- The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta by Maurice J. Hobson
Much has been said about Atlanta, Georgia, and its complicated history of race, class, and power. Historian Maurice J. Hobson, in The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta, makes interventions in Atlanta studies by providing perspective on the city's "black masses," an amorphous group encompassing the city's black poor and working classes (p. xi). Hobson's fundamental thrust is that the narrative of Atlanta as a "Black Mecca" of exceptional African American success and opportunity is more myth than reality. While a visible black political class secured control over the municipal government in the early 1970s and helped establish greater black [End Page 505] wealth, the black masses have been locked out of power and access to the economic boom sweeping the Sun Belt city.
Chapter 1 gives an overview of the city's history up through the assassination of Atlanta native Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Hobson also uses the first chapter to foreshadow the class chasms that ground the book's focus. The turning point in black political power in Atlanta was the election of Maynard H. Jackson Jr. in 1973 as the South's first black mayor of a major city. In his first term, Jackson forged aggressive affirmative action programs that opened access to the city's coffers that had theretofore been exclusively reserved for white firms. He also opened the city's municipal power to black managers, and many black Atlantans anticipated greater achievements. The firing of mostly black striking sanitation workers in 1977, however, sets the author's tone that frames Jackson as a racial champion and symbol who was simultaneously more interested in black middle-class and elite interests.
Unlike the broad sweeps of the first two chapters, Hobson gives deft attention to the traumatic ordeal of the Atlanta Child Murders in chapter 3. Over a span of two years, thirty black people, mostly children, were found murdered in and around Atlanta, crimes attributed to a serial killer. The slow response to the killings was, to some, indicative of a lack of empathy for the victims, "whose parents were at the bottom of the economic ladder" (p. 100). (Hobson's appendix, which profiles each victim, is a nod at humanization of them all.)
The focus on Mayor Andrew Young's assiduous efforts to attract business investment and the "Olympification" of the city in the 1990s extends the discussion on class rifts in the city, where poor residents were often an afterthought to the big picture of capitalist enterprise (p. 10). The truly novel intervention here is the exploration of the significance of the city's Bureau of Cultural Affairs, established by Jackson in his first term. Hobson focuses on how the bureau helped cultivate the local music scene, which had important national implications. Giving considerable attention to hip-hop groups OutKast and Goodie Mob, Hobson argues that these rappers gave voice to the concerns and frustrations of the black masses, who remained deeply distrustful of the black and white political elites.
Throughout, Hobson insists that the black masses viewed the governing black elite with contempt, often regarding them "as puppets or . . . white men in blackface" (p. 25). While there are some compelling logics to the thesis, the argument would be much stronger with better utilization of data. Did conditions for the black masses (such as poverty, home ownership, employment rates, education rates, and so on) improve or worsen under black municipal control? The claim that "the majority of black Atlantans remained in abject poverty" at the end of Jackson's term is not supported by data (p. 95). Any additional evidence to substantiate charges that the black masses resented the black political class—such as polls and voting patterns—should have been used.
In the end, Hobson does what...