Skip to main content

For more than 40 years, Atlanta has marketed itself as being on the forefront of radical social change – but its reality is much less progressive.

By Maurice J Hobson, The Guardian

In the 1960s, it was the “city too busy to hate” and the home of the civil rights movement. In the 1970s, it was “the black mecca of the south” and Hotlanta. In the 1990s, it was Olympic City. Today we have black Hollywood.

For more than 40 years, and indeed more than a hundred years before that, Atlanta’s multiple personalities have gripped onlookers.

Two images have stood the test of time. There is the Atlanta of Gone With the Wind, the 1930s novel and film – a city resplendent with all of the accoutrements of Southern Honor and the Lost Cause: the contention that the Confederacy was a heroic struggle, which plays down how central the aim of protecting slavery was during that period.

Gone With the Wind, portrayed an Atlanta resplendent with all the accoutrements of Southern Honor and the Lost Cause

Gone With the Wind, portrayed an Atlanta resplendent with all the accoutrements of Southern Honor and the Lost Cause

Simultaneously, there is the Atlanta of the black mecca – a city that channels and exalts the highest educational, political and economic aspirations and achievements of black people over the last century.

You would think these two polemical ideas would be nemeses, but they actually run parallel – two opposing visions that come together in a symbiotic relationship that papers over the cracks between them. Let’s call it boosterism.

Refuge for freedmen

The seeds that made Atlanta ripe for its black mecca status started in 1862 at the Battle of Antietam in Maryland – a Union victory that gave the north decisive momentum in the civil war. When General Sherman subsequently burned Atlanta to ash, newly freed former slaves tailed him to the city and found refuge there thanks to the presence of Union troops.

After the war, black Atlanta enjoyed a unique political moment for nearly two decades. Black colleges and businesses developed, as did degrees of black political empowerment. On 22 December 1886, Henry Grady, the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution newspaper, proclaimed the coming of a “new south”, and advocated Atlanta’s leading role in industrial development as a solution of the postwar south’s economic and social woes.

Though Grady’s new south did little to thwart the old south’s white supremacy, it provided a new framework that positioned Atlanta as the south’s leading city. In 1895, Atlanta lived up to that promise with the Cotton States and International Exposition, held at Piedmont Park. A celebration of the south’s purported progress, the exposition was also a renewal of white supremacy after the civil war.

Booker T Washington

Booker T Washington

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King

It was there that Booker T Washington – the dominant leader in the African American community under the Jim Crow discriminatory laws, and a key proponent of black businesses – delivered a speech to the crowds that laid the foundation of the infamous “Atlanta compromise”. In this agreement, black and white leaders agreed that southern black people would submit to white political rule in exchange for education and due process under law. The speech dealt a hammer blow in the name of white power by uttering the language that codified segregation.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.