For two years, terror gripped the city: “An anguish I have never felt so bitterly, so keenly,” as James Baldwin wrote about the Atlanta Child Murders. With horrifying regularity, young Black boys were disappearing on their way to the movies or the corner store, only to be found murdered days, weeks, or months later. At least 28 victims were killed between 1979 and 1981, almost all boys between seven and 17, as well as two girls and two adult men police believed were connected. (A suspect, Wayne Williams, was convicted of the two adult murders, but questions remain regarding his involvement in the rest of the deaths; Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms reopened the case in 2019.)
As news spread of Atlanta’s missing and murdered children, mail began flooding into Mayor Maynard Jackson’s office, from across the country and beyond. Social clubs sent checks; college students sent ribbons they’d sold to fundraise for the victims’ families; schoolchildren sent poems, like the one above by L. Ontiveros from El Monte, California. Some writers were angry, some were sad, but everyone wanted the city’s first Black mayor to know: Their hearts were with Atlanta. Today, much of this correspondence is housed with the rest of Jackson’s papers at the Atlanta University Center’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. “Through these materials we see the vast impact that this tragic event in Atlanta had on generations of Atlantans, as well as the work done within Jackson’s administration” to address the murders, said Tiffany Atwater Lee, head of research services at the library’s Archives Research Center.
Green ribbons first caught on in Philadelphia, thanks to a campaign by Georgia Dean, a grandmother of seven. “I was thinking what I could do in a small way in sympathy with the mothers down in Atlanta,” she told United Press International in February 1981, explaining that she chose green because it represents life. The idea soon spread across the country. “I am truly sorry about the 20 children that were killed,” wrote Adam Welter, whose class sent letters from Oregon and included the green ribbon in this photo. “Some of us are even wearing green ribbons for you.”
The Atlanta Child Murders were the undeniable low point of Jackson’s tenure. Poor Black Atlantans were enraged by the administration’s slow response, deepening class rifts between Atlanta’s Black communities, while the murders made a mockery of the city’s “too busy to hate” motto. But as the volume of mail made clear, people around the world were rallying behind Atlanta. “Please tell the children to be careful,” Paul Parker III, a fifth grader from Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania, wrote to Mayor Jackson. “We pray for their safety.”
This article appears in our June 2023 issue.