Was Atlanta's 'black mayor first' memo racist - or just blunt?

The uproar suggests that new dynamics – both politically and demographically – are at play in Atlanta and beyond.

By , Staff writer

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    City of Atlanta mayoral candidates Mary Norwood, second from left, is surrounded by a field of black candidates including Lisa Borders, left, Peter Brownlowe, right, Rod Mack, second from right, and Glenn Thomas as they make final preparations before facing off in a debate, August 6, in Atlanta.
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Bigoted. Racist. Divisive.

Those are some of the reactions from Atlanta mayoral candidates to a “hijacked” secret memo forwarding a “black mayor first” strategy for Martin Luther King Jr.’s old hometown.

But in a press conference Tuesday, the authors of the memo said that, politically speaking, Atlanta’s blacks would be well served by uniting behind one black candidate to defeat white frontrunner, Mary Norwood. They added that the uproar over the memo highlights how race discussions “put politicians in a straitjacket,” and how the realities of the Atlanta mayoral election are similar to changing demographics and election dynamics in cities all across the US.

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The authors – Clark Atlanta University political science professors Keith Jennings and William Boone – say that electing a white mayor in Atlanta would be as historic as the 1973 election of Maynard Jackson, the city's first black mayor. The election became a mile marker in the South’s civil rights struggle.

In that light, they say, the need for blacks to band together today to elect a black mayor – or at least someone highly sympathetic to black issues – are equally important in order to forward a “black agenda.”

“Time is of the essence because in order to defeat a [Mary] Norwood (white) mayoral candidacy we have to get out now and work in a manner to defeat her without a runoff, and the key is a significant Black turnout in the general election,” they wrote in the proprietary memo, which was written for the city's Black Leadership Council.

On Tuesday, the professors said media coverage had been incendiary and misleading and called claims of racism “a red herring.”

“We stand by our belief that a black agenda would enable African-American interests to be respected by any administration,” they said. “The interests of African-American voters are just as legitimate as other Atlanta voters, and the notion that we must apologize for highlighting those interests is absurd.”

Professor Jennings, however, added, “The idea that we’re instructing African-Americans how to vote is wrong. They’re capable of making up their own minds.”

But that’s not how many of Atlanta’s black and white leaders saw it. Mayor Shirley Franklin bluntly called the memo “bigoted” and hardly in the spirit of former Mayor Jackson, who ran on a platform of racial inclusion to win in 1973. Top mayoral contenders Jesse Spikes, Kasim Reed, Lisa Borders, and Mary Norwood, the sole white candidate and front-runner, all distanced themselves from the memo, calling it, among other things, racist and divisive. [Editor's note: The original version gave an incorrect last name for Atlanta's current mayor.]

Jennings said the dustup shows that “people don’t have the language to talk about race." Professor Boone added: “Race has been turned on its head and is now seen as a pejorative. Race has been turned into racist.”

But the authors said their observations are grounded in fact. They pointed to a Pew Study that lists Atlanta as one of the most segregated cities in the country, and noted that 60 percent of Atlanta’s young blacks grow up in poverty.

Yet Atlanta – and the country – has changed. There’s a black president. And in increasingly diverse Atlanta neighborhoods like Kirkwood – unlike in previous contests between white and black candidates – many blacks are sporting campaign signs for the white candidate.

“There’s new dynamics at play,” says Jim Welcome, publisher of Newsmakers Live, which broke the story.

Arguments can also be made that black mayors haven’t been able to make significant gains for the black community, and that race has moved from a primary to secondary qualification among the city’s voters. There’s also the question of whether black voters want to be seen as members of a special interest group – or individual voters looking for the best candidate

It’s one thing to tell us what to think,” the Rev. Mitzi Bickers told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “It’s another thing to tell us how to think.”

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