Let’s Talk About Race: 14 Atlantans on how far we’ve come—and how far we still have to go

Atlanta’s “Black Mecca” status is more complicated than it seems

Maurice Hobson
Illustration by Richie Pope

It was January 1986, and I had just turned nine the previous November. I remember the gray-skied Monday, as we sat in the First Baptist Church in Selma, Alabama, the town in which I grew up. It was the very first Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday celebration, and I can’t recall if it was the weather or the event, but for me, melancholy was in the air.

To a nine-year-old, Dr. King’s death and commemoration signaled the burden of being black. My mother, a social studies teacher who advocated for teaching black history, had taught her own children that Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, Dr. King, and countless others had all been slain for fighting injustices. A year earlier, a CBS mini-series called The Atlanta Child Murders had detailed the slayings of Atlanta’s most vibrant yet vulnerable citizens—black youth. They were children my age; they looked like me. Several years earlier, my father had been offered a job to teach scientific methods at Atlanta University, the only historically black graduate school in the United States. It was a feather in his cap, but the killing of Atlanta’s black children prompted my father to turn down the opportunity. Until his passing, he would tell me he could not raise his six children in a town where black children were being hunted and nothing was done about it. My only way to move past the burden of blackness was to thoroughly immerse myself in African American history. For me, learning history helped to defend, inspire, protect, and unify. In order to bend the rules, you must first know the rules.

In the spring of 1994, I was 17. Atlanta’s very own OutKast had debuted their first album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik. This was rebel music, and my friends and I would ride through Selma with “Player’s Ball” and “Git Up, Git Out” blasting from a boombox in the back seat because my friend’s ’77 Cutlass Supreme had an eight-track player—and no one made eight-tracks anymore. Eighteen months later, in my first semester of college at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, LaFace Records’ Goodie Mob released Soul Food. This music spoke to me—and not just because of Kast’s and Goodie’s usage of Southern vernacular and other Southern standards, which carved out a space for the American South in a previously bicoastal hegemonic order. It also laid out what it meant to be both Southern and urban. More importantly, this music presented narratives that questioned Atlanta’s Black Mecca status, a designation tied directly to Dr. King’s dream.

“My only way to move past the burden of blackness was to thoroughly immerse myself in African American history. For me, learning history helped to defend, inspire, protect, and unify.”

Fueling the music’s angst—indeed, my peers’—was Atlanta’s successful bid to host the Centennial Olympic Games in 1996. City boosters had imagined that Atlanta had outgrown the sordid history of race relations of the American South. The cooperation between the black city government and the white business elite, the argument went, had reinvented Hotlanta—the Deep South’s newest and most modern world-class city. Importantly, Atlanta’s rise to Olympic city franchised the city for world consumption. The Olympics branded a “new” American South, and it all hinged on commandeering Dr. King’s legacy. Maynard Jackson even suggested that Atlanta’s winning of the Olympic bid was contingent upon invoking King with all of the theatrics of the black church—homiletics and soul-stirring organ music.

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, where those whom King had championed suffered greatly. Atlanta’s black masses suffered as the city rose to global prominence. Besides the murdering of black children, Atlanta had the second highest poverty rate in the country, a burgeoning homeless population, an embarrassing high school dropout rate, along with a drug crisis and a recession. Atlanta’s Olympic movement disguised as progress was seen by many black Atlantans as a movement to further criminalize, demonize, disfranchise, and displace them at record levels. The Atlanta Police Department’s infamous Red Dog unit was formed specifically to provide aggressive policing in black neighborhoods.

Atlanta’s black masses were suffering greatly in the name of progress. The notion of a Mecca may have been true, but only for a fortunate few. Early music from OutKast and Goodie Mob spoke directly to these issues. Ultimately, it was through this lens that the professional historian that I am today began to emerge. My calling and gift is to present histories essential to understanding black America: specifically Atlanta’s transition from regional to world-class city while fashioning itself as a “Black Mecca” for the African diaspora and commercially branding itself as the most progressive city in the American South. In telling this history through the prism of the Black New South and Atlanta politics, policy, and pop culture, I attempt to reconcile the striking schism between the black political elite and poor city-dwellers, complicating the long-held view of Atlanta as a Mecca for black people.

Dr. Maurice Hobson is assistant professor of African American Studies, historian, and faculty affiliate in the Urban Studies Institute at Georgia State University. He is the author of The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta published by the University of North Carolina Press.