He was a gangly boy of seven when he became the first black kid in the Raleigh, N.C., public schools. He finished college in three years and went to Duke Law School. He quickly climbed Atlanta's social peaks, becoming the face of the 1996 Olympics and, less vaingloriously, one of the most embattled mayors of Atlanta's history.
In a scene straight out of Tom Wolfe's scathing novel, "A Man in Full," ex-mayor and civil rights icon Bill Campbell last week refused to face his lowest point lying low: Showing up at a press conference called by prosecutors, he decried 42 pages of federal corruption and racketeering charges against him as a "tabloid indictment."
Still, the week ended with the unrepentant Mr. Campbell, mayor from 1994 to 2002, giving up his fingerprints to federal agents in an indictment that threatens to tarnish his family's prodigious legacy. But for many Atlantans - especially the city's black middle class and white corporate culture - the unraveling of the Campbell era reveals a darker parable of how Atlanta conducted itself in the heyday of the 1990s, and how lost civil rights ideals, along with issues of power and politics remain a potent powder keg of the post-civil rights era.
"This will test whether Atlanta is transitioning to another phase ... where people no longer try to act as though if you don't talk about it, it'll go away," says James Cobb, a University of Georgia historian. "There's always been a local tradition of deal-making across the color line, involving the substantial black middle class and the white power structure, which has in many ways benefited the local black population and has given the sense that Atlanta is more ... progressive than other Southern cities."
Now, the question is whether that spirit has been smudged with fraud. Southern corruption has always had a peculiar bent, from Huey Long's stranglehold on Louisiana parishes to the recent arrests of county sheriffs with illegal "fiefdoms" in the Deep South, who ran corrupt oligarchies from behind the badge. Campbell's is Atlanta's second big federal case this year: Last month, a federal judge took over the DeKalb County jail, a squalid, overcrowded fortress where corruption and violence had run rampant for years.
Yet the Campbell story has a twist: The charismatic flashy dresser allegedly manipulated city government, as Professor Cobb says, "to get his," gaining financially in exchange for his choice of city contracts. "If the art of politics is about amassing power by rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, then Bill Campbell, like Richard Nixon, became a consummate politician," says former Atlanta city councilor Lee Morris, Campbell's chief antagonist on the council in the late 1990s. "And that's one of the things that I attribute to his downfall: Quite frankly, he took that to an extreme."
The indictment's impact on Atlanta is evident. Atlantans pride themselves on representing the South, a city that embodies images from Gone With the Wind to a battle-flag-flying Dixie crossroads. It's where blacks from Martin Luther King to Maynard Jackson strolled onto the national stage, laying the groundwork for young black politicos like Campbell. But Campbell's alleged transgressions are now embarrassing the city's prodigious marketing machine.
Emory University historian Joseph Crespino says that Atlanta - and the greater South - is no more prone to graft and greed than anywhere else. Indeed, the US Justice Department's list of "Top 10" corrupt states includes only three in the South. Still, Campbell's friends say the river of money running through Atlanta in the 1990s may have tempted even the Raleigh wunderkind. Not surprisingly, the new mayor, Shirley Franklin, has hired an ethics adviser for City Hall.
"No matter who you are, with respect to politics, there are a lot of temptations ... because of your position in the public eye," says Robert Smith, a Clemson University ethics expert who has watched the Campbell case unfold. "Whether that's dealings with very wealthy developers or the ability to control large sums of public funds - ways in which you can really shape the community - that provides this dimension of power that can become dangerous."
Moreover, some say the charges are an indictment not just of how Atlanta was run through the go-go '90s, but what role racial politics played in keeping graft under wraps. Part of being a progressive city was hiring more minority contractors and filling city hall with new positions. In a city that fueled the South's reformation, it was hard to criticize a popular black leader, especially one who invoked Martin Luther King Jr. in his defense.
"It's a matter of economically and politically self-interested behavior on the part of local whites ... knowing that the race card is going to come into play if a black public official is charged with malfeasance in office," says Cobb.
But it was hard to ignore the mayor. Campbell didn't try too hard to hide his flashy habits, even catching the eye of national Democrats who at one time saw a cabinet post in his future. Funny and smart, he could be seen hanging out with rap moguls and pro-footballers, even at high-stakes poker tables in Las Vegas. The indictment alleges he ordered a free air conditioning system from a city contractor - delivered along with $10,000. Authorities charge that he even convinced a Frenchman to support his reelection with a $7,000 check. Meanwhile, his city-hall tenure was marred by accusations that, at best, he seemed to overlook the taxpayer-funded bacchanals.
"Quite honestly, we could not even expose these scandals as fast as they were coming to us," says Mr. Morris, a former city councilor.
Hounded by accusations and an FBI probe while in office, Campbell, who now lives in Florida, kept his friends close and his enemies at bay, a trait he learned early on as the only black boy in Raleigh's white schools. Later in his mayorship, he chose to move his pulpit from City Hall to the studios of a local hip-hop radio station, where he ridiculed detractors.
Still, as time went on, even those tacks appeared to be losing wind: A close friend has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, and last year Campbell quit his radio show after it lingered on the bottom rung of the local radio market.
In his own defense, Campbell has said that the FBI also investigated his father, NAACP legend Ralph Campbell Sr., in the civil rights era, and has claimed the Feds are continuing a racist "witch hunt." "I give Campbell the benefit of the doubt," says Dan Blue, a North Carolina legislator and long-time friend of the Campbells. "The issue is, this will be played out in the Atlanta area, so it's [Atlantans] who will have some say in what the outcome is."
Whatever the verdict, the saga is sure to challenge assumptions about the evolving relationships of race, power, and politics in the crossroads of the New South. "The polarization that he's caused in the city is ... going to take some time for us all to get over," says Mr. Morris. "But Atlanta is the Phoenix city and we will indeed get over it."