Posted on September 19, 2022

What Will Become of ‘America’s Blackest City’?

Michael Kruse et al., Politico, September 16, 2022

There has never in the history of the United States of America been anything like this five-year-old city. On the southwest outskirts of Atlanta, it is a mostly suburban municipality with a population of some 108,000 of which nine of every 10 of the residents are Black. Of places of its size, it is statistically the Blackest by far. A hundred or so years after millions of rural Black people began to alter the contours of national politics by migrating toward better jobs and lives in cities, then suburbs, across the country, the existence and the autonomy of South Fulton would seem like a welcome culmination of a long evolution from powerlessness to power. The mostly middle-class Black people here have achieved the financial and political wherewithal to run things their way and for their benefit.

And the city is tearing itself apart.

On a recent summer morning, the mayor of South Fulton held an impromptu press conference outside the dilapidated condominium building where he lives. Speaking to a small group of supporters and reporters, he had a message for his constituents.

“All power to the people!” said khalid kamau, his fist held high toward the blue sky.

“All power to the people!” the people said.

All power to the people,” kamau said.

Flanked by an ally in a shirt that blared “Black on Purpose” and a street activist wearing pink hair, pink tights and black tactical gear, kamau then delivered an unprecedented broadside against no small share of the government of this city he was elected to lead.

“I am here today because sometimes you gotta fight your people to fight for your people. Seven months ago, I was elected the city of South Fulton’s second mayor. I ran on a platform here in the Blackest city in America that we should be Black on purpose, period. Being Black on purpose isn’t just about policymaking. It is about rethinking how we do government for the benefit of the people, with a platform and an agenda written not by me, but by all of you. We won an election decisively, with 60 percent of the vote, in every district of this city, across every demographic. Some folks, some folks say I’m a young mayor — I’m 45, but I’ll take it — and in doing so, they have attributed my difficulties with this council to a lack of maturity. But it’s a lie. And even more problematic, it’s an inconvenient excuse to avoid how dysfunctional this city council has been.”

How South Fulton found itself in this predicament — its Black mayor openly at war with its all-Black city council, not to mention its Black former mayor and many of its more prominent citizens — is a story of the sometimes painful, unintended consequences of Atlanta’s fraught history of segregation, desegregation and resegregation. More than any other city in America, Atlanta has represented the promise of Black civil rights, but in South Fulton the fulfillment of that promise has birthed new, complicated problems. And as is so often the case, the roots of these problems can be traced in the major demographic shifts of the last two decades.

From 2000 to 2020, major cities with significant Black populations have turned decidedly less Black — New York, Detroit, Baltimore and others. In a sense, it is a reversal of the “Great Migration” that turned America’s cities into anchors of Black political power. The political consequences differ from city to city. Some, such as Washington and Chicago, have been grappling with a shift away from longstanding Black political power structures — even though the mayors are Black. Atlanta is different: Although the Black population inside the city limits went down in that 20-year span from 253,564 to 233,018, the metropolitan area as a whole has been a beneficiary. In that time, the Black population went up by 67 percent.

One of the most striking changes is the existence of South Fulton, a new city that arose in what not long ago was unincorporated south Fulton County. Here, the population has soared, influx from Atlanta as well as northern states. But South Fulton had challenges from the start — no real town center, no real main street, odd borders and a far-flung map that contribute to a lack of a sense of unity and place, and most materially a tax base that depends too heavily on residential instead of commercial sources of revenue. These intrinsic drawbacks helped engender the current level of discord that has been described by members of the city council themselves as a “debacle,” as a “circus,” as “childish” and “embarrassing.” Between the current mayor and the former mayor and the city council and the city attorney and the police chief and other department heads, the visceral friction is variously a function of generational differences, ideological preferences, conflicting beliefs about economic development and just plain personal animosities. But at the heart of it all actually is a much more fundamental question of identity.

Pronounced kuh-LEED kuh-MAH-oo, the mayor legally changed his name when he was 18, choosing to use all lowercase letters in the West African Yoruban tradition that prizes the community over the individual. Whereas the former mayor and most of the council members practice the incremental, integrationist, typically more moderate politics of Atlanta’s Black elite, kamau is much more radical — a gay, Christian, socialist, self-described “elected activist” and “Black nationalist,” a former film student, flight attendant, bus driver, Black Lives Matter organizer and city council member. As mayor, he has to this point, and to the constant consternation of his fellow Democratic South Fulton elected officials, stressed his slogans of “America’s Blackest City” and “Black on Purpose.” His goal, he has said, is to create here not only a “laboratory” for progressive policy but “a real-life Wakanda” — the fictional Black African empire that is the setting for the movies “Black Panther” and the forthcoming “Wakanda Forever.”

And here now, at this press conference on the top step of the building in which he lives in a one-bedroom apartment in a ramshackle condo complex called Camelot, just off the blighted Old National Highway, kamau turbocharged the increasingly definitional tension of South Fulton. He accused the city of hiding public records. He all but called the police department corrupt. He attempted to fire the city attorney. He reiterated his request to hire a therapist for the city.

“Being Black on purpose is acknowledging that we have been conditioned as a people to be crabs in a barrel. That’s what you see happening. That’s the behavior you see happening on council. It’s a crabs-in-a-barrel mentality. But what we should be asking is: Who put us in this barrel? A crab’s natural habitat is the ocean. When you see me getting busy, when you see me swinging in this barrel, I’m not pushing against the other crabs. I’m pushing against the barrel to knock it over and get us back into the ocean,” he said. “I’m gonna close by saying this. I want to apologize in advance to the citizens of the city of South Fulton for the months of negative press coverage that are sure to follow this conference. I promise I would not take such drastic measures if I thought there were any other way to move forward. But I also promise you this: A more noble city lies on the other side of these troubled waters. Do not fall victim to the post-traumatic slave narrative that Black people cannot rightly govern.”


In modern, post-World War II America, Atlanta and its expanse have a particular history of race-related migrations. In the 1960s and ’70s, in the wake of the desegregation of the city’s public schools, tens and then hundreds of thousands of white people moved from the city that sits at the center of Fulton County and out into its more suburban, unincorporated parts and beyond. In the ’70s and ’80s, more and more Black people did the same, and for many of the same reasons — more house, more space, better schools and opportunities for their kids. In some sense, in this area in the back half of the 20th century, white flight led to Black flight led to more white flight, resulting over time in a stark bifurcation of the population: White people generally lived to Atlanta’s north and east, and Black people to its south and west.

And in this century, beginning in the middle of its first decade, people in the predominantly whiter, wealthier portions of Fulton County started moving not so much physically as politically. In what clear-eyed critics considered simply the latest iteration of age-old dynamics that now amounted to thinly hidden racism, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek and Milton split from Fulton County and incorporated as independent cities — citing the desire for autonomy but in the process stripping the county of tax dollars that funneled to Blacker, relatively poorer South Fulton, too. This maneuvering triggered a sort of fraught domino effect of incorporation and annexation, a countywide scramble for taxes and land that ultimately left unincorporated all but 86 of Fulton’s 529 square miles. Functionally on their own but still governed by commissioners of the county, the people here in November of 2016 finally voted to officially become a city.


In South Fulton, the city hall doesn’t look like a city hall — an unremarkable brick building on Fulton Industrial Boulevard, cars and trucks whizzing by. Inside, the city council meets in a drab room with fluorescent lights and a makeshift dais. And in a specially scheduled meeting four days after kamau’s Camelot press conference, in a tense convening in which it felt like most of the onlookers on-hand were kamau supporters from the area’s Black activist community, the council effectively un-fired the city attorney — kamau could do what he did, according to the city charter, and the council also could do what it did — voiced strenuous support for the police department and its chief, stripped kamau of his duty as chair of this meeting and finally and unceremoniously instituted a vote of no confidence in the mayor.

“A vote of no confidence in Mayor khalid kamau is warranted. It is necessary,” said a practically seething Corey Reeves, the mayor pro tem. He called kamau’s remarks earlier in the week “misleading,” “false” and “simply irresponsible.” He “stood on the steps of Camelot condominiums,” Reeves continued, “and instead of calling out the slum lords, he chose to call out this council by saying there is a culture of corruption, a culture in which it is perceived he is the nucleus.” He said he and his fellow members of council had been “rendered choiceless” in their no-confidence vote.


In the beginning, there was a rush of enlightened, almost universally popular lawmaking. The city council decriminalized marijuana, made Election Day a holiday and raised the wages of all city employees to at least $15 an hour, among other progressive initiatives. But hardly anybody talks about any of that now. Much more memorable is the intra-city sniping, the feuding, the frequently raucous and rancorous meetings. One council member once accused another council member of threatening her with a Taser. The chief municipal judge of South Fulton’s all-Black-female court that early on went viral with the hashtag of #blackgirlmagic was fired for allegedly bullying staff and allowing an HBO camera crew to film in the courtroom without approval. The city council investigated council member Helen Willis and Bill Edwards when he was mayor for reportedly steering a $27-million deal to the development authority of the county instead of the city, but didn’t vote to remove them. “It’s like we’re living in a burning house,” said Mark Baker, then the mayor pro tem. Early on, the council even voted to change the very name of the city — to Renaissance — only to have Edwards veto it. “It’s like we’re trying to create an identity,” a resident said at the time, “that doesn’t really exist.”

Now, here in the meeting in the wake of kamau’s Camelot comments, the rest of the city council took turns censuring the mayor.


If there’s never been a suburb quite like South Fulton, there’s also never been a mayor quite like khalid kamau.

The younger of two sons of an accountant and a nurse with the surname Stevens, kamau went from voting for Hillary Clinton in the primaries in 2008 to being a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016 to saying shortly thereafter he wanted to be the Barack “Obama of democratic socialism.” In opposition to the Atlanta tradition of Black politicians and white corporate kings partnering to promote a pro-growth, “New South” agenda — an alliance critics at times have considered “little more than a white business venture in blackface” — kamau in contrast has said, “capitalism won’t save Black people.” Because “a system that is built on exploitation,” he added, “in a country that is built on the exploitation of my people for 400 years — that system can never serve us.”

He grew up in south Fulton County in what he calls “a very successful upper-middle-class family” — the “Huxtables,” he said — but his parents’ success, he came to think, was not the same as his people’s success. In middle school, he organized a student protest to petition teachers to use the names of African nations in an Olympics-themed field day. After graduating from Tri-Cities High School in East Point — also the alma mater of the hip-hop duo called OutKast — kamau went to private, predominantly white Ithaca College in upstate New York. Before he graduated in 1998, the school confirmed, he was a cinema and photography major, part of the gospel choir and active in the African Latino Society. He spent a semester abroad in South Africa studying post-Apartheid democracy. {snip}


And so he ran for mayor. “South Fulton is the Blackest city in America,” he said in an interview with “As such, our greatest challenges are connected to the systemic racism that all majority Black cities face — undervalued homes, underperforming schools, and lack of access to capital for local businesses. I want to use our $127-million budget to invest inward — to buy and develop our land and cultivate our local businesses,” he added. “My detractors are afraid that my inwardly focused economic development strategy will scare away ‘white’ investment. This is ludicrous on its face. We have had generic, race-neutral economic development campaigns for decades that have yielded no actual economic development.” During his campaign, he traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the 100th anniversary of the racist razing of “Black Wall Street.” It was “a successful and self-sufficient Black community,” he said while he was there. “If it existed once, it can exist again.”


Away from city hall, in response to the rhetoric of the current mayor, the former mayor and the current members of the city council and local state legislators reject his entreaties for the “Blackest City in America” to be “Black on Purpose.”

“I think it puts emphasis on the wrong thing,” Edwards said.

“They’re not positive for the city,” Bruce, one of the state reps, said of those terms. “When we created the city of South Fulton, we didn’t create it so that it would be the Blackest city. It just turns out that way because that’s who lived there.”

“Wakanda forever?” fellow state rep. Debra Bazemore said. “I’m like, ‘You do know that’s fictional, right? You do know that was a movie?’”

“I was born and raised in Savannah,” said council member Helen Willis, “and they did not become one of the top tourist spots in America by selling it as being a majority Black city.” She recalled a recent disconcerting conversation with a developer. “One of the things that was shared with me was, ‘I wanted to come in and meet the leadership, but I have to be honest with you: When I heard the ‘Black on Purpose,’ when I heard, ‘The Blackest City in America,’ me being Caucasian, that was very intimidating to me. Does that mean that you don’t welcome me because I’m Caucasian and you are ‘the Blackest city,’ you are ‘Black on Purpose’? And I had to spend time explaining to this person who wants to extend their business in our city and who’s doing a great job with the business they currently have that, no, that is not the vision, and that is not the narrative of the majority of the council members. That is one person. That is not how we feel.”


She stressed in an interview with POLITICO the importance of adding to the city’s commercial tax base by attracting certain sorts of well-known businesses.

“Starbucks, if you’re listening, I got space for you!” she said with a laugh.

It’s a typical approach that’s exasperating to kamau.

“‘Black on purpose’ policy is to stop begging,” he told POLITICO. “If Starbucks won’t do it, then we start our own coffee,” he said. “Now, if you needed to say ‘Starbucks’ because you think white people’s ice is colder, that’s a different conversation. If you need the Starbucks name on it to make you feel like you have value, then that’s another conversation that we need to have.”

Same thing, in kamau’s view, with grocery stores — Publix, Kroger, whatever big chain supermarkets people say they want to see in South Fulton. He described essentially a food co-op. What kamau wants instead of external recruitment is in-house development — a kind of South Fulton-specific socialism. “Yes,” he said. “Afrosocialism.”