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What's missing in Dr. King's Atlanta

By PHILIP GAILEY, Times Editor of Editorials
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 13, 2002

ATLANTA -- The years rolled back in my mind as I took a noon-time stroll through the old downtown area, looking for restaurants and bars and other establishments I once frequented back in the '60s. Few of them were to be found. The Pipe Corner, where I bought my first pipe, is now a Japanese restaurant. Herren's Restaurant is no more, even though its name still graces its deteriorating exterior. Across the street from the Ritz Carlton stands the long-abandoned Peachtree on Peachtree, the first hotel I ever stayed in. Today, it is a ghostly shell in the shadow of some of the city's finest hotels.

The search for familiar sights, however, soon gave way to memories of what really made Atlanta the center of my universe in the '60s, the most exciting place a young reporter could be in those days. This was home to the leadership of the civil rights movement -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his Southern Leadership Council, Vernon Jordan and the Southern Regional Council, Charles Morgan Jr. of the American Civil Liberties Union, John Lewis and other black heroes of the struggle. Reporters covering the civil rights story for the New York Times and other national newspapers were based here, and Ralph McGill and Eugene Patterson, the two great civil rights editors of the Atlanta Constitution, were powerful voices for racial justice whose editorial fire was aimed not only at the rural segs but at the Atlanta elite.

What a time that was. These were extraordinary people who came from ordinary backgrounds and found their places in history. They changed hearts and minds and laws. What dreams they dreamed, what a difference they made. Atlanta is not likely to see their kind again.

I can't help but wonder what Dr. King would think if he could see his hometown today. I think he would be pleased in many ways and disappointed in others -- maybe even a little angry but not discouraged. The easy part of his dream has been realized, and the hard part seems more daunting than ever. Blacks control both the Atlanta and Fulton County governments and the school board, and the city's black middle class continues to prosper. However, for all the political progress blacks have made in the South, some things haven't changed. Atlanta's schools are failing mostly black children, and too many black families still live in poverty and substandard housing.

Perhaps worst of all, some of the African-Americans who have ascended to power have betrayed Dr. King's legacy. They have corrupted a city government that should be serving the weakest of its citizens and instead have used political power to satisfy their own greed and reward their political cronies, just as white politicians have been known to do.

Last week Atlanta swore in a new black mayor, Shirley Franklin, to replace the old one, Bill Campbell, whose sleazy administration is the target of a federal corruption investigation. We don't know if a federal grand jury will hand down an indictment of the Campbell administration, but Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution already has.

Tucker, the paper's first African-American editorial page editor, has denounced Campbell as a racial "demagogue" who ignored "the legitimate minority entrepreneurs to hand out untold millions in contracts to his allies, including incompetents, crooks and sham black business owners who fronted for white companies."

As Campbell was on his way out the door, Tucker gave him another swift kick in a column headlined "No racist any worse than mayor." She wrote: "The mayor's misuse of the (minority business) program -- designed to give historically disadvantaged businesses a share of city contracts -- has damaged its credibility more than if it had been attacked by Jesse Helms and the Ku Klux Klan combined."

Greed is not always manifested in illegal schemes, kickbacks and corrupt business deals. Sometimes it is driven by a sense of entitlement. Unfortunately, the greed of Dr. King's heirs has become one of the city's most embarrassing stories. The Martin Luther King Center for Non-violence these days has almost nothing to do with furthering the martyred civil rights leader's dream and nearly everything to do with enriching his family. It has become a shameless commercial enterprise. It charges a "fee" to re-broadcast excerpts from Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech. It has, for a "fee," allowed two telecommunications companies to use footage of the Nobel Peace Prize winner in their television commercials. Meanwhile, a campaign to raise money to build a King memorial on the National Mall in Washington has stalled because King's heirs are demanding a "fee" for the use of his image in fundraising material.

Like most cities, Atlanta is getting ready to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King Day, a national holiday on Jan. 21. There will be the usual parades and speeches and street festivities. The King family will gather at his grave site to declare that his work goes on, that the dream shall never die. Sadly, what will be missing in this city he called home -- and in other cities around the country -- is an appreciation of the values that defined Dr. King's life and enriched our nation. Those values are still there for those who seek them, and the best part of all, they are free.

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