The city of Atlanta, GA is one of the biggest hubs of jobs and prosperity in the southeastern United States. It’s grown considerably over the last 30 years, and the local economy has exploded incrementally if you go back 50 to 60 years. This is largely because Atlanta is a welcoming place to all people—and the Mayor of Atlanta, Kasim Reed, will be the first to tell you that. He points to other southern cities that could have been a central hub for business but instead turned people away and kept things segregated. Since America is at somewhat of a crossroads, he says, we only have to look to the past to see the stark differences between being closed off and being open minded.
Kassim Reed: I think that there are few other cities in America that present such a striking example of what happens when a city and a people have a big, bold, and inclusive vision of what they want to become.
If you go back just a few years and look at Birmingham Alabama around the early 1960s and Atlanta, Georgia... Birmingham actually had a bigger, more dynamic economy and really should have gone on to be the center of the economy and the business center in the Southeast because of the steel industry.
But they also had a governor named George Wallace and they have a police chief named Bull Connor.
At about the exact same time, Atlanta had a mayor named Ivan Allen, who testified in favor of the Civil Rights Act, a governor named Carl Sanders, and then later a governor named Jimmy Carter that had a different view of what our city could be and what the South could be.
Without disparaging the City of Birmingham in any way, if you fast forward 40, 50 years later to where we are today, the City of Atlanta and the metropolitan region’s economy is about three times the size of the economy of the City of Birmingham and their metro. And I believe that that is because we had a bigger, bolder, more inclusive vision of what we wanted our city to be.
We had men like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and women like Mrs. Juanita Abernathy and Mrs. Coretta Scott King, men like Reverend Joseph Lowery, men like Ambassador Andrew Young, Congressman John Lewis, people that set our city on a different path. Men like Robert Woodruff, the CEO of Coca-Cola, who hosted the first integrated dinner in the City of Atlanta to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.
The issues that we face today I don't believe are much different. That's why we have a welcoming initiative in the City of Atlanta to embrace foreign-born citizens and immigrants. We have the second-fastest foreign-born population by percentage on the Eastern seaboard, and we have a level of economic prosperity in our city and our region that is almost unmatched in the Southeastern region of the United States.
And so I think the message is simple: if you have a community that is closed, that is bigoted, that is racist, that tries to present people who should be a part of your community as “other”, in the long-term and the short-term you will pay a very high moral price, but I think you’re paying an even higher economic price.
So right now there is a struggle in America about what vision of our country is the most appropriate. What we have to do is to break through this fever. We are on different ground, but we’re not on entirely new ground. There has always been times in our country where there was a fight for what we wanted the direction of our country to be.
The best version of America is worth it. A big, bold, inclusive vision of America is worth it. But as President John F. Kennedy once said, “Things don’t just happen, things are made to happen.”
So if you believe in that big inclusive version of America, that America where you get to come and be who you are and love who you love and pursue the dreams that you want to achieve and have a fair shot and a fair shake regardless of your ZIP Code or place of birth, you’ve got to get out here and you’ve got to fight for it, because things don’t just happen, things are made to happen.