STREET TALK: What was going on?
Atlantans recall their history during our history
The [white] person primarily responsible for building bridges [between the Black and white communities] was Robert Woodruff, because he wanted the headquarters of Coca-Cola to be in a town that he could be proud of. For that to be the case, it had to be a town that didn’t look like Birmingham or Albany, it had to be a town that had aspirations of being more like New York or Boston. When Martin Luther King, Jr., won the Nobel Prize, Woodruff decided that the white community would honor King. At first, they couldn’t sell any tickets to the celebration. Woodruff basically said, “Everybody is going to buy tickets to the celebration and everybody is going to be there.”
Woodruff and [C&S Bank president] Mills Lane wanted to build relationships between the white business community and the African American business community. And there wasn’t a place in Atlanta where they could have lunch together. None of the [business] clubs were integrated. They opened the Commerce Club, which was designed to facilitate white people andBlack people being able to meet and have lunch.
My father [Ben F. Johnson, Jr.] argued a case in the Georgia Supreme court, which resulted in the integration of Emory. To a certain extent, I felt like I was the son of Atticus Finch. I’ve always been proud of that. When I was a freshman in college, my father became the Dean of the Emory Law School and my father immediately set about integrating the law school in a significant way and to facilitate bringing Black attorneys into the profession. Even today, the most senior Black attorneys will go on and on about what my father did to facilitate getting them scholarships to Emory Law School. My father gave Maynard Jackson his first job at the Emory Law School. And a whole first generation of Black lawyers my father had picked out to start at Emory Law School then became the political leadership when things began to change.
My father [Herman Jerome Russell, Sr.] and [African-American civic and business leader] Jesse Hill would talk multiple times a day. Their conversation centered around ways to strengthen the Black business community and advocating for more inclusion in Atlanta’s business world. They were instrumental in forming the Action Forum in the 1960s that paved the way for Black business in Atlanta. The Action Forum’s incubation started out of the Commerce Club with support of key members of the white establishment. The demographics of the city were changing, and everyone realized that the power would eventually shift to Black leadership. The Action Forum facilitated the progression of Black businesses and political power into economic mainstream.
Maynard Jackson’s election as Atlanta’s first Black mayor was huge. There was deep entrepreneurial talent in the Black community and Maynard had the courage to advocate for Black economic inclusion. This has continued for over 50 years. The expansion of the airport in early ’70s was Maynard Jackson’s platform for Black economic empowerment. He advocated for Black entrepreneurs like my father and expected excellence in their profession. Relationships with Delta, Coca Cola and other white business were groundbreaking opportunities for both white and Black businesses.
I was one of six Black kids at Westminster in 1980 out of 200 or so students in my class. It was weird to be in that situation. My brother was the first Black member of the Piedmont Driving Club. I’ve always felt it was a part of my upbringing to understand others by being in their shoes. It is always an uncomfortable feeling to make yourself vulnerable but this is how you grow. The history of Atlanta is white people and Black people being vulnerable with each other and coming up with solutions. My father and his contemporaries did this and their legacy lives on in us. This is what makes Atlanta special.
My parents worked at the Southern Christian Leadership conference when Dr. [Joseph] Lowery was there. I learned that the people that are closest to the problems that we face are closest to the solution. A lot of time change doesn’t happen from the top down. It happens from the bottom up. I also learned that that the most powerful weapon against injustice is love. The opposite of love is not hate – it is fear. The more that you’re able to facilitate trust there’s a direct correlation between trust and change. Change moves at the speed of trust.
I always tell people that for many years, Atlanta was not a progressive city. I call Atlanta a pragmatic city. You know, it’s a city that shows up when it needs to save face. There are some bright spots, of course. I’ve given my whole life really to trying to bring the city together and make the city a more equitable place for everybody. But if you look at these moments in time, you will find a closed door with a whole bunch of influential white folks and a sprinkle Black folks trying to figure out a way to react to some bad press or bad thing happening and really wanting to protect Atlanta’s reputation.
One of the big challenges of the city and some of our communities is that a small group of folks in some of these disinvested communities have benefited because they’ve been able to talk the loudest and leverage their power as a way to benefit them and not the broader community. At the same time, historically, the philanthropic community and other interests have never really invested in strengthening the civic infrastructure of our city. No real money has ever been put towards really strengthening community agency and power in a way that they could learn how to organize themselves and speak for themselves. If you give the power to a small group of people, then you can control them. But if the power is shared with the people, it is very difficult to control the people.
Our first performance was in 1981 at the First Metropolitan Community Church on North Highland Avenue. We decided we needed to have a uniform look so we all wore khakis and pastel button downs. We marched into thunderous applause, it was standing room only. It was kind of overwhelming. We did a barbershop quartet version of “Georgia On My Mind” and an arrangement of “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man,” which was a big hit. When we finished, we got a standing ovation.
Not long after we started the AIDS epidemic really hit hard in Atlanta. By 1985, we were seeing deaths of our fellow singers and brothers here. Kevin Robinson, who was the director for 10 years, said that he felt like the universe established gay and lesbian choruses in the early eighties, so that they would be around when they were needed once the AIDS epidemic got going.
We would sing for a lot of memorials. I personally stopped counting at a hundred because it was just too difficult to bear. People who were in their twenties, thirties, forties – you just don’t expect to know that many people who are dying. That’s what was happening to us in the early eighties. It was very difficult and it was trying. We commissioned a big choral work called Memento Mori from a very well-known pianist and director. It was an AIDS Requiem, and among the first AIDS requiem pieces that was commissioned.
I have to give props to current artistic director Donald Milton. Every director has had their challenges: people dying around you, financial and social and personal challenges. Don has kept the chorus going throughout this pandemic. The first rehearsal of the 40th seasons was in the parking lot of the Morningside Presbyterian Church. It would have been very easy for the Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus to have an interrupted history, but thanks to him we have 40 years of uninterrupted music.
Cary Burgess, VP Senior Vice President/ Operations, Guest Services & Community Affairs and Rachel Davis, Director of Communications, Zoo Atlanta
The Atlanta Zoo started in March of 1889. There was a traveling circus on its way to Marietta and there was a problem with the finances. All the people that were working it quit. Nobody knew what to do with the group of animals because the circus just went defunct right then and there. The city put the animals up for sale at public auction. People started coming to look at the animals where they were housed. Most people in Atlanta had never seen any of these types of animals unless at a circus. A gentleman named George Valentine Gress, a local philanthropist and businessman, bought all of them and gave them to the city to form the locus of a zoo because he had a vision of a great zoo being part of Atlanta’s fabric. The city leaders looked around, they looked at Piedmont Park, and may have looked at other places. They eventually decided to house the zoo here in Grant Park.
Over portions of the ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, things were steadily declining. In 1984 everything came to a head. The zoo was getting a lot of attention because there was a series of animal deaths. That year Parade magazine called the Atlanta Zoo among the top 10 worst zoos in the US. It had become a civic embarrassment. You either had to close the zoo or do something about the zoo. It became very high profile, it was all over the news. The very public, national nature of that stain upon the zoo’s reputation really helped get the ball rolling with everyone knowing, okay, we’ve got to do something about the zoo.
A few days after Cary Burgess arrived from the National Zoo to start working for the Atlanta Zoo, Gorilla Willie B. was going to be let out of isolation. “It was a huge occasion for us. We all lined up and were wondering if he was going to actually take the steps outside. It was an overcast day. His long-time animal care professional, Charles Horton, was excited and everybody was hoping that he would come out. He came out into this beautiful new yard and looked around and just was kind of taking it all in, you know, because to my understanding was the first time he had been outside and he looked up at the sky, touched some of the grass. It started raining and then he moseyed back inside. It brought tears to a number of people’s eyes here. You know, I was a newcomer. So I was just starting to understand the impact of this gorilla on not only this zoo and the revitalization of the zoo, but also the community.
When he passed away the outpouring of support and condolences from the community was unbelievable. Thousands of cards came in, school groups made posters. Attendance at the ceremony was somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 people. It was freezing cold. There were lines all the way from out from inside the zoo all the way out to the parking lot. We set televisions up on the pathways because we knew we could only get a certain number of people under our tent, where Andy Young gave the eulogy. This was broadcast live. They all came to mourn the death of their Willie B. It was incredible to witness the love that this community had for him.
Elizabeth Corrie, Professor in the Practice of Youth Education and Peacebuilding; Director of the Religious Education Program, the Candler School of Theology at Emory
One of the things that I discovered very quickly that I loved about Atlanta was its destination for LGBT folks. I’m heterosexual, but I very quickly was supportive of the rights of the LGBT folk and particularly in the church. Early on I made friends with other Candler [School of Theology] students who were gay and were going to seminary by day and then they were Drag Queens at night. I would go to these Midtown night clubs and see someone who was going to be preaching on Sunday morning but was in full drag singing gospel songs and “I’m Every Woman” on Saturday night. So my experience of Atlanta in the nineties was gay and fun. And I understood it very much to be this diverse safe haven.
We used to spend our time wringing our hands about whether or not to talk about homosexuality at all. Now it’s sort of being assumed that everyone is on some kind of spectrum in terms of their sexual orientation and on some kind of spectrum in terms of gender. The youth are so comfortable with it that it’s a non-issue, like, why are we still even talking about whether or not it’s okay to be Christian and gay at the same time? Of course, it’s okay to be Christian and gay at the same time.
At the same time, there’s still this backlash or this generational difference. When you’re only hanging around youth, it’s a done deal. [They believe that] God loves every single human being regardless of their gender, or, in fact, celebrates their gender identity and their sexual identity and their racial identity and all of these things. But then when you mix into intergenerational spaces, you are reminded that there’s this segment of our population that usually maps older and white that are still deeply uncomfortable with these conversations and that these things are not okay for Christians.
I feel like our job is constantly brokering the tension between younger generations and older generations and buffering both of them and translating back and forth. I’m trying to understand where the young people are actually far ahead of me now in terms of their understanding of identity and what it means to move through the world as a human being. I’m trying to catch up with them, but at the same time, I have to then translate it into the conversations I have with older folk who are in their own place.
Doug Shipman; Atlanta City Council President; founding CEO, National Center for Civil Rights; former CEO, Woodruff Arts Center
I grew up in rural Arkansas and knew I wanted to leave. I applied to lots of different schools around the country and Atlanta was extremely attractive because (1) I got a scholarship to go to Emory; (2) I had a friend from Arkansas that wanted to go to Emory - so I had a roommate and; (3) I was attracted to this incredible place of diversity. Atlanta was still in the south but it was growing. Where I grew up, there was really no racial diversity, religious diversity, ethnic diversity of any kind. Coming to Atlanta with the incredible legacy that it has and diversity in general was a huge shift for me.
My father was a Pentecostal Minister before I was born. I grew up in a small Pentecostal church which helped me when I went to Ebenezer [Baptist Church], because I knew all the same songs. I was really interested in religion and society where those two things fit together. When I was at Emory, I took a course from Robert Franklin about Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X’s theologies, and my graduate work in theology was really around religion, social movements, and religious traditions, Buddhism, Judaism Hinduism Christianity. When I came back to Atlanta after graduate school, I continued to explore and get involved in interfaith work. There’s a strong fabric in Atlanta of interfaith connectivity. And so that’s really been my lens, understanding how people bring faith into the public spaces.
Evelyn Lowry, Joseph Lowry’s wife, came to Mayor Shirley Franklin very early in her term and said, I really think we ought to have a new civil rights museum that’s broader than what was at the King Center. Mayor Franklin worked on it with A.J. Robinson at Central Atlanta Progress. They shepherded the idea and then she said, okay, let’s get some pro bono help to figure this out. They called the consulting firm that I worked at and asked if anyone there knew anything about museums or civil rights history. The guy who got the call said, we don’t know anything about museums but we’ve got a guy who knows a ton about civil rights history, but he’s 32 and he’s white. Do you care? Does it matter? And Mayor Franklin said, as long as he’s free, I don’t care what he looks like.
C.T. Vivian had been a freedom rider, counter sit-in protestor, he was at the March on Washington and on the Selma bridge. C.T. was everywhere during the movement. The first time I met him, he came up to me and said, “I want to tell you something. If anybody gives you any gruff being a white, young guy doing this, you send him to me.” He said, “We weren’t just working for the liberation of Black people, we were working for the liberation of everybody from what was Jim Crow. He said, the fact that you’re doing this, that’s exactly what we always hoped would happen, that everybody would be part of it. That really touched me pretty deeply.
I think Atlanta right now is experiencing another one of those just great infusions of energy. You can see it in all kinds of ways. You can see it in technology. You can see it in things like Atlanta United. You go to Atlanta United match, and one moment you’re singing a Spanish chant and the other, you’re singing a hip hop chant and you look around and it just feels as if Atlanta’s writing that next chapter. We’ve talked about the civil rights legacy, a Black legacy, a Southern legacy, but I think Atlanta’s going come up with a whole new stew. I think this is a really interesting inflection point right now. I don’t know exactly all the parts of it that will be written, but it feels a little bit to me like that moment when I got here in ‘91 and the Olympics had just been announced. You knew there was something big around the corner, you just didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. —CL—