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Remembering a Movement: Mayor Kasim Reed

Mayor Kasim Reed, Brian Bowen Smith

Martin Luther King Jr.'s most famous speech, made on the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, turns 50 this month. If Lincoln’s historic oration was, in Dr. King’s words, “a great beacon light of hope,” then Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, bellowed to a quarter of a million people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., in the heat of late summer, was the rising sun itself. “Nineteen-sixty-three,” he said, “is not an end but a beginning.” He was prescient. In the half-century since then, we’ve seen people of color become heads of corporations and nonprofits; leaders of the arts, science and music; and, of course, president of the United States. Barack Obama, who was just 2 years old in August 1963, gave his second presidential inauguration speech on this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and many heard in it echoes of Dr. King’s legendary sermon. Below, we present well-known Atlantans of color, including Mayor Kasim Reed, who reflect on Dr. King and what his own momentous decree means to them.

eed photographed for Delta Sky at the High Museum of Art by Brian Bowen Smith.

“I was in my house, 8 or 9 years old, when I first heard the “Dream” speech on an eight-track tape. My father bought a collection of Dr. King’s speeches, along with speeches by Malcolm X and President Kennedy. We had the old deal where there was a TV with two speakers and a record player and an eight-track on top. And my dad had me listening to Dr. King’s speeches as soon as I was cognizant. He had a very strong feeling about both Dr. King and Thurgood Marshall. So in my early development, because my dad wanted to be a lawyer—but stopped school to support his family—he talked about Marshall and King and how their partnership was essential. While Dr. King was shattering barriers, Thurgood Marshall worked through the debris. Once you decide that vestiges of racism are wrong and inappropriate, there has to be a legal framework for how those changes come to life.

Kasim Reed, 44, is the mayor of Atlanta. He grew up in Atlanta and attended Howard University before becoming a Democratic member of the Georgia House of Representatives. He became the 59th mayor of Atlanta in 2010.

“The first book report I ever did, at Utoy Springs Elementary, was on Thurgood Marshall. I used the old Encyclopedia Britannica that I had on my shelf. That’s how I heard of Howard University: Thurgood Marshall went there after the University of Maryland rejected him. My dad started writing to me, started writing my life out in letters, when I was 9 or 10. He was writing to me about how he hoped my life would turn out—I have one in my office on the wall—and law was a theme.

“I decided that I was going go into politics—specifically that I wanted to be mayor—when I was 13. Your parents’ hopes for you really shape the trajectory of your life. So I wanted to go into public service, and I designed my life in that direction. I built my life to have a disproportionate ability to impact events. I’m working on things right now that even if I were not mayor I would still care about. But because I’m mayor, my influence on them is outsized. And I think that is one of the most important parts of public service. I have a very powerful notion of doing good. The piece of art outside my door says, ‘Good defeats evil.’


“Atlanta has long been known as the city that is too busy to hate. And when I got elected, I said we must also be the city not too busy to love one another as well. I think that is a part of Dr. King’s ethic.

“If I had to pick one place to take Dr. King today, to show him the progress we’ve made in Atlanta, I’d show him Piedmont Park. It is the nexus between the northern part of the city and the eastern, western and southern parts of the city. It’s where a number of significant events—the Cotton States and International Exposition, for one—were held. I’d probably take him there to look around and see how people in this city are getting along with one another and how the city is really holding together well.

“Dr. King said that in the future, there will be born a new generation with new privileges and new responsibility. I hope that they will remember that they did not achieve these new privileges and new opportunities without somebody suffering for it and sacrificing for it. That’s important to me because it says to my generation and future generations that past generations were keenly aware of what they were sacrificing and that they do and did have an expectation that you would care about stewardship. They were not thrill-seekers who were simply out risking their lives and doing hard things and being away from their families for nothing.

“I think his primary legacy will be as the remover of burdens and the healer of scars. All of our lives are enhanced by not having to carry the burden of being an oppressor, being someone filled with hate. Being a person for whom the ceiling has been lifted so that your talent and merit is the primary driver of your life outcome. I consider that an extraordinary gift to all individuals, no matter your background, ethnicity or class. Dr. King really is a man for all seasons and for all people. And he happens to be from Atlanta.”

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Spill It: Tell Us What You Think!

Makeda Johnson
The article was very inspirational, I am proud of our Mayor. The article confirms that he is a man of vision and intention working his magic...His is a generation of promise. Keeping it real with clear understanding of the power of thought in action. Great article
8/6/2013 8:35:58 AM

Dr. Nathan Carnes
This article provided me with a thoughtful reflection. During the time in which some of my colleagues are pushing for culturally-relevant and culturally responsive pedagogy, it is important to keep in mind that Dr. King Jr. fought for human rights that all human beings deserve, a cause that is much greater than constricting our causes within any given color lines.
9/20/2013 4:17:43 PM

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