In 2010 Rodney Mims Cook Sr., the aging patriarch of one of Atlanta’s most prominent families, was in poor health and seemingly fading. Fearing his father didn’t have much time left, Rodney Jr. moved him into a guest house on his own sprawling Buckhead estate. Keeping mostly to what was assumed would be his deathbed, the elder Cook one day called his son to his side and delivered a final charge: You need to rebuild Mims Park. This wasn’t what the junior Cook had expected to hear. A mostly forgotten aspect of his family’s nearly 200-year legacy in Georgia, Mims Park had once existed as a city park across Northside Drive from what is now the Georgia World Congress Center. Built in 1907 on land donated by a wealthy forbearer—Livingston Mims, a former Atlanta mayor who had died a year earlier—the park was bulldozed without significant protest in the 1950s to make way for an elementary school.
But the senior Cook didn’t envisage anything as mundane as a plaque bearing the name of his family, which included two Atlanta mayors. He urged his son, the builder of the Millennium Gate Museum in Atlantic Station, to anchor the park with statuary honoring the city’s foremost black leaders—from Alonzo Herndon to Hosea Williams—as well as an 100-foot-tall “peace column” topped with a statue of Chief Tomochichi, the Creek leader credited with giving land to General James Oglethorpe for the founding of Savannah.
The historic scope of the project made instant sense to Cook Jr., whose father had devoted a good chunk of his civic life to building bridges between the races. “The park will be a tangible affirmation of the Atlanta Way and everything we represent,” says Cook, referring to the behind-the-scenes cooperation between black and white leaders during the civil rights era that helped Atlanta avoid much of the racial strife that marred other Southern cities.
Now, after five years of fits and starts, the planned 16-acre park along Joseph Boone Boulevard is ready to move forward, representing a unique $45 million collaboration between the city and the Vine City Civic Association; the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which supports parks and conservation efforts across the country; and the Atlanta-based National Monuments Foundation, which Rodney Cook Jr. founded in 2003 to promote and construct classical landmarks.
The city’s Department of Watershed Management has already allocated $20 million to create a large stormwater retention pond similar to the one in Historic Fourth Ward Park that should permanently curb the kind of flooding that destroyed more than 150 Vine City homes in 2002. The $10 million needed for landscaping and land acquisition is coming from private donors such as the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation ($2.5 million) and Chick-fil-A ($1 million).
Cook’s group is raising the final $10 million to commission the statues and monuments. The Tomochichi column will feature an observation deck at the chief’s feet overlooking the skyline.
In October the ambitious project cleared what was likely its last hurdle when the city council passed a resolution changing the name of the park to satisfy objections over celebrating Livingston Mims, who’d fought for the Confederacy as a young man.
“We needed to resolve any source of conflict to present a unified community so as not to jeopardize private funding,” says councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr., who introduced the legislation. Young, who represents Vine City, has been a staunch champion of the park since the Cooks first told him of their concept.
Rodney Cook Jr. ultimately embraced Young’s solution: to rename the park for his father, who recovered his health long enough to be honored by the Atlanta City Council in 2011 for his legacy of reaching out to the black community in the shared interest of civic harmony. Cook Sr., who passed away in 2013 at 88, will receive his own statue alongside luminaries such as John Lewis and Joseph Lowery.
An insurance executive who had a close relationship with Martin Luther King Sr., the elder Cook arguably was one of the most ardent proponents of the Atlanta Way. As a city alderman in the early 1960s, he gave the first speech denouncing a barricade across Peyton Road in southwest Atlanta that was approved by his colleagues to keep blacks from moving north. Then-mayor Ivan Allen has been hailed for ordering the barrier removed a day after it was declared unconstitutional by a judge a few months later—even though he’d signed the legislation that put it in place. In January 1965 Cook was one of the sponsors of the city’s first racially integrated formal dinner at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel to honor Martin Luther King Jr. for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
Cook took an even more controversial public stand later that year when he was one of only five white state legislators—he held posts in the Georgia House and the Atlanta Board of Aldermen concurrently, a no-no these days—who voted to seat newly elected state representative Julian Bond. State House members tried to bar Bond from the chamber because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. The following year, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the Georgia House had denied Bond his right of free speech. During the 2011 city proclamation, councilman Michael Bond commended Cook for his “tremendous public courage” in standing up for his father.
Cook Jr. believes both actions cost his father politically. He lost the 1969 mayor’s race to Sam Massell despite an endorsement from Mayor Allen. And, as one of the first Republicans to be elected to the Georgia Legislature since Reconstruction, he was defeated in a 1972 bid for Congress by Andrew Young—who later delivered Cook’s eulogy—and in the 1978 race for governor against incumbent George Busbee.
After the speech about the Peyton Road barricade, the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in the front yard of the Cook home in Buckhead. More than a half-century later, Rodney Jr. chokes up as he recalls his mother’s frantic efforts to keep him and his sisters from walking outside to inspect the fire. He believes the stress of subsequent bomb and child-kidnapping threats helped break up his parents’ marriage.
Bettijo Cook Trawick, Cook Jr’s mother, remembers the anonymous threats that followed. “One day they called and said they knew where my children went to school, and they weren’t coming home,” she says. Her children were given a police escort.
Cook Jr. says the weight of those stories and his father’s reputation gave him the “street cred” to overcome initial resistance from Vine City residents who scoffed at the idea of a wealthy Buckhead family swooping in to build a park. More than 40 meetings followed as he hashed out details with community leaders. Longtime Vine City activist Makeda Johnson went door-to-door to persuade fellow residents to support the park. “The Cooks listened to what people had to say,” she says.
History in Stone
Rodney Cook Sr. Park in Vine City will educate visitors about Atlanta’s civil rights history. Included among the park’s statues are some recognizable names, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Maynard H. Jackson, John Lewis, Ralph David Abernathy, and Herman J. Russell, as well as other prominent figures from the past century, including its namesake.
Rodney Mims Cook Sr.
A World War II combat veteran, city alderman, and state representative, Cook was a key figure in helping Atlanta avoid riots after MLK was slain.
A neighbor of MLK, Bolden worked cleaning houses before founding the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968. She was a tireless advocate for low-income workers.
W.E.B. Du Bois
Author of The Souls of Black Folk and a cofounder of the NAACP, Du Bois was a prominent intellectual and a fierce advocate for equal rights for black Americans.
Grace Towns Hamilton
In 1965 Hamilton was the only woman among the first group of African Americans elected to the Georgia House of Representatives.
One of the movement’s most effective activists, Williams was recruited by MLK to organize the first Selma march. He also founded Hosea Feed the Hungry.
This article originally appeared in our January 2017 issue.