Opinion: Are we there yet? Atlanta as it is, and what it can be

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

I was six years old when Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 3, 1968.

In morbid, but prophetic terms, Dr. King concluded with words that have been memorized worldwide: “And I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

The next day, Dr. King was assassinated, leaving a public divided in terms of what the next steps would, and quite frankly should, be. Fifty years later, we are still asking ourselves myriad questions about race relations in America.

Credit: Rebecca Breyer

Credit: Rebecca Breyer

As I reflect on this speech, I ask myself, “Are we there yet?” Some Black Americans have realized Dr. King’s envisioned Promised Land. There are more Black Americans elected to public office today on the national, state and local levels than any other time in American history. In 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the first Black president of the United States.

Black Americans today have the highest earning power than any time in American history and have a buying power that tops $1 trillion. In spite of monumental strides, racism still exists in America. The United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, and a disproportionate number of the incarcerated are Black. Gun violence disproportionately impacts Black Americans. Intergenerational poverty is prevalent, touching nearly one of every four Black Americans. The earning power of Blacks is a fraction of their white counterparts: Black men earn 72 percent of what white men do, while Black women earn 85 percent of what white women earn.

Still, in Atlanta, Dr. King’s birthplace, there is a glimmer of hope. Known as the “Black Mecca,” Atlanta is, on its surface, a microcosm of Dr. King’s dream for America. Since the 1960s, Atlanta has branded itself as a city where blacks and whites peacefully co-exist. In 1968, the population of Atlanta was slowly trending from majority-white to majority-Black.

Within five years of Dr. King’s death, Atlanta elected its first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson. His election ushered in an era of promise, as Black Americans won significant political influence in a major Southern city, increasing opportunities for greater clout, socially and economically.

Atlanta, with a population of 452,000 is one of the most diverse cities in the country: 53 percent Black; 38 percent white, and 9 percent Latino and Asian. The city has maintained strong political representation by Black leaders. Between 1974 and now, Atlanta has elected six consecutive Black mayors, with a majority Black presence on the Atlanta City Council, the Fulton County Commission, and the Atlanta School Board.

The city has one of the nation’s highest number of Black American residents with bachelor’s degrees, due in large part to the vibrant higher education community, which fuels the Atlanta labor market and political leadership structure.

Unfortunately, Atlanta is also evolving into what Dr. King was fervently against. During his final days, Dr. King led the “Poor People’s Campaign,” fighting for economic justice for impoverished Americans, and if alive today, he would expand the work he began on behalf of Memphis’ sanitation workers to include income disparities that exist in Atlanta.

A modern-day “Tale of Two Cities,” with sharp divisions along racial as well as economic lines, Atlanta has the highest income disparity in the country. One of every three Black residents lives in poverty in Atlanta, compared to 9 percent white. Of those making $200,000 or more, 86 percent are white, compared to 9 percent Black; and of those making $10,000 or less, 18 percent are white, and 76 percent are Black.

Just seven days after Dr. King’s death, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 became law, prohibiting housing discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin. This law still applies, yet residential boundaries that break down along racial and class lines are still very much apparent. According to the report, “How Segregated is Atlanta?”, residential segregation remains stubborn, with only 8.8 percent of Atlanta residents living on integrated blocks, compared to an average of 9.4 percent in other large U.S. cities. Furthermore, 60 percent of the city’s area consists of largely black neighborhoods, while many neighborhoods in North Atlanta are predominantly white, notably Buckhead and Northeast Atlanta, which are on average 80% white, according to “Segregation’s New Geography: The Atlanta Metro Region, Race, and the Declining Prospects of Upward Mobility.”

Segregated neighborhoods have segregated schools. The city of Atlanta has a “separate but unequal system” of education. In 1968, Atlanta’s population was 425,000, with an estimated public school enrollment of 104,000. Today, APS enrollment has fallen to 52,147 students, with 74% being Black and 16 percent white. Meanwhile, over a 50-year span, private schools in Atlanta attained a student enrollment of more than 28,000 students, with only 30 percent of them minority (i.e. Asian, Black and Latino), compared to 70 percent white. Research shows that students who attend majority-minority schools have poorer educational performance and achievement outcomes than students, largely Black, attending majority-white schools.

Dr. King foretold the difficult days we now experience: uprisings among those who have been the recipients of unjust treatment, as well as the political unrest that continues to divide us. We often overlook this section of the famous speech, perhaps because it is easier to blame the victims than it is to understand them.

Whatever the case, Dr. King gives us some fairly specific instructions about the resolution. Poor people, he accurately notes, are collectively richer than most of the world’s nations. That said, we have power that can be leveraged for a stronger economic base and more-benevolent community. Further, Dr. King cautioned us that once we begin to see the results of our actions, we cannot ease up.

Are we there yet? No. But with commitment and follow-through, all the people of Atlanta can get there together.

John H. Eaves, Ph.D., is former chairman of the Fulton County Commission. He is currently writing a book “The Exegesis of Atlanta: A Tale of Two Cities. The Impact of Race and Class on the Topography of Atlanta.”