The Road To Modern Atlanta


The riots were an immense shock to the black community, proof that the vilest racial hatred lay just under the surface. One black leader of the community later wrote that the black men who had been shining examples of selfimprovement and self-sufficiency had been the first targets of the mobs, and that the roughest elements had rushed to take up arms and had beaten back the rioters. So to whom should blacks look in the future for leadership?

The immediate result was a tightened, self-imposed segregation by the black community. They withdrew their businesses and homes from downtown and established themselves along Auburn Avenue—“Sweet Auburn,” as it came to be called. Here black people could spend their whole lives in a black environment, rarely glimpsing a white face. Black institutions—churches, schools, businesses —grew strong, even if they lacked the resources of their white counterparts. Auburn was home to an economic cross section of people, from railroad porters to doctors, lawyers, college professors, and executives. Children, whether rich or poor, went to the same segregated schools. Today Sweet Auburn is preserved as a historic district, with a variety of commercial buildings and residences dating back to the nineteenth century, including the old headquarters of Alonzo Herndon’s Atlanta Life Insurance Company—a classically inspired building fronted by imposing pilasters—and rows of turn-of-the-century houses in the gracious Queen Anne style. One of the anchors of the Auburn community was and is the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where in the early 190Os the pastor was the Reverend A. D. Williams. In 1929, just down the street from the church, at 501 Auburn, his grandson Martin Luther King, Jr., was born. King now lies buried in a marble tomb between the church and his birthplace.


More than a million people a year visit the King Center, and even more are expected during the Olympics. Dr. King’s crypt stands in the midst of a long reflecting pool. The words etched on the side seem to shout, breaking the somber silence of the memorial: “Free at Last, Free at Last, Thank God Almighty I’m Free at Last.”

In a small museum adjacent to the pool, photographs and signs form a chronology of Dr. King’s life in the civil rights movement. Four cases display a few things he left behind: some clothing, his Nobel Peace Prize, the tape recorder Coretta Scott King used to take down his speeches in Montgomery, Alabama, the key to the hotel room where he was assassinated. At museums we are accustomed to poring over a trove of artifacts, the accumulated glory of a lifetime of achievement: swords and armor, sideboards aglitter with silver, battle relics, pearls of great price. There is none of that here, and that is the power of the place—the sense of a great invisible legacy that can’t be displayed or contained but that is all around us.

In 1935 an editor from the Macmillan publishing Company, Harold Latham, stopped briefly in Atlanta on a scouting tour for new Southern authors. At a luncheon he pestered a woman named Margaret Mitchell, a former newspaper writer, about a historical novel rumored to be in the works. Mitchell vehemently denied that the book existed. But that evening, just as Latham was about to leave his hotel, he received a call from Mitchell, who was waiting for him in the lobby. Latham found the author sitting on a couch, flanked and nearly dwarfed by two stacks of about seventy envelopes, containing the manuscript she had denied existed just a few hours earlier. “Take the damn thing,” she said to the startled editor, “before I change my mind.”

“TAKE THE DAMN THING,” Margaret Mitchell said to the startled editor, “before I change my mind.”

Change her mind she did, frantically cabling Latham the next day: SEND IT BACK . But it was too late. On the train out of Atlanta, Latham had already skimmed through part of the manuscript and realized that what he had in his hands was a masterpiece of popular fiction. The historian Henry Steele Commager, while acknowledging the book’s melodrama, sentimentality, and potboiler mechanics, concluded in a review: “it rises triumphantly over [its] material and becomes, if not a work of art, a dramatic reaction of life itself.” Indeed, for millions Gone With the Wind became the story of the South.