The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory

On April 4th, the world will commemorate the sacrifice of Atlanta’s own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. American ...

This article was originally published by Black Perspectives, the blog of The African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), and is reprinted here with permission.

On April 4th, the world will commemorate the sacrifice of Atlanta’s own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. American presidents, world diplomats, and ordinary citizens will gather to honor a prophet who paid the ultimate price for humanity. Few, if any, will admit that King was once the most hated public figure in the United States. He stood for justice and equality, championed the poor, and criticized American capitalism and the nation’s involvement in worldwide conflict.

Today, King’s legacy has fallen prey to exploitation and capitalism and suffered a whitewashing—a revised history that simplifies his legacy into a sanitized narrative void of complexities. One example of this whitewashing is evident in the aftermath of King’s assassination, when Atlanta—the largest and Blackest city that did not rebel—propagated the message that the city’s nonviolence was based on good race relations.1 It is this kind of sentiment that allows for American capitalists—locally and nationally—to publicly praise King while suggesting that the Baptist preacher would endorse their capitalist venture and vision. Likewise, public celebrations such as Martin Luther King Day, implemented by President Reagan, and the erection of the King monument on the Washington Mall have contributed to the hijacking of King’s legacy.

King deserves all of these considerations and more. However, the goal of public history is to explore avenues through which history can be of service and to challenge members of the community to broaden their own sense of boundaries and exclusivity. Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but public spaces purportedly transmit notions of what is right and true because they are “authorized by the government” or corporations on behalf of all citizens.2

The exploitation of King’s legacy in a larger context suggests inauthenticity. Indeed, the best way to kill a revolutionary’s legacy is through appropriation. The recent Dodge Ram Super Bowl ad imbued with a King sermon is the latest iteration of the distortion, whitewashing, and hijacking of the slain preacher. This recent commercial is seared into our minds, but it pales in comparison to the greatest hijacking of King’s legacy—Atlanta’s bid for and subsequent winning of the Centennial Olympiad. In 1975, Atlanta’s mayor, Maynard Jackson, was approached about the city hosting the 1984 Olympic Games. The proposal was vetoed resoundingly by Atlanta’s white business elite. However, in 1987, Atlanta attorney Billy Payne approached Mayor Andrew Young, one of King’s closest friends, about the city hosting the 1996 Games.

Martin Luther King Jr. (left) and Andrew Young, 1966, in the Montgomery, AL, airport. Photograph by Bob Fitch Photography Archive / Stanford University Libraries

This was Cold War posturing at its finest. In an attempt to rehabilitate the nation’s tattered image after Vietnam, President Jimmy Carter pushed human rights to the forefront of foreign policy and appointed King’s lieutenant Andrew Young as the Ambassador to the United Nations. Young aided Carter’s undertaking, promoting human rights as the new American foreign policy, while championing economic development in the Third World, particularly Africa, in the interests of the United States. A clever politician, Young worked with Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, and South America to stave off Soviet and Chinese communism by promoting American capitalism presented as human rights. His proclivity for negotiating, enhanced while working under King at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), won him international acclaim but ultimately cost him an appointment in the United Nations. Young’s ability to negotiate proved useful as Atlanta’s mayor moved toward the city’s Olympic bid.

On September 18, 1990, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Atlanta as the host city for the 1996 Games, with the majority of votes cast by African, Caribbean, South American, Asian, and Arab countries that had benefitted from Young’s tenure at the UN. The city’s boosters suggested that Atlanta had outgrown the sordid history of race relations in the American South, and the cooperation between the Black city government and the white business elite reinvented “Hotlanta”—the Deep South’s newest and most modern world-class city. Importantly, Atlanta’s rise to an Olympic city franchised the city for world consumption and commercially branded a “new” American South, a type of boosterism that rested on the commandeering of King’s legacy.

In an interview conducted with Maynard Jackson, the Atlanta mayor suggested that Atlanta’s winning of the Olympic bid was contingent upon King’s invocation with all of the theatrics of the Black church—homiletics and soul-stirring organ music. In Tokyo, Atlanta’s presentation was an all-star cast comprised of four presenters, Georgia governor Joe Frank Harris, Atlanta Olympic Organizing Committee chairman Billy Payne, then-mayor Maynard Jackson, and Ambassador Andrew Young. According to Jackson:

It was important for us to leave the IOC members feeling our presentation … I suggested that we bring up the “Our Olympic” song under Andy. Very soft at first and then build up into crescendo, in other words like in the Baptist Church where[,] when the preacher begins to move to his close, it’s time to strike fire and sit down in the storm. They began to bring the organ music up under the preaching and that went, we used it, used my suggestion, and practiced that. Everybody loved it. In fact, when we left the room … we saw some IOC members crying.3

The Atlanta contingent evoked King’s oratory to win over the IOC committee. Though the world saw Atlanta as King’s hometown, the poster child for race relations, and a “Black Mecca of the South,” the decades following King’s assassination presented another picture.4

The 1970s and ’80s were plagued with the Atlanta Child Murders, in which the city’s most vulnerable yet vibrant citizens—Black children—were being hunted by a serial killer. Subsequently, the demise of industrialization and the rise of the information age left Atlanta’s Black working class and poor drowning in unemployment. Reaganomics eviscerated Atlanta’s Black communities of opportunities in education and fair housing while the emergence of crack cocaine produced the War on Drugs—a war on Black and Brown people—and diverted funds from education to this cause. Thus, the prison industrial complex and the militarization of the police reached new heights. This was exemplified by the turf wars between the “Miami Boys” and “Atlanta Hustlers” over crack cocaine and the subsequent creation of the Red Dog police. The arrival of AIDS crippled Black communities, where Atlanta’s Black populations garnered some of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world. In the end, Atlanta’s Olympic movement, disguised as progress, was an effort to further criminalize, demonize, disfranchise, and displace Atlanta’s Black people.

Today, Atlanta stands out as a beacon for Black political and economic progress. Yet, the story is far more complex. Although the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) removed legal barriers, Atlanta’s Black communities have been further marginalized even as many publicly champion King’s legacy. The popular political sentiments of Atlanta’s Black masses suggest that the successes of King’s life and legacy were not shared equitably. This is most visible through the process of gentrification in the city, which has resulted in the displacement of the Black poor as the white business elite seeks to “revitalize” downtown Atlanta. Most recently, public schools in Atlanta suffered the largest cheating scandal in the nation’s history—ultimately failing a generation of Black children.

These developments underscore the persistent challenges in Atlanta, King’s birthplace, and one can only wonder how King would have responded. Writer and cartoonist Aaron McGruder grappled with this very issue in a 2006 Boondocks episode in which an aged King appeared in the present world. In the episode, King found a world in which conditions appear worse than what he remembered. He lamented that many of the people who benefited from his legacy had squandered opportunities to implement change. Here, King offers a scathing critique on the status of Black people in the United States by asking, “Is this it? Is this what I got all those ‘whippings’ for? I had a dream once.” Popular culture utilizes humor to tackle herculean societal issues, yet the questions posed by the would-be 89-year-old leader are certainly worth considering. icon

  1. Maurice J. Hobson, The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), p. 49.
  2. Owen Dwyer and Derek Alderman, Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory (University of Georgia Press, 2008), p. viii.
  3. Hobson, p. 178; Gary Pomerantz, Tape 5, Interview with Maynard Jackson conducted on August 12, 1995, Gary M. Pomerantz Papers, Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library, Emory University.
  4. Phyl Garland, “Atlanta, Black Mecca of the American South,” Ebony (August 1971), pp. 151–157.
Featured image: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., left, and his wife, Coretta Scott King, second from left, join pickets during a tour of an Atlanta slum area, February 1, 1966. Photograph by the Associated Press