In One Mayor's Indictment, a Political Parable ; Civil Rights Icon Bill Campbell Made Atlanta a Beacon of Change - and Conflict - in New South

By Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, September 7, 2004 | Go to article overview

In One Mayor's Indictment, a Political Parable ; Civil Rights Icon Bill Campbell Made Atlanta a Beacon of Change - and Conflict - in New South


Patrik Jonsson Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


He was a gangly boy of seven when he became the first black kid in the Raleigh, N.C., public schools. He finished college in three years and went to Duke Law School. He quickly climbed Atlanta's social peaks, becoming the face of the 1996 Olympics and, less vaingloriously, one of the most embattled mayors of Atlanta's history.

In a scene straight out of Tom Wolfe's scathing novel, "A Man in Full," ex-mayor and civil rights icon Bill Campbell last week refused to face his lowest point lying low: Showing up at a press conference called by prosecutors, he decried 42 pages of federal corruption and racketeering charges against him as a "tabloid indictment."

Still, the week ended with the unrepentant Mr. Campbell, mayor from 1994 to 2002, giving up his fingerprints to federal agents in an indictment that threatens to tarnish his family's prodigious legacy. But for many Atlantans - especially the city's black middle class and white corporate culture - the unraveling of the Campbell era reveals a darker parable of how Atlanta conducted itself in the heyday of the 1990s, and how lost civil rights ideals, along with issues of power and politics remain a potent powder keg of the post- civil rights era.

"This will test whether Atlanta is transitioning to another phase ... where people no longer try to act as though if you don't talk about it, it'll go away," says James Cobb, a University of Georgia historian. "There's always been a local tradition of deal-making across the color line, involving the substantial black middle class and the white power structure, which has in many ways benefited the local black population and has given the sense that Atlanta is more ... progressive than other Southern cities."

Now, the question is whether that spirit has been smudged with fraud. Southern corruption has always had a peculiar bent, from Huey Long's stranglehold on Louisiana parishes to the recent arrests of county sheriffs with illegal "fiefdoms" in the Deep South, who ran corrupt oligarchies from behind the badge. Campbell's is Atlanta's second big federal case this year: Last month, a federal judge took over the DeKalb County jail, a squalid, overcrowded fortress where corruption and violence had run rampant for years.

Yet the Campbell story has a twist: The charismatic flashy dresser allegedly manipulated city government, as Professor Cobb says, "to get his," gaining financially in exchange for his choice of city contracts. "If the art of politics is about amassing power by rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, then Bill Campbell, like Richard Nixon, became a consummate politician," says former Atlanta city councilor Lee Morris, Campbell's chief antagonist on the council in the late 1990s. "And that's one of the things that I attribute to his downfall: Quite frankly, he took that to an extreme."

The indictment's impact on Atlanta is evident. Atlantans pride themselves on representing the South, a city that embodies images from Gone With the Wind to a battle-flag-flying Dixie crossroads. It's where blacks from Martin Luther King to Maynard Jackson strolled onto the national stage, laying the groundwork for young black politicos like Campbell. But Campbell's alleged transgressions are now embarrassing the city's prodigious marketing machine.

Emory University historian Joseph Crespino says that Atlanta - and the greater South - is no more prone to graft and greed than anywhere else. Indeed, the US Justice Department's list of "Top 10" corrupt states includes only three in the South. Still, Campbell's friends say the river of money running through Atlanta in the 1990s may have tempted even the Raleigh wunderkind. …

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