Is Atlanta Going White?

Tom Houck, Pine Magazine, November 5, 2007

Seriously, there is more talk about an election two years away and the possibility a dwindling black electorate, along with a surge of affluent whites, might produce the first white mayor in 36 years. The chatter for the moment is usually couched in non-racial terms, but make no mistake, race does matter.

Mayor Shirley Franklin said the unsaid at a symposium, not here, but the New School in New York on June 1, when she said out loud, “it’s not spoken about much but there are concerns that we will lose, as African-Americans, our political base, which has largely been the City of Atlanta for major leadership in the state”.

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Atlanta has long been known as “Black Mecca” for national leadership. The home to the modern day civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and, to present day, holds firm to the title. There are more black millionaires and middle income blacks in metro Atlanta than anywhere in world. The leadership from Maynard, Andy Young, John Lewis, Julian Bond, Bill Campbell and now mayor Franklin is held up around the country with a great sense of pride.

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To some, it already has. A number of Atlanta community and civil rights leaders jokingly refer to Shirley as “either our town’s last black mayor or our first white mayor,” mostly as a way to take aim at her cozy relationship with the business community. At the moment, there appears to be no black heir apparent to the coveted city hall crown and the once manicured machine run by Maynard Jackson has frayed and grayed, died off or moved to the ‘burbs.

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Yes, race still matters.

This then sets the stage for the 2009 mayoral election in Atlanta. Over the last decade, the city has witnessed a dwindling black electorate. While voter rosters still show a healthy black majority, it is nowhere near the record levels of the 80s or 90s. Many low-income blacks have been relocated with the demolition of scores of housing projects, thousands outside the city. Younger blacks who may have grown up in middle income southwest Atlanta neighborhoods and still reside here have chosen to move to the affluent southwest DeKalb new subdivisions or to the condo and apartment complexes in Clayton, Cobb, Douglas, Fulton, Gwinnett and Henry counties.

At the same time, the city has spawned revitalization in town not seen since the 40s and 50s. Atlanta’s population, once on a steep decline with a mass white migration to the suburbs in the 60s and 70s, is drastically reversing the pattern, with thousands now moving to the city. The majority of the newbies are white.

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The real horse race however is in the black community. Since 1973, there has always been a favorite among black voters who went on to become mayor. When Maynard Jackson anointed Bill Campbell, black voters followed, likewise when Maynard gave his nod to Shirley Franklin—she won. Come 2009, can (or will) Shirley play such a pivotal role? In the city council races in 2005, Franklin’s ticket cleaned house. Her endorsement was gold for both white and black candidates. But she is likely to face a dilemma.

Her longtime friend and campaign manager State Senator Kasim Reed is not only making the rounds but also gearing up for a run. Reed inherits much of Franklin’s network, but he will find a very divided base with the already announce president of the City Council Lisa Borders. Both Reed and Borders are well known commodities to the business community, but to win the hearts and minds of the black community, one will have to be “authenticated.” To add to the mix, Fulton Commissioner Robb Pitts and Atlanta City Councilman Ceasar Mitchell are likely to enter.

Mitchell has a strong community base and can count on his ties with Morehouse College to build an organization. Pitts who lost to Campbell and Franklin in past mayoral bids, has consistently demonstrated vote-getting ability since his first election to the council in 1973 and can’t be lightly cast aside.

So does race matter?

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The 2009 mayoral contest in numerous ways will be a front row seat to the future of black and white relations. Should a Clark Howard or Mary Norwood win, what impact would that have on a very proud black electorate, used to viewing the person in the mayor’s office as looking like them? Or could we see an election where a true biracial vote would elect Howard or Norwood?

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