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“The City Too Busy to Care”: The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Southern Past, 1979–81
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“The City Too Busy to Care”
The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Southern Past, 1979–81

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The Atlanta slayings aggravated long-held black anxieties about racial violence, white hegemony, and the African American future. They also undermined Atlanta’s image as a space of racial moderation and economic progress in an otherwise retrograde region. For nearly two years, the death toll mounted as the city struggled to identify who was preying on its black children, adolescents, and young adults. “‘This is a Start,’” East Hampton Star (N.Y.), March 12, 1981, 18, Box 152, Folder 8, Joseph E. Lowery papers, SCLC records, MSS 1083, MARBL, Emory University.

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Atlanta: Long seen as the robustly optimistic capital of the New South. Throughout its region’s racial troubles, Atlanta always seemed a healthy, bustling citadel of good sense and goodwill, offering its own unique prospect for racial reconciliation in the South. But now, this brave center of the Sunbelt has been touched by a shadow—a mindless evil loose in its midst, executing its children with a cruel and systematic regularity. What does it mean to a city like Atlanta when it finds something like this happening to it?

—Marshall Frady, abc World News Tonight, February 27, 19811

On May 25, 1981, an estimated three thousand people convened at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., to protest the slayings of black Atlanta youths. Rally organizers framed the demonstration as part of the March on Washington tradition. Promotional materials urged attendees “to help pave the way to living a reality that once was a dream,” evoking Martin Luther King Jr.’s canonical 1963 speech. Therein King had shared his vision for a society in which his and other children could transcend the racial prejudice that negated the American precepts of freedom and equity. Eighteen years later, speakers at the Atlanta rally seemed less hopeful and more fearful for their children. “Across this country our children are being killed in many ways,” Camille Bell, a victim’s mother, lamented. “And our future is being wiped out.”2

From 1979 to 1981, the city of Atlanta reeled as nearly thirty of its young, black, and poor residents were abducted and murdered. These slayings aggravated long-held black anxieties about racial violence, white hegemony, and the African American future. They also undermined Atlanta’s image as a space of racial moderation and economic progress in an otherwise retrograde region. For nearly two years, the death toll mounted as the city struggled to determine who was preying on its black children, adolescents, and young adults.3 Just as racial unrest seemed destined to erupt in the spring of 1981, Atlanta investigators apprehended a twenty-three year old African American man named Wayne B. Williams in connection with two of the murders. The following year, Williams was convicted of the two killings, and city officials implicated him in nearly all of the others. In effect, the case had been closed, and Atlanta had been vindicated.

This article argues that the southern past shaped public perceptions of and community responses to the Atlanta youth murders, which in turn dented Atlanta’s reputation as a New South, “postracial,” and “post-civil rights” city. Poor black Atlantans and those within the city’s biracial power structure developed fundamentally different approaches to addressing the killings. Many African Americans conceived of the slayings as an attempt to unmake the Civil Rights Movement. As black Atlantans mobilized against the forces of racism and indifference to the crisis, they built on well-worn southern movement strategies that stressed consciousness [End Page 44] raising, community protection, civic engagement, and a populist posture against both black and white elites.

The city’s biracial political and economic establishment took a different tack—downplaying the racial dimensions of the killings, drafting contingency plans to prevent any potential civil unrest related to the murders, securing the assistance of the private sector in alleviating local anxieties, and striving to preserve Atlanta’s image as the “city too busy to hate.”4 Observers outside of Atlanta generally understood the slayings as inconsonant with the city’s moderate...