The Phoenix Falling

The city of Atlanta was less than 30 years old when Union General William Sherman burned it. But the city was not destined to remain ashes. Its strategic location, easily accessible to the entire Southeast, made it the southern terminus for the Western and Atlantic Railroad, from which the city took its name. Atlanta had more in its future than being just a little town on the Chattahoochee River. It was rebuilt after the conflagration of 1864, and a hundred years later, it became one of the major cities in the nation.

Today, if you stroll through the Atlanta central business district you may come across a bronze statue of a lady grasping the legs of a large bird that appears ready to take flight. The bird is the legendary Phoenix. According to mythology, after being consumed by fire, the Phoenix comes to life again and rises from its own ashes. This statue "Phoenix Rising From The Ashes" symbolizes the city of Atlanta’s rebirth after being incinerated by Sherman’s Union troops.

A city destroyed by fire can be substantially rebuilt in a few years but one that gradually disintegrates from within may take several generations to recover, if at all. Today, violent crime; street gangs, civic corruption, mismanagement of city facilities, and a complaisant press have the potential to do greater harm to Atlanta than General Sherman’s torches.

Atlanta’s current precarious condition could not have been imagined in the 1960s. Then it was the city that other cities envied. Its impressive growth was due to a number of reasons, including its geographic location. But the primary reason for Atlanta’s renaissance was quality leadership. Although many had a hand in the city’s spectacular development, it would not have succeeded without William J. Hartsfield, Atlanta’s dynamic mayor for 23 years. Camelot had Merlin and Atlanta had Hartsfield.

At age 22, this talented young lawyer was elected to the Atlanta city council. In 1936 he was elected Mayor and after one year out of office, he served as Mayor until 1961. Hartsfield took a financially troubled medium-sized city, struggling to recover from the depression, and forged it into a metropolis. He quickly moved the city out of a deficit to a surplus; converted the city’s serviceable air field into an international airport, and used his influence to have the spectacular premiere of "Gone With the Wind" held in Atlanta.

Under Hartsfield’s watch, the city tripled in size. For the first time, blacks and females were added to the city’s police force. The Mayor used his superb negotiation skills to unite all segments of the population in order to create a city "too busy to hate." When he left office in 1961, his legacy to the citizens of Atlanta was a model city, one that was still on the rise. The momentum sparked by Hartsfield continued for several years.

Despite Hartsfield’s makeover of Atlanta, some in the city, especially the press, were intimidated by unfavorable descriptions of Southerners by Northern media. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution started a campaign to alter the perception of Atlanta as a Southern city to that of a Northern city. A popular phrase of the time was "The New South"; one of those deceptive terms that actually meant a Southern city without any Southern characteristics. Atlanta’s newspaper’s editors cringed whenever mention was made of anything related to Southern heritage.

When a contest was held to select the nickname of Atlanta’s new professional football team in 1965, the Journal-Constitution begged the public not to suggest nicknames with local or Southern connotations. The team finally selected the unimaginative name "Falcons" — a name that had no relation whatsoever to the team’s city or region. Local newspaper editors heaved a collective sigh of relief. These sycophantic editors apparently felt that the choice of this name would prove to the Northern media that Atlanta was shedding its Southern image.

Today, Atlanta does indeed resemble a Northern city. Unfortunately, that city is Detroit, which has been ranked as the most dangerous city in America. The beginning of the end for Detroit was the inauguration of the late Coleman Young, the city’s mayor for decades. Young was one of the most, if not the most, corrupt mayors in the history of the United States. During his scandal-ridden years in office, the city of Detroit was reduced to a lawless pocket of poverty. Recent trends indicate a frightening similarity between Detroit and Atlanta.

The City Crime Rankings issued in November 2003 rated Atlanta the third most dangerous city in the United States, after Detroit and St. Louis. Coleman Young’s counterpart in Atlanta is former Mayor Bill Campbell whose sleazy administration was characterized by bribery, cover-ups and indictments. Of course, Campbell wasn’t mayor long enough to approach Coleman Young’s level of corruption, but his administration was indeed sordid. Now Bill Campbell has been indicted by a Federal grand jury on multiple charges including racketeering, bribery and fraudulent awarding of minority set-asides.

In retrospect, Mayor Campbell’s shady administration was the culmination of a gradual lessening of ethics that began with Maynard Jackson’s administration in the 1970s. As Atlanta’s first black mayor, Maynard Jackson took office with the trappings of a regional hero, lionized by the national media. While Jackson was acquiring his sea legs, he scrupulously avoided the appearance of chicanery, although he did look the other way as black police officers were allowed to cheat on promotion exams. Jackson’s most satisfying accomplishment was the creation of a minority set-aside program for city contracts which remains in place to this day. At first, the white community’s objections to the set-asides were minimal considering the gradual shift in Atlanta’s demographic mix from white to black.

But the white community began to resent what they felt was an unfair application of set-asides by the Jackson administration. And, as Maynard Jackson steadily consolidated his black power base, he became more remote from the white community. At this point, Lord Acton’s famous pronouncement "power corrupts" comes into play. In succeeding terms in office, Jackson’s arrogance grew as his integrity diminished. He did indeed practice a questionable interpretation of set-asides — City contracts were set-aside for members of Jackson’s fiefdom, often called "Atlanta’s Black Mafia." Maynard Jackson passed city contracts around like Christmas presents. He even boasted that he had created more black millionaires than any previous mayor.

Bill Campbell and his successor, Mayor Shirley Franklin, were high-ranking players in the Jackson administration. When Campbell succeeded Jackson, he made Ms. Franklin a crucial member of his own team. As soon as he became Mayor, Campbell abandoned all pretense of ethical behavior, thumbing his nose at the oath of office. The Bill Campbell administration is already considered to be the most crooked in Atlanta’s history, even though many of his misadventures may not have come to light.

It is highly improbable that Shirley Franklin could have been a vital cog in the Campbell machine for eight years without acquiescing to or participating in the ongoing malfeasance. So, as the grand jury probe of Campbell unfolds, it is unlikely that Shirley Franklin will emerge unscathed — Ms. Franklin is already having to answer questions raised about her own ethics. Although another firm won the bid for the Atlanta’s airport’s duty-free concession contract, Ms. Franklin ignored the bid award and arbitrarily gave the contract to her ex-husband. (Mayor Franklin’s two children earn their living at the Atlanta airport.)

Contracts for airport concessions have been the primary conduit used by Jackson, Campbell and Franklin to siphon city money to their cronies. And while these three were playing fast and loose with city contracts, Atlanta’s crime rate has soared. The FBI has placed Atlanta first or second in its rankings of most violent cities for nine of the last ten years. Its murder rate is 520% higher than the national average; Atlanta blacks are more likely to be victims of violent crime than residents of Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago or Los Angeles.

Black and Hispanic street gangs proliferate throughout the city leaving a trail of aggravated assaults, burglary, armed robbery and murders. The majority of those arrested for murder have had three or more prior drug offenses. The Center for Disease Control in Atlanta considers the city’s black male homicides for ages 15—34 to be an epidemic.

Not surprisingly, it was discovered that Atlanta’s police department was underreporting crime in the city. Crime records were routinely altered to downgrade incidents; crime records were discarded, and cases were improperly closed to make the police department appear more efficient. But, in a typical incident, a resident said she had to call 14 times in order to report a burglary, and it took police over an hour to arrive.

Is it any wonder that Atlanta is being called "Detroit on the Chattahoochee?"

The corrosion of Atlanta’s police department coincided with the corrosion of its infrastructure; i.e., traffic gridlock and outdated sewage facilities. These problems were the result of "years of mismanagement and neglect" that must be laid at the feet of Atlanta’s mayors and their appointees. Nor should the Atlanta Journal-Constitution escape censure. The newspaper neglected its duty to act as the Fourth Estate — defender of the public interest. The nefarious goings-on at City Hall should have aggressively scrutinized and criticized early on but the newspaper seemed reluctant to do so.