Defining Atlanta From Voices in Its Past

Narrative about two Atlanta mayors elucidates the role of race in Olympic city

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Standing before the Olympics selection committee in Tokyo six years ago, then Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson delivered a brief speech in a last-ditch effort to convince officials the Southern city should be selected to host the 1996 Centennial Games.

"Atlanta stands before the world a miracle modern city rebuilt from the rubble of war," the mayor said. "With the Phoenix as our official symbol, we are a city risen from the nineteenth-century ashes of a tragic, earth-scorching conflict as old as the earth is old and as new as today's headlines. Peace, justice, tolerance, human rights, new moral values, understanding between people of different races and cultures. Atlanta ... is the embodiment of the Olympic ideal."

As the world gets ready to focus its attention on Atlanta this July, visitors and viewers will likely see some evidence of Jackson's words: a modern metropolis that has sprouted gleaming buildings, built a maze of freeways, and earned a reputation for its racial harmony and expanding black middle class.

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Indeed, the issue of race, more than anything, has molded and shaped Atlanta. But to really understand its impact, one must go beyond observations or a museum visit to the pages of literature. Now joining the books that elucidate the role of race is Gary M. Pomerantz's "Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn," a skillfully written 656-pager that at least one Atlanta newspaper columnist calls required reading for journalists heading here to cover the city and the Olympic Games.

Pomerantz, a reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, tells the story of Atlanta through the family histories of two mayors - the white Ivan Allen Jr. and the city's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson.

The book's title is significant. Peachtree Street was once the tony address for the city's elite whites. Sweet Auburn Avenue served as the hub of black entrepreneurship and culture; Fortune magazine in 1956 called it the richest street in the world for blacks. Though the two streets converge downtown, the worlds of their residents remained separate and segregated for much of this century. Yet these individuals did much to define what Atlanta is today.

"Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn" begins in Tennessee in the early 1800s and first traces the families through slavery and the Civil War. Allen's forebears owned slaves; Jackson's ancestors were owned. The real meat of the story, however, begins with Ivan Allen Jr.'s father and Maynard Jackson's grandfather, who both settled in Atlanta at the turn of the century.

Each man became well-known in his community. Ivan Earnest Allen Sr. started an office-supplies business, served in the Georgia Senate, and was a leader in the white business community. John Wesley Dobbs, Jackson's grandfather, was a railway mail clerk, noted orator, and black leader who raised six daughters, all Spelman College graduates.

Pomerantz spent five years of research and used letters, documents, and interviews with family members for the book, which is written in a narrative style. Events that shaped Atlanta, such as the 1906 race riot that killed a number of blacks, are made more real and interesting because they are relived, in many instances, through those who experienced them.

"Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn" documents not only the changes in the city, but also the transformation many in the white and black communities underwent as their lives became intertwined.

Most dramatic perhaps is the change that occurred in Ivan Allen Jr., who served as mayor from 1962 to 1970. Allen grew up in privilege, a white Southern aristocrat. He took over as head of his father's prosperous company, hobnobbed with the well-heeled white Atlanta families, and immersed himself in civic duties. Allen held on to segregation as if it was a breakable heirloom - deferring to a way of life that his elders held as right. He even once proposed a state-funded program to relocate discontented blacks out of state or back to Africa.

But as the civil rights struggles rocked the South, events that coincided with his campaign for political office, Allen changed into a Southern liberal. Bucking traditions held by the white ruling class, he became a gradual champion for the black cause, helping preserve the peace between black and white Atlanta as other cities burned during the '60s.

"He was a creature of his own discoveries and now, for the first time, he was beginning to discover blacks," Pomerantz writes of Allen's views in 1960. "The minute I got into it, it was showing, this great antagonism of race," Ivan Jr. recalls. "You'd begin to learn as you went along."

Maynard Jackson, who was elected Atlanta's first black mayor in 1973 (he served '73-'81 and '89-'93), ushered in another era that would see more changes for the city: continued white flight, urban decay, growing black political representation, and the quest to win the Olympic Games. An eloquent and dynamic speaker, Jackson would continue the legacy of his grandfather, who started the family dynasty early this century.

"Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn" is a fascinating history lesson of a city that still seems to be searching for its identity, even as it's about to be placed under the world's biggest spotlight - the Olympics.

Writes Pomerantz: "Atlanta's emergence as a symbol of the New South has been as much an exercise in public relations as in morality, for it is hard to imagine a city that has more carefully managed and manipulated its image as a hospitable place of racial moderation. The wonder truly is that the image was projected with such vigor for so long to become, in many ways, the reality."

* Elizabeth Levitan Spaid is a Monitor staff writer based in Atlanta.

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