Home of the Braves. Land of the Free?

Atlanta, home of Coca-Cola, who once wanted to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony. Atlanta, home to the 1996 Olympic Games, where the world competed in perfect harmony, if one overlooks routine substance abuse and one or two assassinations. Atlanta, centrepiece of the new South, a phoenix from the ashes of the city destroyed in the Civil War, a jewel in the crown of multiracial America. Atlanta, home of the Braves in the land of the free.  

When General Sherman ordered Atlanta to be razed to the ground in November 1864, the city was about thirty years old. Much the same timescale as if Tony Blair had ordered the destruction of Milton Keynes as part of the Millennium celebrations. After the civil war and into the 20th century, Atlanta, and Georgia generally, seem to have avoided some of the opprobrium that was deservedly heaped on Mississippi and Alabama. But Georgia remained a southern state, and Atlanta a southern city, with southern attitudes and Confederate and segregationist sympathies. The black actress Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her part in Gone with the Wind, was banned from the film’s première in Atlanta in 1939.

By the time I visited Atlanta in 1998, the city had learned to disguise these things a little better. I was there with an old friend and business colleague and, meetings finished for the day, we felt like taking in some live country music. We asked where to go and were told of a club on the edge of town.

The place was huge, as big as an aircraft hangar, or an outsize D-I-Y superstore. It was a Saturday night and the place was packed. Bouncers stood guard at the doors and surveyed the car park for undesirables. This was B & Q with attitude. We paid our ten bucks and went inside. Blondes with large cleavages and little else offered us every variety of beer. On a stage at the far end a live band belted out country classics.

In front of the band was an area that was a cross between a rodeo pit and a skating rink. Here the dudes and their gals strutted their stuff, sashaying in pairs round the rink before breaking into obscure line dance rituals. Dudes in checked cowboy shirts and stetsons. Gals in gingham blouses and freshly squeezed denim. Around the rink, the club banked upwards in rough wooden tiers. Lots of bars. Lots of space for dudes and gals to drink a Bud or a Mich and chat each other up. Over there a mechanical bucking bronco for a virtual reality rodeo experience. There must have been at least two thousand people in the hangar.

And not one of them was black.

The band left the stage and the tape machine took over, blaring out modern country songs. The couples strutted and line danced. Gradually the music changed. It was still – well, sort of country, but with more bass and drum. A little while later it changed again. This time I recognised the song. It was Pump Up the Volume – pure 1980s black disco funk, except that it was made by a white band. And the good ol’ boys and gals were still out on the rink, and in even greater numbers, but they weren’t sashaying and they weren’t line dancing, they were just getting on down.

The nature of the club was now clear. It had nothing much to do with country music. It was a discotheque for whites. You couldn’t say that, of course, but that’s what it was, and everyone knew it. That was why whites came and blacks did not. What the law would not allow, marketing could create. You call the club ‘The Wild West’, or ‘The Dude Ranch’, or something like that. You invest it with western imagery. You let the white kids turn up in their fancy dress. You play country music long enough to sustain the pretence. You do everything to create a concept that no black person can relate to. And then, when you’ve got a couple of thousand nice white kids inside, you play them disco funk and let them party with their own kind of folk.

If I was black and turned up at this club, I would probably be given a long stare by the white bouncer before paying my ten bucks and being allowed in. But I never would. If, being white, I turned up at some funky Atlanta downtown disco, I would probably be given a long stare by the black bouncer before paying my ten bucks and being allowed in. But I never would. The degree of separation is unaltered from the days of segregation. The degree of equality is greater. Separate but equal development. That used to be called apartheid.

Nevertheless, something had changed by 1998, and no doubt more has changed since. But how much of the change is the real thing? How many of those white kids, given the choice now, would enlist in General Sherman’s army, and how many would choose to ride with General Forrest, murderer of black prisoners-of-war at Fort Pillow, and the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan?

Nearly fifty years ago, a hundred kids of different races stood on a hilltop outside Rome and sang ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.’ We were idealists then. We believed in harmony, and we bought Coca-Cola.

The small remaining idealistic part of me hopes that one day we will treat each other as individuals and only as individuals. Two thousand cowboys and cowgirls in stetsons and gingham, boogying on down to Pump Up the Volume, say I’m wrong. As Bruce Hornsby sang, ‘that’s just the way it is; some things will never change.’