Originally created 02/15/99

Equality remains dream



ATLANTA -- Just miles from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s tomb and the historic church where civil rights leaders plotted strategies, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's likeness is carved into a large granite mountain.

The monuments serve as reminders of Georgia's past -- made famous by both the Civil War and civil rights -- and symbolize the state's continued racial divisions.

Whether a state steeped in such paradoxes can preserve its Southern history and still transform itself into a colorblind society heading into the new millennium remains to be seen.

"I don't know if it will ever change," said state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta. "I would like to see Georgia become the mecca of racial tolerance and race relations. I'm still a King dreamer."

The son of a sharecropper, Mr. Walker experienced firsthand the progress Georgia has made toward improving racial tolerance.

He sold peanuts for a commission of 3 cents per bag until he saved enough to go into business for himself. He is now a prominent Augusta businessman and the highest-ranking black in the state Senate.

However, "In the area of race relations, I don't think we've done much," he said. "Race relations means we've come to the point in our society where the color of our skin doesn't matter."

No one seems to question that minorities -- specifically blacks -- have advanced tremendously since the 1960s.

Gone are the visible signs of discrimination: the segregated water fountains, "whites only" lunch counters and police dogs trained to attack black protesters.

From north to south Georgia, blacks have assumed leadership positions on city councils and county commissions. They head private companies and run school systems.

But Dr. King's dream of racial equality has yet to be achieved in the state of his birth, many say. And lingering disparities between whites and blacks in education, employment and housing make some less optimistic about Georgia's future.

"Everything has changed and nothing has changed," said the Rev. Joseph Lowery, past president and co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "Racism is more subtle now. I think where white people are concerned, there's more tolerance than acceptance."

Data from the 1990 U.S. Census (the latest figures available) shows the median income for black households in Georgia was $18,689 compared to $32,445 for white households. And 30.3 percent of blacks were living below the poverty line, compared with 8.8 percent of whites.

In education, 41.4 percent of blacks 25 and older did not complete high school, compared to 25.1 percent of whites. But the education gap is narrowing, said Doug Bachtel, a rural sociologist at the University of Georgia who studies population trends.

That's most evident in suburban metropolitan areas like Clayton County -- the destination of many middle-class blacks fleeing Atlanta -- where 15.6 percent of blacks 25 and older have a bachelor's degree compared to 8.7 percent of whites.

There are other reminders of the divisions between whites and blacks, from the fight over removing the Confederate battle emblem from Georgia's flag to the criminal justice system to politics.

And integration in Georgia rarely extends beyond the work place or the classroom. Despite movement of blacks into suburbs, neighborhoods are still very much segregated as are places where people socialize.

"Even in the work place, there are still many subtle forms of racial segregation and situations where race impedes a person from growing the way they should be able to grow," said Jerry Hardee, 60, vice president of academic affairs at Albany State University.

Georgia is still primarily a black and white state, although Hispanic and Asian populations are growing.

By 2025, Georgia is expected to have the largest population of blacks of any state. The Asian and Hispanic populations are also projected to grow in the next century, but the state will still be predominantly white and black.

"Georgia will look very, very similar then as it does now," Dr. Bachtel said. "It's going to take awhile before blacks make up more than 40 percent."

Quotes

Comments from Georgians on the status and future of race relations in the state:

"There's still white flight and there's still Realtors who one way or another steer blacks from certain neighborhoods. If their words don't, their prices certainly do."

-- the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference

"I'm not real optimistic. I'm hopeful that those of us whose skin color is white like mine can find ways to deal with our racism."

-- John Cole Vodicka, director of the Americus, Ga.-based Prison & Jail Project

"The big missing piece of the puzzle is that the white leadership is not leading white America to reconciliation. .. Black leadership cannot lead white America because white America will not respond to black leadership as it will to its own leadership. Every white pastor in America needs to be talking about the sin of racism."

-- Maynard Jackson, elected Atlanta's first black mayor in 1973

"Even in the work place, there are still many subtle forms of racial segregation and situations where race impedes a person from growing the way they should be able to grow. .. Some of it is still very overt. Even though `the word' is not used, it's obvious when you look at housing, economic development, entrepreneurship, lending institutions."

-- Jerry Hardee, 60, vice president of academic affairs at Albany State University

"The one main thing that will improve race relations will be the growing of the black middle class. When that happens .. race relations will improve 100 percent."

-- Doug Bachtel, University of Georgia rural sociologist

"I don't think anything has changed or will change. They'll just talk about us quieter. They aren't going to do nothing but sit on the front porch and talk about us from a distance."

-- Paula Nicely, 27, who is black and lives in Gainesville, Ga.