Busloads of pilgrims arrive at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center on Auburn Avenue in the heart of the first important black neighborhood. Like many of Atlanta’s institutions, it is more in the city than of it. Well-to-do black families have their pictures taken in front of King’s tomb, ignoring the black derelicts on nearby benches, then head for the gift shop to buy “I have a dream” ashtrays and “Free at last” key rings.
At street level, however, blacks and whites alike regard the legendary racial tolerance and economic opportunity as CONFEDERATE HEROES Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson ride in perpetual glory on Stone Mountain. Henry Lewis and his daughters, Sandra Ogletree and Jean Homer, maize regular visits to the site. In a stunt discouraged by authorities, a daredevil leaps from a rock into the Chattahoochee River.
No one disputes Atlanta’s impressive record of successful black businesses, from Alonzo Herndon’s insurance company and Herman Russell’s construction firm to the computer and other high-tech businesses of today. But many people wonder why, given the city’s resources, blacks haven’t accomplished more.
It was Friday night at V’s On Peachtree, one of the most popular bars for “buppies” (black urban professionals). W. A. Bridges, Jr., a black photo editor, was bemused as he regarded the crowd. “If you fit in a niche, OK,” he said. “If not, you’ll find yourself on the outside. Blacks’ biggest problem is themselves. People here divide themselves economically, so you can’t say this is a black issue any more. Which blacks?”
Cal Jackson, a spokesman for the police department, privately agrees: “They call it the ‘first city of opportunity,’ and that’s really stuck with us. But there’s not so much opportunity here as you think.”
Social mixing is still not the norm. Neighborhoods that start out mixed eventually evolve toward one side or the other; old neighborhoods are also transmuted. Professional interactions haven’t carried over much into the personal realm.
Entrepreneur Arthur Cohen tried to explain it to me. Cohen founded the Circle of Friends and financed by online payday loans. It was as a singles network and as a way to ease the strain of relocation for newcomers, but he also ran into limitations.
“There’s a big color separation,” he said. “I wanted to start a black singles network managed by blacks but within the Circle of Friends, and I had my head handed to me. The blacks said, ‘Hey, I’m not going to promote anything socially that would indicate blacks need special handling.’ “