OPINION: Lives must matter in a most-serious time for us all

Mayor Andrew Young atop the 10 Park Place building, overlooking Woodruff Park, in Atlanta, Ga. on April 23, 1987. MANDATORY CREDIT: ANDY SHARP / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Mayor Andrew Young atop the 10 Park Place building, overlooking Woodruff Park, in Atlanta, Ga. on April 23, 1987. MANDATORY CREDIT: ANDY SHARP / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Former Mayor Andrew Young says that protests over law enforcement unduly distract us from the coronavirus epidemic and the economic damage it’s causing the city.

At this point in time, I say that peace is power. Don’t get mad, get smart.

When I was 4 years old, I lived 50 yards from the Nazi Party headquarters – just as the United States was heading toward war with Nazi Germany.

My father’s message to me always was, “If you lose your temper in a fight, the blood rushes from your head to your fists or your feet – and you’re likely to do something stupid.”

He also took me to the movies to see Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. When Adolf Hitler refused to give Jesse the gold medal that he’d won and walked out of the stadium, my father pointed out that Jesse ignored the insult – and went on to win three more gold medals.”

What does this have to do with today?

For me, everything. I can’t react to every distraction. From Martin Luther King Jr., I learned to keep your eyes on the prize. The prize that we seek is, one nation under God indivisible with liberty and justice for all.

Today that prize is being threatened in every aspect of our lives.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: The Atlanta protests

We must come together, and think together, and work together, and pray together to restore the vibrant society and economy that we have created here in metro Atlanta.

Like everyone else, I wanted to get angry over the deaths of too many of my younger brethren. It reveals a deep and sad sickness plaguing our nation.

But we have also lost more than 100,000 of our citizens to an unseen, viral enemy.

Those are both things from which we are now suffering.

Former Mayor Andrew Young warns that anger over police violence should not take undue attention away from the coronavirus pandemic and the economic damage that it’s causing Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
Former Mayor Andrew Young warns that anger over police violence should not take undue attention away from the coronavirus pandemic and the economic damage that it’s causing Atlanta. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

‘Serious times for everyone’

We're already short now some 40 million jobs, and our economy has suffered blows the likes of which I have not seen in my lifetime of 88 years.

It is tragic.

As awful as racism is, we may suffer more in the viral world that we’re enduring now. It’s a matter of percentages.

Matters are serious enough now that it’s almost as though it’s a relief to focus on the sickness of our law enforcement community.

I see it as a kind of distraction.

Before these awful racial incidents, I was personally plagued by the fact that Atlanta had learned to depend economically on the 110 million visitors who pass through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport each year. We'll probably be down to 20 or 25 million a year from now.

Former Mayor Andrew Young warns that the decline of traffic through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport represents an economic crisis that no one in the city of Atlanta will be able to escape. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)
Former Mayor Andrew Young warns that the decline of traffic through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport represents an economic crisis that no one in the city of Atlanta will be able to escape. (JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

That shows this economic crisis is something from which none of us can escape. And it’s dangerous if we get distracted from that.

These are serious times for everyone.

This is not just a racial crisis. It’s not just a political crisis. It’s not just a national crisis. It’s a global crisis. It’s one that may not produce a vaccine anytime soon for our various afflictions.

As times get harder, we run the risk of turning on each other, and we simply can’t do that.

We must find a way to live together and work as brothers as sisters. If not, we will perish together as fools.

Lives matter

These days, I find myself conflicted, and I wonder about which problem I should worry about and pray about the most: Is it the contagion of the coronavirus? The contagion of white supremacy? Or is that our weekend of protests could lead to more deaths?

Fortunately, at the start of the protests here, there was an orderly, peaceful, multiracial, multi-generational platform presented by Black Lives Matter here in Atlanta. Indeed, the early parts of the demonstration said beautifully that All Lives Matter.

The years of work with the Atlanta police force has paid off too, and we saw that in their restraint Friday night. We have developed a law enforcement family here that looks very much like our citizenry.

The two powerful young women who led our city – Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and Police Chief Erika Shields set a wonderful example and, for the most part, our efforts at training a racial- and gender-balanced law enforcement community served us well here.

Former Mayor Andrew Young praises the leadership of  today’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and police chief Erika Shields for their handling of recent protests.  (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Former Mayor Andrew Young praises the leadership of  today’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and police chief Erika Shields for their handling of recent protests.  (Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

But nothing we’ve done last weekend has created one job or inspired one visitor. In fact, we actually did some damage to our economic recovery possibilities with self-centered, emotional and frustrating reactions.

In Birmingham, Dr. King reminded the business community that they should accept the fact that they were born white and privileged, and that we have accepted the fact that we were born black and with less privilege. That is a given.

But we can change the unjust relationship that has existed between us for all of our lives.

Working together toward a community that is fair and just is an absolute necessity. We can no longer tolerate our acceptance of the unjust relationship between us. Achieving that level of brotherhood requires a no-fault evaluation and adjustment to our situation.

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Atlanta has worked toward that end very well since I arrived here in the ’60s. In fact, we have led the nation and the world as a city too busy to hate, as an international city, as an Olympic city and as a leader of the global economy.

Protests can’t save us now.

But partnerships can.

The police department can’t lead us out of poverty.

Instead, it will take the combined efforts of entities like the Federal Reserve, chambers of commerce, Invest Atlanta, the Westside Future Fund and the creative imagination of the cadre of truly great colleges and universities that grace our city.

‘We are on the same side’

We must recognize that the fight against ignorance starts with restoring our public schools to the glory that they once knew. We need to nurture a youth that is preparing for the future and that can see clearly the possibilities of progress and prosperity. They will also be the most likely to put an end to police brutality.

Growing up in the ’30s, where we had no rights that anyone was obligated to respect, I was taught that one of the most-powerful assets that one can cultivate is courtesy, followed by self-respect and respect for others. That it takes nothing away from you to respect our police officers, nor for our police officers to remember that they work for us, the taxpayers who provide their salaries and retirement benefits.

The first and only time that I was arrested in Atlanta, I was demonstrating for a salary increase for our sanitation workers. When the police came to arrest us, I said, “Excuse me officer, may I say one thing before we’re arrested?” And he stopped. And I said, “Please remember we are on same side. And if the sanitation workers get a raise, you will too. And your children will get new shoes and clothing too.” It brought a smile to his face as he snatched me up and put me in the wagon.

Yes, we must always remind ourselves that we are on the same side.

Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young spoke with police officers at the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 4 office in the days following the Black Lives Matters protests of 2016. (Photo downloaded from APD Facebook page)
Former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young spoke with police officers at the Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 4 office in the days following the Black Lives Matters protests of 2016. (Photo downloaded from APD Facebook page)

The protest signs now read “no justice no peace,” and I’m saying no peace, no prosperity.

Colin Powell said once that capital is cowardly; money only comes where it will be safe, respected and protected.

Let’s not forget that, at this point, George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have, in a sense, received more justice than Emmett Till or Medgar Evers or Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.

‘I still believe in miracles’

We can’t forget that we’re in a time now of pandemic. So, slow and sad though it may be, let’s hope that we’re inching along fast enough to stay ahead of the coronavirus.

So not only must we strengthen our sense of justice, but we must pray for grace and mercy, and hopefully we can discipline our lives and our diets enough, strengthen our immune systems enough to prepare us for the current pandemic struggle from which no one seems able to escape.

Yet, our strengths now remain very real.

I really wish more people knew that Georgia State University graduates more black students than any other nonprofit college in the nation. And that Georgia Tech has more black, Hispanic and female engineers than at most schools in the world. And that Emory’s and Morehouse’s medical schools are leading the world in our struggles against the viral world that seems to be undercutting our entire civilization.

I still believe in miracles.

In the dark hours of Birmingham and St. Augustine and Selma, when we had done everything we knew how to do, we had no plan or idea where the future would lead us.

Yet, almost miraculously, the words of our ancestors singing in slavery came to us, “The Lord will make a way somehow.”

And He did.

And He will.

Former United States Ambassador Andrew Young poses for a portrait inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center in 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)
Former United States Ambassador Andrew Young poses for a portrait inside the Swan House at the Atlanta History Center in 2018. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Credit: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJ

Andrew Young is a world-renowned civil rights leader whose work is widely credited with helping change the course of history. He has been a mayor of Atlanta, a U.S. Congressman, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and a counselor to presidents. He began working on voter registration drives in the 1950s, while receiving death threats. He worked closely with Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to teach and promote nonviolent organizing strategies. His strategic and negotiating efforts were key to passage of landmark American civil rights legislation in the 1960s.