What's in a name? In Atlanta, a whole lot

A proposal to rename the world's busiest airport after a black mayor has put racial tensions into sharp focus.

When pilots navigate through thunderheads over Atlanta, the call sign they're sweating to hear is "Hartsfield." While not many know the man, they do know the airport: That appellation is on more ticket stubs than is any other airport name in the world, with some 76 million travelers trooping through Atlanta's terminals last year alone.

William Berry Hartsfield, who died in 1971, was a long-tenured mayor who was so enthralled by the possibilities of flight that he taught himself to fly. But, today, the "daddy" of Southern aviation, as he's called, is in danger of losing his call sign at the former racetrack that he helped turn into a world-renowned hub.

After the June death of Atlanta's first black mayor, Maynard Jackson, a throng of African-Americans, including Mr. Jackson's widow, have pushed for the city to rename the sprawling airport for him. In a black city where most memorials are to dead white men, the potential name change is turning into a crude tug of war between African-Americans and the city's predominantly white business interests.

While Hartsfield himself was no Jim Crow pitchforker, the attack on his namesake has some similarities to a larger trend, where blacks in the South are vowing to tear down Confederate symbols - and replace them with, as one city councilor says, "fair, inclusive" memorials.

To be sure, blacks now have the political clout in the city. But recent years have seen a growing power struggle over gentrification - whites taking over historically black neighborhoods - in which many blacks see themselves as subjugated by larger, mostly white, business interests.

"Naming an airport after a black man in Atlanta is almost tantamount to taking down the Confederate flag," says Robert Bullard, an Atlanta sociologist and co- author of "Sprawl City," a book about the role of race in the city's growth. "A lot of things have changed, but this still remains a very segregated city."

Driving forces

So far, much of the debate is being driven not on the street, but by the political machine that Jackson created, and which has supported, for better or worse, a continuous line of black mayors since Jackson left office. Meanwhile, throngs of others are pleading with Mayor Shirley Franklin to keep the name. She has tried to build bridges with the white community by, among other things, hiring more whites at City Hall.

With 44,800 jobs and worth $16 billion a year to the local economy, the airport is not just the city's biggest employer - it's the pilot of the city's soul. "The airport has propelled Atlanta to the verge of being an international kind of city," says William Boone, a political scientist at Clark Atlanta University. "The airport becomes a symbol of Atlanta, so it's important to everybody."

Yet Atlanta is also ostensibly the epicenter of the civil rights movement. After all, an "eternal" gas flame still flickers above Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb in the Sweet Auburn district. The city is the home of 100 Black Men Inc., Concerned Black Clergy, and Atlanta Black Agenda.

Politically speaking, Hartsfield himself was a moderate. But many say he was still part of the white business interests that blacks, up until the 1960s, called, simply, "Mr. Charlie."

"I'm conceding that aviation helped put Atlanta on the map, but there was not economic parity nor inclusion of the total citizenry in the political process," says city councilor C.T. Martin Jr.

What's more, predatory lending in black neighborhoods and lack of investment by corporations in predominantly black parts of the city has driven a current of bitterness. The city's bus system was supposed to connect all five metro counties, but opposition from whites in the north meant that it serves only two counties - which are predominantly black.

Indeed, the fight to give blacks more power and prestige in the city took a personal toll on Jackson. "Maynard Jackson was the first black mayor of a major Southern city, and he made gains for the city as a whole, and he couldn't get a job [afterward]," says Mr. Boone at Clark Atlanta. "That's the backdrop to this story."

Jackson's legacy

Jackson was known as an aggressive campaigner for equal rights. He instituted affirmative action in the hiring of subcontractors for the airport. He also pointed out that while the airport is situated in predominantly black south Atlanta, those dealing with its noise and pollution were largely shut out of opportunities.

But white business leaders here say that involving the airport in a race debate is not only irresponsible, but unfair to Hartsfield, who supported the civil rights movement. To many, the move to rename the airport smacks of revisionism.

"It's tremendously upsetting that this should turn into a racial issue," says Sam Massell, the last white Atlanta mayor, who championed the name Hartsfield for the new terminal built in 1980. "All of us [mayors] have had some part in nurturing the growth of the airport, but as far as creating the opportunity for this economic engine, Bill Hartsfield was the one that's entitled to that credit."

So far, Ms. Franklin, the city's first woman mayor, hasn't weighed in. Instead, she appointed a commission to study ways to honor Jackson and Ivan Allen, a former mayor who also died this summer. That group - made up of eight blacks, eight whites, and one Asian - will make its recommendations next month.

Privately, Ms. Franklin has said she believes the commission will return a "responsible" decision. But as has been made clear this summer, it won't be easy for the committee to maneuver Atlanta's roiling racial legacy. "Sometimes what happens," says Boone, "... is that an issue has come to the front which acts as a metaphor for the whole undercurrent of race that we've yet to resolve in the country."

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