Atlanta becomes mecca for black middle class in America

EVERY day Owen Montague gets a short stack of messages from California, Florida, and Ohio from black professionals who want to move to Atlanta and are looking for job contacts. The pull of Atlanta as a ``black mecca'' is growing steadily stronger in the business world, says Mr. Montague, who runs Atlanta Exchange, a networking organization for local black business and professional groups.

The capital of the South - old and new - has been the seat of black achievement in the United States for decades, from the post-Civil War elite black colleges, to the civil rights leadership of the 1960s, to Mayor Maynard Jackson's milestone successes in the 1970s at converting black political strength into economic advancement for black businesses.

Atlanta's image as the mecca of black America has added some sting to recent investigations and news leaks about alleged drug use and alleged cover-ups by nationally prominent black politicians.

The allegations have largely faded as the estranged wife of state Sen. Julian Bond recanted her angry assertions that her husband and others, including Mayor Andrew Young, used cocaine.

But a cloud has remained. A grand jury is probing a call Mayor Young made to Mrs. Bond the day after she walked into police headquarters with her sensational allegations. Was the mayor, a close friend of the Bonds and a minister by vocation, counseling a troubled friend or intimidating a witness? Why were two officers who took Mrs. Bond's report soon transferred to another division?

On the other hand, details of Mrs. Bond's report leaked to the press before a police internal memorandum was even sent. Many here suspect an attempt to embarrass the city's black political leadership in the police department's leak and in the grand jury inquiry that reportedly concerns Young.

To some supporters of Atlanta's black leaders, the scandal shows that white resistance to black political strength remains. Some note that leaders who are black automatically become symbolic leaders of the whole black community. So the scandal taints blacks in general, however slightly, in the minds of nonblacks who know little of black life.

``Some of us get up early in the morning to read the paper so we know what we're going to have to explain to our co-workers,'' says Charles Johnson, a black lawyer in a predominantly white downtown law firm.

``You are talking about individuals whose lives are so intertwined with so much that is precious and valuable in the black community,'' says Molefi Assante, a leading Afro-Americanist at Temple University. ``It would be a real shame if any of the charges turned out to be true.''

The roots of Atlanta's preeminence are in the elite black colleges, especially Morehouse for men and Spelman for women, which have produced generations of the best and brightest, from Martin Luther King Jr. to four out of five black members of the local Fulton County Commission.

From the orbit of the colleges, Atlanta developed an elite, a wealthy and educated black aristocracy, unmatched in any other American city. Atlanta now sees a growing black business and professional class. Black Enterprise magazine's May issue dubbed Atlanta, among the five best US cities for blacks in business, ``the city of the next generation.''

While most middle-class blacks live in some of the city's affluent black neighborhoods, Atlantans note an increasing integration of trendy in-town neighborhoods and even more black families in the white bastions of the northern suburbs.

Atlanta leaders decided early on not to resist the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, and racial peace prevailed, helping to sustain Northern investment and clinching Atlanta's place as the New South capital. Until Maynard Jackson became mayor in 1973, however, blacks held little economic power.

The turning point was the building of Hartsfield Airport, now the nation's second busiest. Mr. Jackson stood fast in demanding that minority contractors get a prominent share of the airport work, either directly or through joint ventures. Jackson claims that airport contracts created 21 black millionaires. More important, it boosted some good small companies into big-league contractors, companies that had lacked the experience or the credit access to land major jobs.

Still, local government contracts are the ``bread and butter'' of minority entrepreneurs, says Michael Lomax, chairman of the Fulton County Commission. Although most people here see Atlanta workplaces as the most racially integrated in the country, even now, Mr. Lomax adds, ``only vigilance maintains integration in business.''

Successful black businessmen and professionals are subjected to strains of conscience and public obligations that white colleagues and competitors seldom know. And social conscience is almost certainly more active among successful young blacks than among whites here. ``One of the things that distinguishes young blacks from a lot of their counterparts is a sense of being part of something,'' says Mr. Johnson, ``feeling an obligation to put something back into the community.''

Montague, whose Atlanta Exchange works to involve black professionals in community projects, notes that a deeply ingrained tradition ties community prestige to community service. Supporting churches, political causes, the Butler Street YMCA, the Urban League, or the NAACP and joining black associations have become well-established steppingstones to advancement.

But skepticism is still rampant that the black middle class has been able to do much to improve life for the vastly greater numbers of black poor. The black middle class lacks the kind of money to have a strong impact. ``A lot of us whose wealth consists of wages and salaries are beginning to save and invest and build equity, but from a base of wages,'' Johnson says.

``Life is keeping your head above water,'' says Charles H. King, president of the Atlanta Urban Crisis Center, who believes middle-class blacks have had little effect on the larger black community. ``Especially when you're young, you're fighting ... to make it.''

Lomax, who is also an English professor at Spelman College, finds the attitude ``corrosive'' that blacks who succeed are somehow responsible for the persistence of black poverty.

The black middle class should not forget the struggles of the rest of black Atlanta, he says, but it is unfair to demand that local black politicians or black businessmen solve a historic national problem.

``We've also got to reinforce and nurture those who have done well. It's great to be black in Atlanta, but it's still tough to be black in America,'' he says.

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