A new $40 million Atlanta park was designed from the get-go to teach a lesson in race relations.
It has, but not, so far, in quite the way its champions envisioned.
The 16 acres under construction in Vine City, one of Atlanta’s most iconic African American neighborhoods, are to be girdled by 18 sculptures memorializing civil rights heroes and other luminaries. At least three of them lived in homes facing the park or a street or two away — Martin Luther King Jr., Julian Bond and Maynard Jackson.
Everyone could get behind that. Consensus frayed, though, when officials decided to name the park after Rodney Mims Cook Sr., a white alderman and state legislator who pushed for civil rights in the 1960s.
The name dispute drew hundreds of Vine City residents to two heated city council discussions revolving around race, history and power. The arguments were not as simple as black and white. Many black and some white residents loudly backed naming their neighborhood’s new centerpiece after Cook, pointing to the good work he had done to improve equality. Many others, black and white, strongly objected, saying it should be named after a black leader or given a more generic name.
It also exposed a generational rift between elderly civil rights leaders like former mayor Andrew Young, who lobbied on behalf of the deceased Cook, and young black leaders like Councilman Antonio Brown, who called for a task force to consider renaming the park. And that in turn raised questions about “The Atlanta Way,” the decades-old practice of city leaders consulting with residents and then forging consensus through compromise, often behind closed doors.
The battle played out as Vine City, poor and overwhelmingly black for decades, is seeing an early wave of gentrification, with wealthier people, often white, moving in. One trigger is Mercedes-Benz Stadium, built where two black churches stood, and which has promised a flood of new investments, including money to build the park. Another is undeveloped Beltline property, just to the west.
“To name the park after a white man, I don’t know how they thought that was going to work, not without blowback,” said Collette Haywood, vice chairwoman of Vine City’s neighborhood planning unit.
A park history with lots of turns
Vine City grew up in the 1800s along the headwaters of Proctor Creek as a working community around a large plant nursery business. Sometime in the last century, the headwaters were directed into concrete pipes and covered over, and residents built small houses over what had been the floodplain. A three-inch downpour in 2002 flooded the neighborhood, destroying about 200 homes.
It is this area where the new park is taking shape. City officials broke ground more than two years ago and hope to open the park, still a large construction zone, later this year. It comes with a 10-million gallon retention pond to handle runoff, like a recently built pond in Historic Fourth Ward Park, another historic black intown neighborhood undergoing gentrification.
It started as a re-creation of a former Vine City park. Livingston Mims, a onetime mayor of Atlanta, donated a different parcel of land about three blocks away around 1900 to create Mims Park. One of three designed in the city by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, it was eventually replaced by a school.
Ivory Lee Young Jr., who died last November, served as the neighborhood’s councilman for about 17 years and helped stitch together the new park on lots cleared by the flood. The city’s watershed division, parks department and Invest Atlanta purchased most of the land, but Young also recruited partners. The Trust for Public Land, a conservation nonprofit, is kicking in $13.5 million for landscaping and work. The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation, started by Home Depot’s co-founder, has given more than $2.7 million.
In 2010, Young teamed up with the National Monuments Foundation, founded by Cook’s son, Rodney Mims Cook Jr. The foundation is trying to raise about $25 million for the sculptures of civil rights advocates, including one of Cook Sr., and to build a library to house C.T. Vivian’s 12,000 volumes on civil rights and African American history.
Young’s first plan was to name the new park after Mims. Because Mims had been a Confederate general, Vine City residents protested. Young, who was black, then settled on Cook, and the city council quickly passed a resolution backing the name with little debate in 2016.
It stuck until Brown was elected earlier this year to replace the deceased Young. Brown, a 34-year-old entrepreneur who moved to Atlanta from New York seven years ago, says Vine City residents didn’t have a say.
“I know some see [The Atlanta Way] as respecting the old guard,” Brown said in an interview.
But to him, the new Atlanta way should be about involving citizens directly in decisions.
Cook’s civil rights legacy
Cook, who died in 2013, was a white Republican from north Atlanta. A great-great nephew of Mims, he gave a seminal 1962 speech in the Capitol against the Peyton Road Wall, built across the street to demarcate a line beyond which blacks in the Cascade area were not to move. After the speech, according to his son, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in Cook’s yard.
Cook also helped sponsor the gala to celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Nobel Prize. And he voted to seat black civil rights leader Julian Bond in the state house after Bond was elected in 1965, while Democrats tried to block Bond, ostensibly for Bond’s opposition to the Vietnam War.
Current councilman Michael Julian Bond, Bond’s son, tried to dissuade Brown from opposing the park naming.
“I said to Antonio when we met in my office, if you do this, it’s like pulling the scab off a wound. It’s going to divide the community, and it’s not The Atlanta Way,” Bond said in an interview.
That phrase came up often as the debate over the appropriateness of Cook’s name boiled over in city hall meetings. The Atlanta Way is commonly used to describe how, during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the city’s white and black leaders quietly worked together, often out of the public eye, to present a unified front.
It is often credited with keeping Atlanta more peaceful than other cities that sometimes rioted and burned during those turbulent times. But some think the compromises offered by whites were more mollification than actual help to African Americans.
Cook was one of those white go-betweens, tapped by mayors William B. Hartsfield and Ivan Allen.
Andrew Young, one of King’s lieutenants and a former U.N. ambassador, knew Cook as a friend and competitor, running against him in 1972 for a congressional seat. He supported naming the park after Cook, telling the city council and more than 200 residents Monday that Cook’s contributions to The Atlanta Way helped make the city what it is.
“Atlanta could have gone either way” in those early years, Young told the audience as it debated whether to reconsider the park’s name.
“I am saying that keeping this city going has been a very delicate process,” Young added.
Not everyone agrees with Young’s way of doing things. He was harshly criticized by some black leaders in 2016 after he called young black demonstrators “unlovable little brats” during a meeting with Atlanta police officers at the height of protests over the shootings of black civilians. The comment appeared aimed at defusing racial tensions, but Young later apologized after he said his granddaughter was “ashamed” of him and the president of the Georgia NAACP invited him “to go quickly and quietly into a well-deserved retirement.”
Though Ivory Lee Young Jr. conducted more than 400 community meetings about the park over about ten years, according to a former aide, there is contention among Vine City residents about how much he shopped the name around before settling on it.
The dispute dominated a noisy city council committee meeting June 25, with those for and against naming the park after Cook seemingly divided among an audience of about 300 mostly African Americans.
One new white resident, Matthew Cardinale, defended the naming by quoting King’s admonition to judge a man by his character rather than the color of his skin, as four young black women in the audience whispered to each other and shook their heads.
Drew Henley, the white pastor of the multiracial Redeemer Community Church in the neighborhood, told the committee it should reconsider. “It would be a shame to have park named after anyone who is not of African American descent,” he said.
Makeda Johnson, a black resident involved with Ivory Lee Young Jr.’s efforts, argued the Cook name shows the city has moved beyond racial division.
“The best way for us, as the community that Dr. King chose to live in, was to exhibit that we don’t have that kind of mentality, and that we honor and uplift somebody who honored and uplifted us regardless of their race.”
Civil rights activist Joseph Beasley said despite Cook’s works it would wrong to name a park after him in Vine City. Cook was an architect of the modern Republican party whose values he believes are opposed to Vine City residents.
“I believe that he is not a man that is worthy of having his name on a park that has Martin Luther King or Julian Bond in that park,” he said.
At one point, after a former aide to Ivory Lee Young Jr. heatedly criticized Brown as a rookie who was trying to destroy Young’s legacy, Brown also grew heated. Several council members convinced Brown to walk out and cool off.
The crowd quieted as Bettijo Cook Trawick, 92, who had been married to Cook, stepped to the microphone. She reminded listeners of her work, including being asked by Coretta Scott King to help restore the King birth home on Auburn Avenue. She pleaded with city council members to keep her husband’s name, adding that the earlier Mims Park had been racially integrated.
Also weighing in was Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who worked on a similarly ticklish issue in the early 2000s. There was a proposal at the time to remove the name of white former mayor Williams B. Hartsfield from the airport and replace it with black former mayor Maynard Jackson. After long discussion, city officials reached the compromise of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Her proposal that further discussion of the park name might provide a similar solution fell flat.
The debate over the park name was taken up again by the full city council July 1, with more than 200 audience members in attendance, many of them making the same arguments as the first meeting.
Finally, the city council voted on whether to reopen the naming of the park.
In a 9-6 vote, the majority stuck with Rodney Cook Sr. Park.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.