Over the past half-century, much of Atlanta's success as the Capital of the New South has been attributed to an arrangement in which black political leaders and the white business community would seek compromise for the sake of civic stability. Dubbed the "Atlanta Way," this nonconfrontation pact helped African-American residents maintain economic progress during the Civil Rights Era, while making Atlanta a safe place to do business at a time when other Southern cities were engulfed in race riots.
The Atlanta Way seems to have become ingrained in the city's DNA. Our business-friendly culture helped attract the 1996 Summer Olympics. Our captains of industry (see: Cousins, Tom) have sometimes assumed the roles of political power brokers. And the past decade in particular has seen the Chamber of Commerce influence public policy through such public/private partnerships as the Brand Atlanta campaign and the Peachtree Corridor planning process.
But letting corporations take the lead in civic matters isn't an all-purpose solution. The planned Center for Civil and Human Rights is an example of a great opportunity misplaced - literally.
The proper setting for a museum celebrating African-Americans' struggle for civil rights is on Auburn Avenue, the street that nurtured the young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and served as the center of commerce and culture for Atlanta's black middle class during segregation.
Put simply, the legacies of Sweet Auburn and MLK are what give Atlanta the standing to create a top-rank Civil Rights museum. But instead, it will be planted next to the World of Coca-Cola and the Georgia Aquarium. Yes, Coke donated the land and the location will ensure plenty of foot traffic. But the site also undercuts the weightiness of the cause the center represents. Placing it in a family fun zone suggests - and none too subtly - that the Civil Rights Era is just another tourist attraction.
Several civic leaders told me privately they would've preferred the center be located on Auburn, but they couldn't pass up the free land.
This is a case where moral leadership was needed - from then-Mayor Shirley Franklin, perhaps, or Ambassador Andrew Young, who both have strong business ties - to insist on what was best for the integrity of the museum. Accepting the Coke offer, and arguably allowing the center to be co-opted by corporate interests, may be the Atlanta Way. But it wasn't the right way.