This compelling account of the rise of Atlanta from the devastation of the Civil War to its present is told through a generational biography of two families – one black and one white.
Through rich details and vibrant characterizations, the author delivers a comprehensive overview of the struggle for civil rights in a major Southern city.
Never before had I experienced a city where race relations resonated so profoundly. I drove down Auburn Avenue and saw the crypt of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and his beautiful epitaph: “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at Last!” I drove past the Oakland Cemetery where the 2,000 Confederate soldiers and Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell are buried. I felt the power. Civic leaders in Atlanta continually brag of “racial harmony.” In time, though, I discovered what Atlantans have known for a century – there are really two Atlantas, one white and one black.
And so the narrative continued to evolve: first from a saga about Atlanta and then to a story centering around Peachtree and Auburn, those great symbols, and finally to a saga about families. The Dobbses and Allens have special qualities – an animation, strength, and intuitive grasp of the society in which they lived. They have produced local leaders in multiple generations, not to mention the two most controversial New South mayors – Ivan Allen Jr. and Maynard Jackson. This book is as much about family as it is about Atlanta.
Atlanta long has been known as the “New York of the South.” Small-town Southerners have seen it as a city of skyscrapers, vision and muscle.
In that same vein, Peachtree Street and Auburn Avenue have served as the boulevards for Southern dreamers, white and black. Auburn Avenue is known as “the Black Peachtree;” for decades it was home to the commercial district of Atlanta’s black community.
White children in Atlanta have grown up believing that there’s magic in Peachtree Street and that if you travel north on Peachtree until the very end, you’ll be in New York.
Incidentally, Peachtree and Auburn truly do intersect – in the heart of Five Points in downtown Atlanta. The intersection of Peachtree and Auburn represents the meeting of two separate worlds..
Think about it: it’s a perfect fit. Atlanta is a business city, the king of self-promotion. The Olympics is the ultimate business deal.
To get the Games, Atlanta leaders shrewdly packaged the great symbols of the city: both the gentility and the hospitality known to the South as well as the Rev. Martin Luther King’s dream for racial equality. Dr. King’s dream fits nicely within the Olympic spirit of brotherhood. In using Atlanta’s famous symbols, though, Atlanta leaders had to be careful. At the final hour of the bidding process with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Atlanta officials removed a film clip of Gone With the Wind from the city’s final videotape for fear that the portrayal of docile slaves might be seen as taboo. They feared it might prompt a backlash among IOC members.
In 1939, movie stars didn’t arrive in Atlanta every day. So when Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh showed up, it was pure bedlam in the city. For three days news of Hitler and the Third Reich was relegated to Pages 3 and 4 of the Atlanta newspapers. Complete coverage was devoted to the arrival of Rhett and Scarlett.
THE GWTW premiere revealed Atlanta as a strictly segregated city. Naturally, the Dobbses and Allens had very different experiences. Irene Dobbs waited with two of her young daughters at the corner of Peachtree and Ellis streets to see the motorcade of stars. They waited for hours in cold weather. They were among three hundred thousand people, more than twice the number of soldiers that fought the Battle of Atlanta 75 years before.
Clark Gable hated crowds. He didn’t want Atlantans treating him as the Second Coming of Confederate General Joseph Johnston. So when the stars’ convertibles passed the Dobbses on Peachtree, they were moving too fast. To the Dobbses, Gable and Leigh were little more than a blur.
Besides missing Gable, the Dobbses also missed seeing the Chamber of Commerce man sitting in Car 21, next to the governor’s wife – Ivan Allen Sr.
A day later, at a reception at the governor’s mansion, Ivan Allen Jr. sat next to actress Carole Lombard, Gable’s wife; his wife Louise Allen sat next to Gable. Mrs. Allen thought Gable charming – and much shorter than she had expected. The Allens also attended the segregated GWTW gala ball. The Ebenezer Baptist children’s choir performed spirituals at the ball while dressed as slaves. One little known fact: Martin Luther King, Jr., just 10 years old, sang to whites that night dressed as a slave.
Without question, two moments stand out above the rest. The first occurred during the spring of 1994 when I escorted Maynard Jackson to a graveyard not far from Kennesaw Mountain, Ga., where a famous Civil War battle was fought.
Maynard Jackson is a large man, about six-foot-three, three hundred pounds and always dressed immaculately. On this day, he wore a starched white shirt, a tie knotted small at the throat, a gold pen clipped to his breast pocket. Together, we walked into this century-old graveyard; poorly kept, it had become almost a forest. Buried there are the freed slaves who in 1864 had watched General Sherman on his march towards Atlanta. Every ten yards deeper into the graveyard we walked took us another decade back in time. Finally we came upon the tombstones of Mayor Jackson’s slave ancestors.
Mayor Jackson and his family didn’t know the location of the graves. I’ll never forget his reaction: it was remarkable. When he saw the tombstones, he gasped and put his hand over his mouth, holding it there. His eyes were as big as saucers.
It was a peaceful place. The trees were full, the sun cut through them like arrows. Maynard Jackson walked to the stone and started to read the engraved words aloud. One tombstone marked the grave of his great-great grandfather, a freed slave Wesley Dobbs, who died in 1897; the other was for Judie Dobbs, Wesley’s wife.
Jackson reached out to touch his great-great grandfather’s stone. But he pulled back his hand at first. Finally he touched it and ran his finger across the etchings. Then he laid both hands atop the stone.
The image was incredible: there stood the South’s first black mayor in the shade of a dogwood tree grown from the grave of his slave ancestor. It was an Atlanta tale, too, for here was Kennesaw – in Civil War times about four hours by horseback from Atlanta– but now an integral part of metro Atlanta. (With traffic today, some might say that driving from Kennesaw to Atlanta still takes four hours.)
The second moment that will forever be etched in my mind occurred during an interview in the summer of 1992 with former Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., only two months after the suicide of his son, Ivan III. The suicide had shocked Atlanta. Ivan Allen III was 53, a civic pillar in Atlanta, a former Chamber of Commerce president. He shot himself with a handgun while at the family farm, west of Atlanta. The city was left to wonder what had happened; so was the Allen family. On the day of the funeral, Old Atlanta wrapped a protective glove around the Allens. About a thousand people showed up at the funeral. Maynard Jackson was there as were many other black Atlantans, which was a testament to the way Ivan III – and his father – had reached out to the African-American community. Mayor Ivan Allen looked old and fragile at the funeral.
Two months later we had our interview. Mayor Ivan Allen wondered how he had missed his son’s inner turmoil. He internalized his son’s pain and had a difficult time sorting things out.
I related to him my interview with Ivan III from about six months before his death. I had asked Ivan III about his locally famous name. He had replied, “I’m not going to talk about that.” I asked, “Why?” And Ivan Allen III said, “Because I never have.” He said it in a definitive way. I could almost hear a door slamming. He didn’t want to talk about the burden of carrying the name of a local legend. In fact, many people would wonder if the burden of matching his father’s achievements finally had come crashing down upon him.
I related his son’s response to the old mayor. “What do you think Ivan meant by that?” the mayor asked me.I said, “Mayor Allen, that’s what I was going to ask you?” He didn’t know what to think or say. He just shook his head, sadly.
Sad to say, children today are led to believe that the civil rights movement began and ended with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In fact, it began long before King. Among the forgotten black civil rights leaders of an earlier generation was John Wesley Dobbs. Dobbs was an outsized figure in black Atlanta, a political powder keg, a great orator made for the stage. His public mission was voter registration. He believed the ballot was the vehicle to true freedom for blacks in the South. His private crusade was his family. In both missions his impact on Maynard Jackson was enormous.
Dobbs was born in the shadow of Reconstruction and as a boy had run barefoot through the fields of Kennesaw. As an arthritic old man he marched with Dr. King in front of Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta in 1960. On the family tree, John Wesley Dobbs stands halfway between an $800 field-hand slave and the South’s first black mayor. That was a dramatic transformation that he, as patriarch, forged.
In Atlanta, he is the human bridge from the Old South to the New. Allen was raised in elite White Atlanta to believe firmly in segregation. In 1957, when civil rights protests accelerated and when he still had hopes to one day become Georgia’s governor, Allen had privately suggested a state-funded colonization program that would transport blacks in Georgia back to Africa. Today, he is deeply embarrassed by that suggestion – though he is candid enough and secure enough with his legacy to admit to it.
Six years later, as Atlanta’s mayor, Allen was the only elected official in the South to testify for President Kennedy’s 1963 Public Accommodations bill, which gave African-Americans equal access in hotels and restaurants. He had traveled full circle on the race issue in six years.
To say that his private reconstruction on the race issue was entirely the result of political expedience and pragmatism would be a narrow view. Unquestionably, politics played a part in it. But from 1961-63, Mayor Allen experienced African-Americans for the first time in his privileged life as something other than butlers, chauffeurs, maids and yardmen. Suddenly, they were his civic peers. He began to change his racial views at a more human level. To deny even the possibility that Mayor Allen had transformed himself on that human level is, I think, to deny the human capacity to change..
Well, it certainly is too busy. Its growth since World War II leads all Sunbelt cities; since 1980, Atlanta has boomed form 2.2 million residents to 3.5 million. That’s like picking up the entire New Orleans metro area and moving it to Atlanta.
As for the hate, of course Atlanta possesses anger and prejudice. Remember, the modern Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915 near Atlanta and was headquartered in downtown Atlanta during the 1920s. In recent years, the FBI has fingered Atlanta as the nation’s most violent city. The poverty rate is high, too.
Atlanta is built on the old families and, sad to say, many of the old prejudices, too. W.E.B. Du Bois in 1903 described Atlanta as “South of the north, yet north of the South.” It is a wonderful and enduring description; Atlanta yet remains different than other southern places. Yet to put Atlanta into proper context, it must be viewed as Southern. Race, of course, has been the South’s cross to bear since the days of slavery. Atlanta has been constructed on black hope and white pragmatism. The way city leaders have managed and manipulated the race issue over the past fifty years has fueled Atlanta’s remarkable rise.
Yes, but in an unusual way. I had traced the Allen family genealogy back to Buncombe County, North Carolina in 1815. Then, having traced the Dobbs family to a white slavemaster named McAfee – McAfee fathered a child with one of his slaves, who later married into the black Dobbses – I began tracing the McAfee family. In 1815, I found the white McAfees and the white Allens in that same Buncombe County.
I had this image in my mind of trying to connect those two families. The mere possibility of a blood relationship between the Allens and the Dobbses was stirring to me. At that point in the research, it wasn’t much of a stretch either. I envisioned seating both mayors before me, and then saying, “Ivan? Maynard? . . . Cousins!”
A blood connection between them would have proven, in a graphic way, how frivolous and ridiculous racial distinctions are. I never found that blood relationship. But I did find the deeper truth.