Georgia On My Mind

Reflections on the New South and the Old

Michael Carlson
Jan 8 · 5 min read
(Jessica McGowan/Getty)

1973 I was teaching a course at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, about 80 miles south of the Confederate capital of Richmond. I was staying at a boarding house, and one evening I came back and the lady who ran the house was watching the news. I stood in the doorway for a second, watching a report on the mayoral race in Atlanta between Maynard Jackson, who would become the city’s first black mayor, and the incumbent, Sam Massell. She saw me there and pointed to the screen.

“Will you look at that,” she said. “A big ol’ city like Atlanta, and they can’t even find one white man to run for mayor.”

I took the bait.

“But Massell’s white,” I said.

“He’s not white,” she told me, “he’s a Jew.”

I thought about that moment on Tuesday, January 5th, when Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their U.S. Senate races in Georgia. Warnock, who became the first black candidate to win a statewide race in Georgia, is the pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Ave in Atlanta, which was Martin Luther King Jr.’s church, and his father’s before him.

Back in 1996, after the Olympics had finished and my de-rigging at the Georgia Dome was done, I went to Sweet Auburn, the old heart of Atlanta’s black community, to visit the King Historical Center, across the street from Ebenezer Baptist.

It was amazingly moving, watching that footage of marchers having fire hoses and police dogs set on them, before the police and others moved in to finish the job. I’d seen it on TV, in snippets, when I was a kid, and now the full horror set in, wrapped in the context of people who were required to put their lives on the line just to achieve the justice and equality they and others like them were due as humans.

Afterwards, I went across the street to a luncheonette, sat at the counter and ordered a sandwich. Out the window, I could see the Georgia Dome, downtown just a few miles away. The counterman brought the sandwich and I said, “You must’ve been pretty busy the past few weeks?”

He looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Well, with the Olympics and all those tourists. No offense, but there isn’t that much that is touristy in this city, and the King site, well, that’s the best thing I’ve seen. There must’ve been people coming to see it?”

The guy looked out the window and pointed toward the downtown. “That was their Olympics,” he said. “They didn’t send nobody here.”

Atlanta may have had black mayors, in fact every one since Jackson, but they didn’t actually run the city; they weren’t the money men or power-brokers who drove the Olympics. As demographics changed, Georgia remained a state governed by whites, one that sent white senators to Washington. Gerrymandered congressional and state house districts kept the black vote restricted, and as we saw in 2018, so did members of its white political class.

When Stacey Abrams ran for governor against Brian Kemp, Georgia’s then-secretary of state, Kemp aided his own campaign with wholesale purging of the voter lists: 700,000 cancellations in 2017 alone. Abrams lost by 55,000 votes statewide, but rather than challenge the result in the courts, she turned her attentions to voter registration.

Combined with the COVID pandemic making remote and absentee voting more acceptable, Georgia went for Biden as well as the two Democratic candidates for the Senate — by narrow margins that might well be bigger were the state’s minority voters more fully enfranchised.

It should be instructive that Governor Kemp, and his Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, have avoided following Trump’s challenges to the election results in Georgia. Standing up to the leader of their party is noteworthy, but it’s also true that they are not looking for a full-scale examination of Georgia’s voting practices; by upholding the rule of the law they set the stage to use that as part of their response should they be accused in 2022 or 2024 of voting rights abuses.

Meanwhile, the election of Ossoff, who will become the only member of the U.S. Senate to have played in the British Baseball Federation (where he hit .200), but more importantly, the first Jewish senator from the South since Reconstruction, reminds us that, although Atlanta billed itself as “the city too big to hate,” that slogan arose from the lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman convicted (in all likelihood wrongly) of the murder of a 13-year-old girl, when his death sentence for the crime was commuted. Ossoff and Warnock entering the Senate together, a rare occurrence brought about by Kelly Loeffler’s having been appointed to fill an unexpired term, will be like a symbolic restatement of that bond which used to link the black and Jewish communities.

After his victory, Rev. Warnock spoke movingly of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who marched alongside Rev. King in Selma, Alabama. For many of us who remember that time, the joint victory held out, symbolically at least, a modicum of hope for the Democrats and their pseudo-majority in the Senate.

And since that Senate may now meet to consider its reaction to the events of the very next day, Wednesday, January 6th, when Trump followers took over the Capitol trying to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election, it was hard not to notice the importance of Warnock and Ossoff in ending Mitch McConnell’s majority.

Those Capitol Hill protestors received a more restrained, helpful police presence that was a far cry from what had greeted peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters only a few weeks earlier. Amidst the selfie-taking and video-posting, it was just as hard to miss these insurrectionists wearing, alongside the usual Trump gear, t-shirts that said “6MWE,” which is far-right code for “Six Million Wasn’t Enough.” There was even one “Camp Auschwitz” shirt, lest “6MWE” prove too subtle a message.

Back in 1973, a few days after my exchange with the lady of the boarding house, I returned to the house after a night at a bar, and the lady’s husband called me in to watch some football.

“Y’all played football in college up north?” he asked. “Yup.” “Well, take a looksee at this,” he said, as Monday Night Football replayed a 100+ yard kickoff return touchdown by Miami’s Mercury Morris. “Jest lookit that thing run!” he exclaimed.

I used to tell that story and point out it was more than 100 years since the Civil War ended, at least on the battlefield. Now I tell it to remind us that this was the mindset I encountered less than 50 years ago, and there were then, as our president believes there are now, “very fine people on both sides.”

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