As a 20-something working at KMTV in Omaha, I eyed the expanse of the United States in search of the Bigger Market. Figuring cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco were out of reach, I aimed a bit lower and set my sights on Atlanta. Denver and Seattle were a close second and third.
Atlanta appealed to me in many ways. I was drawn to the sweet-tea culture of the South. The weather was appealing. It was a Major League city, baseball-wise. There was abundant spot news — the Atlanta child murders were a big deal (and Richard Belcher’s work on that story at WAGA had gotten national attention that caught my eye in Omaha).
Andrew Young was the mayor of Atlanta. I think that sealed it more than anything else.
I’d known of Young, Julian Bond and Dr. Joe Lowery as activist holdovers from the King era, and their presence in Atlanta appealed to me. Coretta Scott King had just founded the King Center and had successfully lobbied for a King holiday. Add the Civil War lore, the intriguing presence of Lester Maddox and the like — and the history and vigor of Atlanta kind of took my breath away.
And it was living history. Young, ambassador to the UN under Jimmy Carter, was still politically active. During the 1984 presidential campaign, Young said Walter Mondale’s campaign was being run by a “a bunch of smart-ass white boys.” Omaha’s mayor was never this interesting.
The year I moved here, in 1986, John Lewis and Julian Bond ran against each other for a seat in Congress. It was a jaw-dropping spectacle for a newcomer who admired both men. Lewis won. Bond left town. (I finally got to meet Bond about a year ago.)
Shortly after arriving here, I got an assignment that sent me to the mayor’s office at the old city hall tower. Young ushered me into his (third floor, I think) office, and sat casually on the edge of his desk. He chatted amiably, and I tried not to be starstruck.
25 years later, many of those folks are still around. One day last week, I visited Young at his home for a piece on WXIA. The same day, I talked to Lewis on the phone and I interviewed Martin King III. The same day, I also met a guy I’d never known before named J.T. Johnson. Johnson was one of the un-famous civil rights folk who did a lot of the grunt work for the more famous players like Young, Bond and Dr. King.
I’d heard J.T. Johnson was among those in limbo over receiving an invite to the unveiling of Dr. King’s monument next weekend in Washington. We talked. He didn’t complain about the lack of an invitation, but said matter-of-factly that he hadn’t gotten one. (After the piece showed up on the web, somebody in DC emailed me, contacted Johnson and got him a pair of tickets.)
There were and are numerous other J.T. Johnsons in Atlanta. Folks like Willie Bolden, C.T. Vivian, Rev. James Orange and others were best known among civil rights movement insiders, though I’d periodically run into them at civic events and rallies. Hosea Williams was undoubtedly the best known of the lesser-knowns, especially locally. Williams was a fearless and funny and somewhat reckless guy who was barely known nationally when he died.
Covering Williams and other “movement” folks in Atlanta could be a mixed bag at times. The SCLC and King Center seemed to lose relevance with the passing of time and the evolution of civil rights in America. Speakers at rallies and news conferences sometimes clung to seemingly-outdated notions of oppression that appeared to lack proportion. Yet I’d always get a kick out of it when somebody would invariably conclude by saying “let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
In January 2009, my wife insisted that we attend the inauguration of Barack Obama. While standing on the mall, Rev. Lowery was introduced for the benediction. We gave him a loud cheer, and everybody surrounding us turned and looked at us funny. “Who is that?” somebody asked. Lowery is the president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, I explained. Then Lowery proceeded to give his “when the yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man” prayer, and everybody else cheered, too. (There are exceptions, including whomever labeled the Youtube video embedded below.)
On Facebook, somebody recently suggested that Atlanta is one of the world’s great cities. With cities like New York, Paris, Rome and Tokyo — plus countless others I’ve never visited — in competition, an honest answer would have to say that Atlanta remains a class below “world’s great.” If I had unlimited cash, maybe I’d consider a move to New York or San Francisco. But otherwise, there’s no city in north America in which I’d rather be.
And I’m still starstruck whenever I talk to Andy Young.