black Mecca of the South,” courtesy Google Books/ Johnson Publishing.

Atlanta’s reputation as a Black Mecca has proven durable, although numerous commentators over the years have pointed out where the city falls short – some stridently – insofar as the benefits of economic growth have not been distributed equally either to African American Atlantans relative to whites, or among them as a group. This past November, Georgia State University’s Law School hosted a symposium entitled “Still the Black Mecca?  Race, Social Inequality, and Urban Displacement in 21st Century Atlanta,” featuring contributions from speakers including scholars, activists, and other community stakeholders. In a subsequent interview, one of the event’s co-organizers, Dr. Kali-Ashet Amen, explained its planners’ main underlying concern:  “[T]his symposium was explicitly about equity – not equal opportunity, not access, not ‘diversity’ – but rather, racial equity; which is to say, we are concerned with the evaluation of fairness and justice in both the policies and the business deals that are being brokered in the name of urban progress.”

 

Revisiting Garland’s original article offers us a chance to assess how Atlanta has lived up to the Black Mecca label over the past four decades, from our contemporary standpoint where so much has changed, even as striking continuities remain. While we readily recall her hopeful tone – which in fact characterized most of the accompanying articles in that issue of Ebony on the theme of “The South Today” – we typically forget that Garland’s subtitle was equivocal:  “Racial peace, prosperity are mixed with problems in this bustling boomtown.” Garland was neither a native booster of, nor a naïve believer in Atlanta’s supposed racial progressivism. Born in Pennsylvania and having started her career reporting on civil rights topics for the black-owned Pittsburgh Courier (famous for its militant “Double V” campaign during World War II), she went South in 1965 after joining Ebony, where she interviewed Fannie Lou Hamer among other black female activists in Mississippi, and reported on the early political gains from the Voting Rights Act. Just months before her “Atlanta: Black Mecca” article appeared, Garland had published another piece of reportage on the city, treating the campaign by the Community Coalition on Broadcasting which successfully pressured local radio stations to hire more African Americans in positions of authority. Incidentally, a striking contemporary parallel to this effort is a current lawsuit filed by black employees of CNN alleging the existence of a “glass ceiling” in hiring and promotion at this Atlanta-based company.

maynard-jackson
Maynard Jackson, courtesy of Google Books/Johnson Publishing

Garland’s tentative rendition of Atlanta as a mecca for black politics came as the election of its first African American mayor was looking increasingly likely – she mentioned a perception that Jackson had been “campaigning unofficially” ever since becoming vice-mayor – in no small part due to the city’s black proportion reaching a majority. An attempt to delay this eventuality had been the underlying impetus behind Mayor William Hartsfield’s successful push to annex large portions of unincorporated Fulton County in 1952, which tripled the size of Atlanta’s geographic area. “Now a healthy 51 per cent of the population, they have made their power felt on all levels of local government and anticipate the day when that slim margin will be so solidly reinforced that they might push open even bigger official doors,” Garland wrote. Among the notable recent political gains she mentioned were the election to a statehouse seat of civil rights and anti-Vietnam war activist Julian Bond, formerly with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and who attended Morehouse College; around the time the article appeared, he had co-founded the Southern Poverty Law Center. Still on the horizon was the entry into local politics of two other civil rights veterans:  John Lewis, also with SNCC, and Andrew Young, the former executive director of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). Young had been instrumental in organizing SCLC’s “citizenship schools” that increased voter registration in rural areas; in 1972 he became the first African American elected to represent Georgia in Congress since Reconstruction, and in 1981 he would succeed Maynard Jackson as Atlanta’s second black mayor. Lewis – already famous as a Freedom Rider as well as for his role in the 1965 Selma march – had relocated to Atlanta in 1967 to head up the Voter Education Project. Following his election to Atlanta’s City Council in 1981, Lewis defeated Bond in a bitter 1986 contest for Young’s former 5th U.S. Congressional seat that Lewis still holds today. While Atlanta was not the first major U.S. city to elect an African American mayor, its unbroken succession of black mayoral leadership since 1973 is the longest-running in the country, with Detroit recently having broken a comparable streak in 2013. However, with the city’s African American population in decline due to black suburbanization and white gentrification, the likelihood of Atlanta continuing this tradition is no longer assured. In fact, changing demographics raise the question of whether the post-civil rights model of black political leadership in Atlanta and elsewhere may be moribund.

Atlanta’s black-owned businesses constituted perhaps the most hopeful note in Garland’s “Black Mecca” article, as she referenced a recently-coined Nixonian phrase in concluding “black capitalism has been practiced . . . [in Atlanta] long before it was given a name.” Receiving particular attention for having just completed its twelve-story headquarters was the Citizens Trust Co., founded in 1921 by Heman Perry, a black businessman and real estate developer of the then-suburban Washington Park neighborhood. Currently the fourth-largest black-owned bank in the country, Citizens Trust remains true to its roots of lending on homes, and recently saw a spike in new account openings as a result of Atlanta hip-hop artist and social activist Killer Mike’s #BankBlack campaign. Yet despite such efforts, African American-owned financial institutions in Atlanta and elsewhere have struggled to remain solvent; Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Co., another institution mentioned in the article and a longtime landmark on the city’s historic Auburn Avenue, did not fare as well, closing in 2000. Alonzo Herndon, Atlanta’s first African American millionaire and founder of the Atlanta Life Insurance Co. – currently the second-largest such black-owned firm in the country – also received mention, alongside T.M. Alexander, another pioneer in that industry who had famously insured cars owned by Montgomery Bus Boycott supporters when their coverage was punitively discontinued. Garland also mentioned the city’s foremost black builder of the 1950s, Walter H. “Chief” Aiken, as well as the up-and-coming black developer of the 1960s, Herman J. Russell. Russell’s was among those black-owned construction companies that benefited from Mayor Jackson’s expansion of affirmative action programs (begun under his predecessor Sam Massell), which ensured that one-quarter of contracts for the Hartsfield Airport expansion were reserved for minority-owned firms. An article in Black Enterprise several years later lauded Russell, even as it hinted at the fragility of the city’s more than 2,000 black-owned businesses at the time. Strikingly, while Russell’s company remains among Atlanta’s top five largest African American firms along with Citizens Trust, a food service business and two car dealerships now share that distinction. Furthermore, Atlanta’s black business enterprises are increasingly more prominently associated with the recording, film, and television industry, symbolized in the latter case by the success of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” series on FX.

middle-class
Courtesy Google Books/Johnson Publishing

Finally, even as Garland celebrated Atlanta’s upwardly-mobile black middle class, she pointed to the glaring ways that working-class and poor African Americans were being left out of the city’s growing economy. One photo featured a husband and wife who both were elementary school teachers, noting “[h]ome ownership is the great pride of black Atlantans . . . [but] most of these people are not rich . . . [p]eople are killing themselves to maintain a certain standard of living,”[2] pictured left, while another depicted a young child in Vine City, “an inner-city poverty pocket untouched by Atlanta’s reputation for affluence” (pictured below and right).

vine-city
Courtesy Google Books/Johnson Publishing

 Even as Garland pointed to “verdant neighborhoods that are the true pride and joy of the city’s black citizenry” – Collier Heights, Cascade Heights, and Peyton Forest (this last one the site of modern Atlanta’s arguably most embarrassing incident of racial intolerance) – she noted “[t]here are 160,000 people living in poverty here and two-thirds of them are black.”  State Representative Julian Bond summarized the situation: “This is the best place in the United States for a black [person] if you’re middle-class and have a college degree, but if you’re poor, it’s just like Birmingham, Jackson or any other place.” Furthermore, white flight from outlying city neighborhoods was an ongoing problem, leading Garland to conclude “Evidently Atlanta is not quite ready for integrated housing.” Demographic turnover additionally had ramifications for the city’s ability to achieve public school integration, which despite an initial move in 1961 toward compliance with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board ruling, was essentially stalled; a 1968 report had noted that 98 percent of African American children still attended all-black schools, and 65 percent of public elementary schools were “totally segregated.” Metro Atlanta still exhibits divergent outcomes for African Americans on the basis of class. On the one hand, suburban Clayton and Fayette are two of only seven counties in the entire country where blacks’ average income exceeds that of whites; at the same time, the metropolitan area ranks near the bottom among U.S. cities in terms of its potential for upward mobility. There is evidence that Atlanta’s elimination of its entire traditional public housing inventory further exacerbated inequality among African Americans, and while there is still an argument to be made that the city constitutes a “mecca” for the black middle class, even the most prosperous have been disproportionately impacted by the Great Recession, with many families experiencing downward mobility. Meanwhile, the failures of school desegregation have followed African Americans to the suburbs.

 

Much has changed in Atlanta since 1971 when Garland wrote the article that cemented the city’s reputation as a “Black Mecca.” Not only has white population decline reversed since 1990; Latinos and Asians now constitute an increasingly significant and growing share.  LGBTQ Atlantans, newly visible at the time the original article appeared, now stand at the forefront of the contemporary local civil rights movement. In the words of Dr. Kali-Ashet Amen, mentioned above as a co-organizer of the recent “Still the Black Mecca?” symposium: “[F]or the black mecca to be true to its name in the present moment, we are going to need a practical vision of multiracial, queer, and immigrant equity that is grounded in political commitments to black and brown thriving. Without that kind of intentionality, and multiracial mobilizing toward those ends, the black mecca idea loses all foundation.” With the benefit of a historical perspective – making clear that this concept from the outset was never understood so much as an established reality as a work-in-progress – we can better chart where we need to move, in order to rectify past injustices and make our city a more equitable place for everyone.

 

[1] New York (specifically Harlem), Washington, DC as the first black-majority city, and even New Orleans had previously been designated as the “colored” or “Negro mecca”; note that some white observers used the term in a derogatory way.

[2] On similar strategies by dual-income black couples elsewhere, see Todd M. Michney, Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

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