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Memo casts Atlanta mayor's race in black and white

In frank language, a memo published online urges black voters to unite behind one black candidate to defeat a white contender. It has raised hackles among residents who take pride in the city's diversity.

August 29, 2009|Richard Fausset

ATLANTA — The memo emerged early this week on an African American news website, then spread via e-mail, finally landing on the front page of the local paper.

Its message: Atlanta is a majority-black city whose 35-year string of black mayors "has represented the breakthrough for black political empowerment in the South." And therefore, the white candidate running for mayor this year must be defeated.

Reportedly disseminated by a local group called the Black Leadership Forum, it was the kind of idea guaranteed to raise hackles in Atlanta, a city that has worked hard to live up to native son Martin Luther King Jr.'s dictum about judging by character rather than skin color.

In the current mayor's race, a number of candidates are running to replace second-term Mayor Shirley Franklin. They include a handful of African American candidates, and one high-profile white hopeful, City Councilwoman Mary Norwood.

Observers of local politics believe that Norwood could emerge triumphant if black votes are spread among the various black candidates in November. In language that is remarkably frank, the memo urges black voters to rally around candidate Lisa Borders, the City Council president: "Time is of the essence because in order to defeat a Norwood (white) mayoral candidacy we have to get out now and work in a manner to defeat her without a runoff."

Seemingly overnight, a rather low-key election centered on everyday municipal concerns -- crime, jobs, taxes -- has prompted grander questions, from the definition of reverse racism to the legacy of the civil rights movement. Is it wrong, in the age of Obama, for black Atlantans to wish for a black mayor? And how comfortable should they feel ceding some of their famously hard-won political gains?

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which published a front-page story Friday, had received hundreds of comments on its website by Friday afternoon.

"As a black man, I'm disgusted by such a memo," one reader wrote.

"That is truly sickening stuff," another stated. "I am so sick of race."

Public officials and candidates have also been quick to denounce the memo. But James H. Welcome, publisher of the Newsmakers Journal (at newsmakerslive.com) -- which first published the piece -- said he's received a flood of responses from black voters who agreed with the memo.

"Politicians across the board say that's a bad idea," he said. "But for every politician I get 10 citizens, African American citizens, who say it's a good idea."

The issue is unfolding in a city that has earned a reputation as a mecca of black politics, culture and economic power. The city is about 57% African American, home to movie stars, hip-hop moguls, and a vast and economically powerful black professional class.

At the same time, Atlanta's share of white residents grew faster than that of any U.S. city between 2000 and 2006, according to the Brookings Institution. The influx is part of a gentrification of the urban core that has been spurred in part by Franklin and preceding mayors who moved aggressively to tear down public housing projects dominated by poor blacks.

The memo makes note of these trends, including the "displacement of close to 100,000 black residents" who were reliable voters for the "Jackson Machine." (The first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson, won after years of white flight flipped the city demographics in favor of blacks in the early 1970s.) If a white candidate were to win in 2009, the memo said, "it would be just as significant in political terms as Maynard Jackson's victory in 1973."

The memo's author, and the makeup of the Leadership Forum, remain somewhat murky. (It is unclear if the local group is connected to the Black Leadership Forum, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C.)

Public outcry over the memo was led by one of the black candidates, Kasim Reed, 40, a Democratic state senator who has been endorsed by both civil rights icon Andrew Young and Big Boi of the rap group Outkast. An Aug. 17 poll of likely voters by the group Insider Advantage gave Reed 8% of the vote, lagging far behind Borders, with 28%, and Norwood, who had 30%.

On Thursday, Reed called the memo "racially charged and vitriolic," and called on Borders to denounce it.

Borders, a 51-year-old who was one of the first blacks to integrate Westminster, a prestigious Atlanta prep school, did so before the end of the day.

"We have had two Atlantas for far too long," she said.

Norwood issued a statement as well, but it did not mention race. She focused on crime and city finances.

But like the others, Norwood's campaign strikes themes of a unified Atlanta -- an acknowledgment, perhaps, that black-white coalitions have been the key to winning the mayor's seat here since at least the 1960s. One video on Norwood's website is titled "A Mayor for Everyone."

On the heavily black west side of Atlanta on Friday, it was difficult to find anyone who was adamant about keeping the mayor's office in black hands.

Ramese Muhammad, 70, a retired construction worker, said that after watching her for eight years on the City Council, he liked Norwood's style. "Color," he said, "ain't got nothing to do with qualifications."

Dylan Winston, 38, was still making up his mind on the candidates, but said he wouldn't feel a setback for blacks if the new mayor were white. "Not after we've gained so much," he said. "That stuff is old, man. I mean, good Lord, it's 2009."

--

richard.fausset@latimes.com

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