By: Harold Michael Harvey
It was 2 a .m. I couldn’t sleep. Maynard Holbrook Jackson had just been elected the first African American Mayor of Atlanta, Georgia. And by accident of history, his election was the first for any major southern city.
This was October 1973. I was finishing up course work on a Bachelor of Science degree in political science at the famed Tuskegee Institute.
Something beckoned! The muses always seem to beckon from the far recesses of my mind when topsy-turvy events turn the world on its ear and say, “how do you like me now?”
At daybreak, I put on my sneakers, dungarees with a matching Tuskegee Tee and headed to campus. Up Johnson Street and onto U. S. Highway 80 I trod. I sauntered through “The Block” and passed old Man Carter’s Five and Dime store across from the residence of President Luther Hilton Foster.
Reaching Campus Avenue, I encountered Milan Williams, keyboard player for the Commodores. He and the group were just back from touring Japan where their album “Human Zoo” was No. 1 on the charts. The Commodores were perhaps three years from making it to the big leagues. We spoke with a nod of the heads. Williams’ wife at the time, Gwen, was a political science classmate of mine, and his soon-to-be nephew, Kebbi Williams, would later become my godson and a musician in his own right. Neither of us knew any of this in that moment.
At 8 a.m. I was in the old ROTC building in my class on Comparative International Government and Politics, taught by Dr. Dalji Singh. It was the only course I had all semester and the only one remaining between me and a ticket into the job market. If not Dr. Singh’s top student, I was at least the only one who came each morning with eyes wide open. Yet I didn’t believe he could explain why I felt elated over the election of John Wesley Dobbs’ grandson as mayor of Atlanta.
I’ve written elsewhere of the first time I saw a crowd of angry white people (“The Three Reasons Why I Hate Being in a Crowd of Angry White People,” The Harvey Journal, April 16, 2009) when a group descended upon my grandfather’s farm looking for some poor black soul. It was John Wesley Dobbs who had aroused the southern gentry into mob-like action when he came into middle Georgia farm country advocating the tenets of his “Georgia Voters League.” It didn’t take much for any local black man without the blessing of a local white man to run afoul of the law after Dobbs had gotten into the southern nostril and left for the safety of Atlanta.
But this morning, Dobbs’ grandson sat atop the ashes left by General Sherman and was giving form and shape to the city like it had never been seen before Sherman nor since.
Following class, I was done for the day. This being a Wednesday morning, I was done for the week, but I didn’t rush to the Alcohol Beverage Control Store for revery. I headed over to Collins P. Huntington Hall. I was in search of the political historian, Professor W. J. Fluker. Surely he could put this event into perspective. I heard a buzz of activity coming down the hallway behind me. There was a familiar voice, I turned and was overtaken by the entourage of Stokely Carmichael. He smiled, apologized for the rush and invited me to attend his lecture.
Carmichael’s seminal work, “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation”, co-authored with Dr. Charles V. Hamilton was the catalyst driving Martin Luther King, Jr.’s non-violent protest into the mode of the outdated. Only the assassination of Dr. King one year after the publication of “Black Power” and the unfaltering devotion to King’s strategy by his widow, Correta Scott King, saved his movement as a practical form to achieve equality under the law.
“In 1967, this revolutionary work exposed the depths of systemic racism in this country and provided a radical political framework for reform: true and lasting social change would only be accomplished through unity among African-Americans and their independence from the
pre-existing order,” thus stated the front flap to “Black Power.”
I got in line and followed this icon to the Tuskegee Chapel where within 200 yards of the burial site of Booker T. Washington, he turned on the polemics and urged students to answer all problems through the use of logic. As he spoke, you could have closed your eyes and heard the
reasoned discourse of the television character from Star Trek with the pointed ears, Mr. Spock
Six years after the publication of his book, someone from the Philosophy Department – I believe it was Dr. Herbie Mosher – asked him to quantify “Black Power.” “How do you measure it?”
Carmichael replied, “Yesterday there were no black mayors of a major southern city in the South. Today there is one. That’s progress.”
Thirty-six years later and nearly a decade into the 21st century, African American scholars continue to quantify “Black Power” through the prism of 1960s politics. This to the chagrin of their offspring who benefitted from the civil rights battles of old after the battle lines had been erased. The new “Talented Tenth” does not care to know how “bitter the chastening rod felt in the days when hope unborn had died.” All they care to know is thank God those days are gone. We have moved on up with the Jeffersons in a post-Cosby America.
Why did I digress to get to this point? A “white paper” written by an Atlanta Think Tank surfaced on the Internet last week which threatened to make this fall’s mayoral elections in Atlanta a referendum on race. The memo boldly states in no uncertain terms: “African Americans could lose the mayoral seat in Atlanta, Georgia, especially if there is a runoff.” The memo cites the fact Atlanta has elected an African American mayor since that fall morning in 1973.
Now that the proverbial stink has hit the fan, no one is willing to come forth and take ownership of this “white paper,” but I’m willing to wager it was written by a certain political scientist at Clark-Atlanta University. It smacks of his scholarship. There are five candidates in the non-partisan election: three African American men, one African American woman and one European American woman.
The memo presupposes Carmichael was right in 1973, that the way to quantify black political power is in the number of blacks holding office in the land. It disregards the notion that of the four African American mayors to lead Atlanta since 1974, the last two have had a less than favorable perception by the citizenry. Bill Campbell, who succeeded Maynard Jackson after his second two-year term, was recently released from federal prison just ahead of this fall’s elections. Campbell saddled his successor, Shirley Franklin, with a crumbling infrastructure with which she has put forth a gallant fight to improve, but at the cost of police and fire services.
Thus the key issue in this election is public safety and not the color of skin worn by the mayor. A side issue appears to be boiling underneath the surface in Midtown, home of many of the city’s gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender citizens. It evolves around the issue of gay marriage. Four of the five candidates have spoken in the language of the gay community. The lone exception is State Senator Kasim Reed who speaks in the language of civil unions when discussing the wedlock of gays, etc; although his legislative record reflects a profound commitment to equality under the law. Nevertheless, members of this group are amassing at the border to cut short his bid for mayor.
Of such is the politics of the 21st century: issues revolving around sex, gender and the almighty color of the skin. With the transition of the “lion of the Senate”, Teddy Kennedy, should the politics of the last half of the 20 th century transition with him?
“The Dream,” Kennedy said a year ago at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, “lives on.” Indeed, it does, albeit threatened by black scholars on the left who can not posit it into a workable equation for the 21st century. And by mostly white ideologues on the right who fear a loss of the one thing James Baldwin said white people had that black people should need or want: “Power. “ Baldwin went on to say that “no one holds power forever.”
White conservatives seek comfort in the thought that government headed by an interloper is the enemy of the people and its policies and procedures must be nullified. Their voices are raised in protest, and anger resounds in confusion, frustration, and venom.
Are these citizens patriots, libertarians or revolutionaries? Has their speech gone beyond the constitutionally protected right to free speech? Has their right to bear arms gone beyond the limits of constitutional protection?
To harbor these questions is to give life to them. As Uncle Teddy takes his leave, who then shall pick up his mantle and bridge the great divide?
Something beckons still! Beckons for the bottom line price of the nation’s troubles. Is the price to be paid in the blood of the black Camelot?
Of the souls of the nation, what shall be their drive-out price? Will the calculus of the nation pay the price to progress into something more rather than regress into something less?
© August 29, 2009