City of dreams

Atlanta, symbol of the Old South, cradle of the civil rights movement, cosmopolitan technopolis and host to the summer Olympics, is a city constantly reinventing itself. Frederick Allen, resident commentator, sorts the myths from the cliches. One afternoon in the summer of 1994, I sat at a table in the reading room of Emory University's Special Collections Department, on the school's leafy, not-so-quiet campus in suburban Atlanta, awaiting a box of materials from the archives. Ordinarily, the arrival of a couple of cubic feet of documents does not occasion much excitement. But this was different.

The cardboard carton that was placed in front of me contained the private papers and memorabilia of Calvin Craig, former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan in Atlanta. The collection had been on Emory's restricted list, unavailable for review, until I appealed to the head of the department and gained permission to examine its contents. The box that emerged from the stacks was lighter than I expected, and I lifted off its top with considerable curiosity, wondering what I would find. I looked inside and jumped. There, loosely folded - coiled may be a better word - was the serpent-green satin robe and hood that Craig had worn on so many memorable occasions in Atlanta's past.

My surprise wore off quickly, and I spent the next few minutes contemplating the irony of the situation. As Klansmen go, Craig had not been especially hateful. In his heyday in the late Fifties and early Sixties, as one of a handful of rivals hoping to unite the KKK's various splinter groups, he was best known for renouncing violence. His public career ended in 1968, a few days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, when he called a press conference to announce that he had experienced an epiphany. He was quitting the Klan, he said, because he now believed that blacks and whites should work together in harmony. He seemed to mean it, too. A few weeks later he joined a biracial steering committee in the Model Cities programme and made a point of befriending his black colleagues.

In a sense, Craig's robe was a museum piece, a relic of bygone days, a mark of progress. One of Emory's archivists, Ellen Nembauser, helped me to shake out the hand-stitched garment, and we marvelled together at its fine embroidery and elegant purple tassels. We found a pair of Klan cuff links, or "kuff links", in Ellen's suggested spelling, along with a few old George Wallace buttons that said "Our Kind of Man". We laughed. It occurred to me that only in Atlanta, a city whose capacity for self- examination and self-absorption knows few bounds, would the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan donate his personal effects for scholarly research and the edification of later generations.

Yet the robe also left me uneasy. Modern Atlanta was built, in large part, on the amazing grace of its race relations in the pivotal decades after World War II. In the grand phrase of its longtime mayor, William Hartsfield, Atlanta was "a city too busy to hate". It escaped the riots and ugliness that engulfed so many other Southern cities in the Sixties, and the rewards were enormous: rapid growth, corporate and individual wealth, a profusion of cultural amenities, the arrival of major league sports, recognition as the unquestioned capital city of the region. How much of that bounty was due to virtue, I found myself asking, and how much to blind luck?

One of the instructive episodes of Atlanta's early history, now nearly forgotten, was the day William T Sherman made a return visit to the city he'd burned to the ground during the Civil War. The old general arrived back in town on the afternoon of Wednesday, 29 January, 1879, at the invitation of the city fathers. It was an unseasonably warm day and quite a few citizens had gathered outside the railroad depot. Their mood was one of edgy, brittle humour, as if they were torn between old bitterness and the newer exhilaration of greeting a celebrity. "Ring the fire bells!" a man shouted as the train pulled in. "The town will be gone in 40 minutes."

During his stay, Sherman granted an interview to Clark Howell, a young reporter from the Atlanta Constitution, who asked him why he had destroyed the city. Sherman reached over, took Howell's hand and turned it palm up. "Young man," he said, "when I got to Atlanta, what was left of the Confederacy could be roughly compared to your hand. Atlanta was the palm, and by destroying it I spared myself much further fighting. But remember, the same reason which caused me to destroy Atlanta will make it a great city in the future."

Many years later, the story became a favourite of Ralph McGill's. The celebrated editor of the Constitution in the Fifties told it over and over, as an explanation for Atlanta's remarkable flowering. Yet, to a sceptic, Sherman's gesture was really little more than a gentle way of saying that Atlanta owed its being to an arbitrary act of topography. Sitting on the first stretch of level ground south of the Appalachians, the city had begun as an inevitable nexus for the railroad cars that clacked back and forth from the Tennessee valley to the seaports of the Atlantic coast, trading crops for finished goods. Atlanta had not existed, and so it had become necessary (in 1837) to invent her. Couldn't it be said that the very same forces were at work in the air age? How much of Atlanta's glory was deserved, and how much of it derived from the centrality of the city's airport? The old joke, that to get to heaven or hell you had to change planes in Atlanta, was not so funny if it reduced Atlanta's exalted position to that of a regional switching station.

And what of the "power structure", that self-ordained group of powerful white businessmen who ran the city during its golden era after World War II? Were they really so enlightened? Or did a local cynic have it right, that their legacy was merely "a triumph of Babbittry over bigotry?" The city, inexorably associated with the courtly, hoop-skirted, antebellum glories of the Old South by the book and film Gone With the Wind, was in fact nothing of the sort. The nearest cotton field was 20 miles to the south. Tara was fiction. The grandest mansion in town, the Swan House, had been built by a cotton broker - a financier - not a planter. White Atlantans had sentimental feelings for the Confederate past, but they had a far greater yearning for Yankee capital.

Everyone remembered Henry Grady's 1886 declaration of a New South, where sharecroppers were ready to leave the farms and work for good wages in factories built by northern industrialists. Few recalled that the idea had originated with Benjamin Harvey Hill, a Georgia politician and orator who travelled north to New York City's Tammany Hall in 1866, just a year after the war ended, and proclaimed: "There was a South of slavery and secession - that South is dead. There is a South of union and freedom - that South, thank God, is living, breathing, growing every hour." Had he spoken those eloquent words, in effect, for money?

Finally, what verdict will historians return on the 20-plus years of black political rule in Atlanta? In 1973, a rotund, eloquent lawyer named Maynard Jackson won election as the city's first black mayor. His personal integrity disarmed many of his critics, but, in an uncomfortable number of instances since then, juries were finding some of the city's other black officeholders guilty of acts of corruption. Was the black civil rights leader Julian Bond right? He'd once said, half-jokingly, that the good government reforms of the post-Watergate era were a bane to the black community because they slammed the door on old-fashioned graft at the precise moment when blacks were poised to take advantage. The "talented tenth" had become a talented half, but what of the rest? Was the black political elite gaining any ground for those left behind in the government housing "projects"?

As I packed Craig's robe back into its keeping place, I thought about the approach of the summer Olympic Games in 1996 - an event with the potential to certify Atlanta for ever as the international city it has long claimed to be. An army of journalists would be arriving to see if Atlanta lived up to her boasts, and there was no telling what boxes they would open and what surprises would jump out. It was a safe bet that some reporters would discover, after brief tours of the downtown streets, that there were "pockets of poverty in the shadows of gleaming skyscrapers", and they might conclude that Atlanta's brightly burnished image was a fraud. Yet that is not so.

In almost every instance, I've found that the cliches about Atlanta mask a far richer truth - that, for all of the city's good fortune, it could not have risen to become the foremost metropolis of the American South without the hard work, hard-headedness, forward thinking, bluster and occasional sheer brilliance of its leaders, black and white. Atlanta's history is a tale of clever, ambitious men and women who exploited their natural advantages while leaders in other Southern cities failed to do so.

Time and again during the past half-century, Atlanta's pathfinders have managed to pick the right fork in the road. The airport would not have become the travel hub of the South without Mayor Hartsfield's sense of "airmindedness" in the early days of commercial aviation, when he saw Atlanta as the gateway to the south east while barnstormers still flew biplanes. Race relations would not have been calm without the willingness of both "sides" to negotiate, not fight. The explosion of wealth that built Atlanta's skyline and turfed the lawns of her suburbs would not have occurred without robust capitalism - and huge grants of taxpayers' money secured by City Hall from the federal government. The Olympics would not have arrived without the wild-eyed, impractical aspirations of Billy Payne and the international contacts of Andrew Young.

Atlanta became a centre of commerce because the region around it suffered crippling poverty after the Civil War and looked to Atlanta as a source of capital and salvation. The city gained a reputation for good race relations because Ralph McGill and Martin Luther King Jr calibrated the pace and led the way to slow, certain change. Today, the city is united in support of the Olympics because its people and its leaders have learned over the years, occasionally with great difficulty, to trust each other.

Some criticism of Atlanta is valid. Certainly the old claim of a "moderate" climate, with an average summer temperature of 78F, will seem an outrageous lie to visitors melting in the steam-cooker heat of a July afternoon. (As a matter of fact, a meteorologist's report in 1940 indicated that the summers were growing hotter, but the news was kept under wraps). The civility of race relations in the Nineties is more tenuous than it was 30 or 40 years ago. Even the memory of race relations has grown turbulent, typified by the controversy over the Georgia state flag. Adopted in 1956 to incorporate the St Andrews cross from the Confederate battle pennant, the flag reminds blacks of the era of massive resistance, while many white Georgians revere it as a symbol of their heritage. There are pockets of poverty - whole census tracts of poverty - uncured by decades of ministrations by private charity and federal, state and local government programmes.

Still, Atlanta emerged as the capital of the New South for a reason, and that reason was its willingness to embrace change. As much as anyone else, Atlanta's spirit was embodied by McGill, whose column appeared on the front pages of the Constitution for 20 years and chronicled the ebb and flow of his conscience. Many people who know that McGill earned a Pulitzer Prize for his writing on race assume that he spoke as a liberal from the outset. It comes as a surprise to learn how gradually he accepted the idea of full integration, how he initially opposed many of the laws that gave blacks equal rights, and how he once remarked bitterly, when Martin Luther King moved back to Atlanta from Montgomery, "I feel like a citizen of a medieval walled city who has just gotten the word that the plague is coming."

Some of McGill's defenders thought he deliberately held himself in check, not wanting to get too far ahead of his readers, but they missed the point. He struggled with change, just as so many other white Southerners did. He did not start off "better"; he bettered himself along the way. Change did not come easily to him, which made his evolution all the more admirable.

The same was true of Atlanta. As World War II ended, the city was blessed with potential but no guarantee of success. To reach its goal of primacy, it would have to change, and to do that it would have to go to work

'Atlanta Rising', Frederick Allen's book about the forces that shaped modern Atlanta, has just been published in the US by Longstreet Press Modern Atlanta (clockwise from right): at a 4 July parade, local girls dress up in Scarlett O'Hara costumes. The commissioner of police rides in an open car. A suspect is stopped by police in a government housing "project". The Confederate flag, often contested by Afro-Americans, flutters beside a hand gun advertisement on the highway from Stone Mountain, where many Olympic events will be held Segregated city (from top left): the Peachtree Center, a ritzy complex of hotels and shopping arcades. Summertown, an old black neighbourhood opposite the new stadium, is falling into neglect. In an old cemetery near the state prison, homeless people have built their own shantytown. At the World of Coca-Cola theme park (below right), attendants mop spilt coke from around the fountain. In 1985 Ted Turner moved CNN (bottom right) from the old country club to new headquarters at the Omni International complex Profane and sacred: a bar (above) in Inman Park. Worshippers (right) in Emmanuel Holy Temple, south Atlanta