The groundbreaking book by sociologist Robert Bellah, The Good Society, forms the backbone for this two-part program with Bill Moyers, which looks at two American cities uniquely struggling to make a better society. The first program looks at Atlanta. Despite the divisions within the city—rich and poor, black and white—people are coming together to work for a better community.
MARGIE SMITH: A good society would be a place where no one would have to ever go hungry, no one would ever have to go sick, no child would ever have to be born and die before it’s three months old or three days old, that the society would take care of its peoples, and I don’t mean hand-outs. I mean make it where if you really want an education, you can get that and it’s not going to cost you an arm and a leg and the rest of your body just to pay for it. And no one should have to worry about being homeless and on the streets and everything. And unfortunately, in this whole society none of that has happened.
BILL MOYERS: In the next hour, you’ll hear from Margie Smith and four other citizens of Atlanta, Georgia, all of them trying to create “The Good Society.” I’m Bill Moyers.
In this political season, millions of Americans are feeling disaffection and even cynicism toward their institutions. Everywhere you turn people are talking about families that don’t function and schools that don’t teach, about over-reaching corporations and impotent trade unions, about universities that have become huge and impersonal, and about political parties that do not govern. For many Americans, institutions are the problem. They’ve given up on them altogether and are waiting for someone on a white horse, pure in heart, to save us.
Yet far from the headlines, polls and public grumbling, there are some signs of hope. At a time when the nation is looking to the top for answers to challenges we face, some people are starting from the ground up to make democracy work. They know that change comes only when they strive together for common goals. Now, this means working through institutions and in America, with our long love-hate relationship to institutions, that’s not easy to do.
ACTOR: [ From the movie,”Shane”] There’s too many, Shane.
BILL MOYERS: In popular culture, it has been the lone hero who comes to the rescue of the community, then rides away as a grateful civilization calls out plaintively and vainly for his return.
ACTOR: Shane! Come back!
BILL MOYERS: Long before Ross Perot thought we could have good government without politics, Hollywood told us democracy could be redeemed this way.
JIMMY STEWART: [From the movie,”Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”] That’s what you see. There’s no place out there for graft or greed or lies or compromise with human liberties!
BILL MOYERS: The savior was a decent, honest fellow, John Q. Public, standing up to the Washington establishment. The rugged individual captured America’s heart early on, from Natty Bumppo, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s realist fiction, to the real person of Davey Crockett, who spun his own legend of the self-made man. For those who wanted to escape conformity and institutions, there was always the endless horizon. When you can see the smoke from the neighbor’s chimney, they said, it’s time to move west.
We romanticize the cowboy as the symbol of individual freedom. When the suburbs opened up this century, Americans took to their cars the way cowboys had to horses. Every man had his own spread. A majority of us now lives in suburbs, but the suburbs are filling up and there’s no West for escape. In cities around the country, Americans with means now build their new frontiers behind a protective fence.
The modern city is a far cry from the visions of the good society we visit at Disneyworld. Our real cities don’t look like this. Reality is something else. Other realities have shaken our faith in institutions. During the Vietnam War, distrust of government turned to rage. Watergate transformed the rage to cynicism.
JOHN MITCHELL: And I was not about to countenance anything that would stand in the way of that reelection.
Pres. RICHARD M. NIXON: [August 8, 1974] I shall resign the presidency effective at noon tomorrow.
BILL MOYERS: As the public realm fell apart, millions of Americans turned inward: The “me decade,” said pundits, followed by the “greed decade.” Milkin and Keating were symbols of cowboy capitalism running roughshod over laws and institutions. When Los Angeles burned, we had a new metaphor for a society falling apart. What happened in Los Angeles reminds us that a community is more than its individuals. It is institutions that provide us our common ground. As a result, Americans in the ’90s have started to talk again about the values of acting together. A timely book has provoked debate and discussion on ways we can collaborate. The Good Society was written by the sociologist Robert Bellah and four of his colleagues.
ROBERT BELLAH: [addressing seminar] One of the stimuli for The Good Society was the reaction we got from some people, “Don’t you know that changing your heart isn’t enough? We have to change institutions.”
BILL MOYERS: The Good Society is a sequel to the authors’ bestseller Habits of the Heart, about middle class Americans trying to make sense of their lives. Now in their new book they ask us to pay attention to institutions. They use baseball to illustrate the qualities of an institution. It’s a collective moral enterprise with purposes, codes and standards. Individuals perform, but teams win and many people care about it.
1st SEMINAR PARTICIPANT: The book’s partly a story about disappointment with institutions and we could ask the auto workers, and ourselves, too, “How come? What would have to be different for you to believe at least a little bit when management says ‘We’re a team’ or ‘one big family’ “? Now, let’s kind of talk about sacrifice and what are we actually going to do-
BILL MOYERS: In a seminar at the University of California, Berkeley, the authors discuss their book with educators from secular and religious backgrounds.
2nd SEMINAR PARTICIPANT: And the point of The Good Society is that we can reform our institutions. We don’t need a full-scale revolution.
ROBERT BELLAH: The utopian dream of throwing everything out and start-ing over has produced some of the worst nightmares in human history. One doesn’t have to legitimate the status quo as “good” at all to say, “It’s what we’ve got.”
BILL MOYERS: The Good Society deals with how we can renew our basic institutions: the family, the church, the school, the corporation and the government. It says we have our work cut out for us, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.
ROBERT BELLAH: We believe that no fundamental and certainly no radical reform in this society can take place only on the initiative of the most oppressed, that unless there is a significant movement on the part of what I’m calling the “conscience middle class” – even the people in the suburbs who sort of seceded from the society and are trying to escape from it and don’t want to see people of different colors and so on – that we can’t move this society in the right direction
BILL MOYERS: Scholars like Robert Bellah inspire us to think about democracy as it might work in theory, but people in their daily lives remind us how society works in practice. Somewhere between the two – between the desire for a good society as we can imagine it and the realities of people striving to achieve it – we may find the common ground for democratic renewal. We’ll search for the good society in two very different American cities. Next time we look at Los Angeles. First we go to Atlanta.
JUAN ANTONIO SAMARANCH: The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the city of Atlanta.
Mayor MAYNARD JACKSON: I jumped out of my seat. People said, ”You were smoothing your hair back.” I wasn’t. I was holding my head and saying a prayer of thanks. One of the most exciting moments in our lifetime, one I’ll never forget. I’m happy for our city. It’s a chance of a lifetime, a chance of the century, chance of a millennium and we’re not going to waste it.
BILL MOYERS: Atlanta competed against the world to be chosen for the 1996 Olympics. Atlantans overwhelmed the international judges with images of their home town, the city that rose from the ashes after the Civil War, that burned images from Gone With the Wind permanently into our memory, that gave the world Martin Luther King, Jr. …
MARTIN LUTHER KING, Jr.: – but if it means that I will die standing up for the freedom of my people-
BILL MOYERS: … that beams telecasts from CNN throughout the world, the capital of the New South, “the city too busy to hate,” a model of racial harmony with an 18-year history of black political leadership and a visible, well-educated black middle class. Wasn’t Atlanta rated as the best place to do business in the U.S. by Fortune magazine? Turner Broadcasting, Coca-Cola, IBM, AT&T, Delta, UPS – they love to love Atlanta. The big peach, the city of trees, once called “the most livable city in America,” Atlanta is steeped in Southern hospitality and charm. No wonder it had been awarded the 1988 Democratic convention, the 1994 Super Bowl. What better place now to hold the centennial Olympic Games than a city that represents the hope and promise and energy of the future, the next great international city, Atlanta.
But which Atlanta? There is more than one.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Atlanta is two cities. One is a beautiful, progressive, successful, secure, proud city and the other city is one of despair, suffering, crime, school drop-outs, unemployment, homelessness and, I guess most important, hopelessness. The people don’t think that their lives are ever going to get better.
BILL MOYERS: The other Atlanta has become former President Jimmy Carter’s top priority, where two thirds of single mothers with young children live in poverty, where more than 70 percent of public school students are enrolled in the free lunch program, where the poverty rate for blacks is four times that of whites and where violent crime among juveniles tripled – tripled – in the past five years and drug cases increased 17 times.
To rally the whole city to change these conditions, Jimmy Carter has assembled what he calls the Atlanta Project. At the Democratic National Convention in New York last month, he talked about it.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: We want to prove that somewhere in God’s world the suffering can be alleviated. We are marshaling public and private resources into a coordinated team and giving maximum control of this effort to the people and the families in need.
BILL MOYERS: To make the Atlanta Project work, Jimmy Carter is calling on blacks and whites, rich and poor to collaborate. Atlanta has worked hard at race relations, but much remains to be done.
MAYOR MAYNARD JACKSON: It is a challenge for black and white to stay in close touch, in close communications, now more than ever before-
BILL MOYERS: Maynard Jackson is Atlanta’s mayor.
MAYOR MAYNARD JACKSON: – because there’s a greater frustration in Afro-America than ever before. There’s a greater anger at the promises not being kept, the promises of first-class citizenship not being kept, the glass ceilings in corporate America, the continuing racial and economic oppression in many, many ways, the ignoring of the Kerner Commission report. These things have got to be addressed, not just the outbreak, but the underlying causes. And I can tell you that Atlanta’s going to be in the forefront of that leadership.
BILL MOYERS: The Atlantans we’re going to meet tonight have not written books about how to change the world. They’re more or less making it up as they go. In different ways, each is trying to define and create here a good society.
BOB LUPTON: My 21-year-old son invited me out the other night to shoot a little pool and he said, “Dad, I don’t know if I’ve told you this before, but,” he said, “I’m really glad that you raised us where you did.” He was in the 4th grade when we moved into the city. He said he’s worked – he’s the manager of a restaurant now and going to college. He said, “I am able to relate to a wide range of people without the prejudices that most of my peers have.” And he said, “I want to thank you for raising me in that environment.” That made a father’s heart feel very good.
BILL MOYERS: Twenty years ago, psychologist Bob Lupton was living in the suburbs, but his work with teenagers sent to him by the Atlanta juvenile court raised some questions. How could he help the kids without working with their families? And how could he help the families without being involved in the community where they lived? To work with them more closely, he organized Family Consultation Service serving inner city residents. Even then something was missing, so Bob Lupton upped and moved right into the inner city.
BOB LUPTON: We were as fearful of the inner city as any suburban family would be and it was with an awful lot of fear and a lot of waiting that we eventually moved into an inner city community, scared to death that it would be a harmful thing for our children. The reality has been is that it’s the most – it’s the richest experience we could give our boys.
BILL MOYERS: It was a tough neighborhood the Luptons chose, Grant Park in southeast Atlanta. Many of its white residents had fled to the suburbs in the 1950s and the neighborhood was devastated by poverty and crime.
BOB LUPTON: The little community that I have been living in for the last six years we’ve been raising our family is this little community called – we call it the “tapestry community,” two blocks long, about 40 houses, 30 of which are brand-new. The little gray house where we moved in six years ago was the first house that was built on the street. We figured that if we were going to expect others to move in, we probably needed to set the example. A young architect built his house beside ours. The small homes have been built by volunteers, churches and businesses.
So you see along the street they’re interspersed – a low-income house built next to a larger house – and the racial mix is roughly 50-50 black and white. And then we have two Hispanics and one Indian family that’s a part of our little neighborhood, as well. And so we have been trying for the past six years to live as neighbors and understand what “diverse community” means here in the middle of some fairly serious urban blight.
BILL MOYERS: Once he had moved her, Bob Lupton could see firsthand what people needed in order to cope with daily life. Family Consultation Service grew into FCS Urban Ministries. Now hundreds of volunteers are involved, often in very simple ways, to meet very basic needs.
BOB LUPTON: One of the first and easiest needs to begin to address was clothing. So we opened up a little store across from a vacant church that we had gotten use of and got a bunch of volunteers to remodel that old storefront and opened up what we call the Family Store. I call it a clothing boutique – very fine, mostly used clothing that people in the community can buy at affordable prices. And the proceeds from those sales go to hire and train other community residents in those skills needed to sustain them in the marketplace.
The little Family Store began to generate enough income that it enabled us to start what we call the Family Place in the basement of the old church building. We opened up a sliding-scale day care center. So economic development is not something that I anticipated becoming involved in, but was a natural course of living here in the community.
BILL MOYERS: One FCS project received national attention when it was completed two years ago. It was even cited by President George Bush as one of his “thousand points of light.”
BOB LUPTON: The building that we’re sitting in right now, now called GlenCastle, it was known for most of the history of the city of Atlanta as the Atlanta stockade. We’re sitting in the middle of a 150-acre work farm – at least, it used to be – where if you could not pay your fines, you were sentenced to the Atlanta Stockade to work your fine off on the chain gangs. But this building sat vacant since 1929, too expensive to tear down, became a haunt for all sorts of unsavory people, cocaine den, drug distribution point, and it wasn’t until about five years ago when homelessness in Atlanta was a front page issue that some compassionate professionals came up with the idea that perhaps the old stockade could be converted into a place of housing for the homeless. And I recall bringing seven architects through this old place, graffiti on the walls and vines growing through the bars in the windows. They literally began to salivate. And I showed them the old blueprints that were pretty well crumpled up and brown with age and it was as though I was showing them the Dead Sea scrolls. They rolled them out like sacred parchment and they said, “This could be marvelous.” They said, “What kind of a budget are we working with here?” And I said, “Money is not the issue. We’ve got $3,000 in the bank.” Of course, they thought that was funny. And I pushed it a little and said, “Obviously you guys haven’t built anything by faith before, have you.”
BILL MOYERS: A few weeks later, the architects committed to doing all the design work pro bono. This, in turn, inspired Atlanta’s 11 major contractors to donate labor and materials. Within a year these competitors had worked together to turn things around.
BOB LUPTON: GlenCastle is today an entry point into stable community living for families and individuals who have been homeless. There are 67 apartments here, one- and two-room efficiencies. The average rent is $200 a month, which includes utilities, which means that a family now is no longer faced with the choice of whether to buy groceries for their children or to pay the rent. They can do both on a minimum-wage job. So GlenCastle is a real symbol of the compassion core of Atlanta, what creative people can do when they put their hearts and talents to work at it.
BILL MOYERS: Bob Lupton says that by becoming part of the neighborhood, he has learned a lot about himself and about what is required to build a good society in your own home town.
BOB LUPTON: I don’t think you can address the problems of the inner city through legislation or economic incentives. I think the problems have been caused by the withdrawal of the more capable, the more resourced people from the poor. And I think that those problems can be best addressed as our more capable citizens enter into relationships with those who are poor.
BILL MOYERS: Bob’s next project is helping to rebuild Summerhill, the oldest black community in Atlanta. He and his wife Peggy recently attended a prayer breakfast given by the Neighborhood Association.
BOB LUPTON: When the gaps that separate people – class, race – are crossed and relationships have a chance to develop, solutions arise out of that, solutions that cannot be mandated legally, I believe.
MARGIE SMITH: I’ve made my personal stand and commitment that I’m going to be here. You know, come hell or high water, I’m going to be here. I’m not going to move until I get ready to move. And although, you know, peoples look at me strange when I tell them that, because, you know, to them public housing is such a wretched place that anybody should be just praying to get out of here, but it’s not. It’s my community. It’s where I raised my son at. And a rose by any other name is still a rose.
BILL MOYERS: Margie Smith lives in Techwood Homes, the oldest public housing project in America. Built during the Great Depression, Techwood is virtually a stone’s throw from downtown Atlanta and is flanked by Coca-Cola headquarters and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In the shadow of great wealth and knowledge, more than half of the families here earn less than $4,000 a year and drug-related violence is common. One third of Techwood’s residents are children under six. A few years ago Margie Smith and some of her friends decided to try and do something for the kids.
MARGIE SMITH: Before ’85, we had nothing going on with the kids. We had no recreation center. We had no summer camp. We had no sports programs for the kids. We complained all the time because there was nothing for our kids to do. While we were complaining, we decided if we didn’t do anything about it, we were just as bad as the peoples who was in office who wasn’t doing anything, so we found how we can go by having an election and then we had one. And we got in office and we didn’t know what we was getting in for, first of all. But we went in it from the sincerity, from our hearts, because we were generally interested in doing something for the childrens.
BILL MOYERS: Margie was elected president of the Techwood Tenants Association and saw to it that some changes were made.
MARGIE SMITH: We have all kinds of sports programs here in the community. We just kicked off the Hank Aaron Rookie League program. It has become a better neighborhood because, you know, we are dedicated to our childrens.
BILL MOYERS: This summer Margie is working as an instructor at Techwood’s day camp. Today they’re off on a field trip to the Martin Luther King Center.
MARGIE SMITH: Well, it was my first time going over to the King Center and it was a learning experience with me, first of all.
CHILD: Is those his clothes?
MARGIE SMITH: Yes, that’s right. That’s a robe. That’s what he preached in. To be with the kids and hear the questions they were asking about Dr. King, especially the five- and six-year-olds, it was amazing to me just to see that how much they really did know and how much their little eyes and their hearts and everything were open to learning more about him.
[to child] It’s just like a regular burial, where they take and put him in a funeral home, but he’s in a crypt. That’s where he’s buried at.
I came from a large family, but I only have one child and me knowing that with kids, you can always change them – they are not set in any direction, either good or bad, but you can change them and you can’t change an adult. So I felt that I had a lot to offer a child to try to make something better happen in their life and we try to tell the kids that just because you stay in public housing does not mean that you should not be given the same opportunities that kids everywhere should have, that, you know, you stay in public – in Techwood Homes, in public housing. Public housing does not stay in you. You strive to be the very best that you can be.
BILL MOYERS: When Atlanta hosts the summer Olympics in 1996, athletes from all over the world will be housed in the Olympic Village at Georgia Tech, right across the street from Techwood. There are people in town who want to tear Techwood down, removing what they say will be an eyesore during Atlanta’s moment on the world stage. But Margie Smith and the Tenants Association say, “Not on your life.” In meetings with city officials and business leaders, they have come up with a plan to rejuvenate their neighborhood.
MARGIE SMITH: Because we just don’t want a facelift out here. We want something that’s going to last. We want something that’s going to be here permanently, that’s not just going to be planting flowers and shrubs. And we’re committed to seeing it happen. Throughout this whole process, we’re hoping that we will be able to start some kind of job service out of it, some kind of entrepreneur jobs for the residents of this community. The Olympic holds a lot of opportunities for things to get done.
BILL MOYERS: The people who live here are skeptical. They’ve heard promises before. But by a narrow margin they voted to accept a redevelopment plan. Margie knows now that her job’s only begun.
INTERVIEWER: Do you ever get tired of all this?
MARGIE SMITH: Yes. Yes, I do. I get tired because, you know, we’re working so hard to try to make things happen and we’re stigmatized. We’re talked about. We are talked at. We’re tossed aside by a whole lot of peoples and they feel that we just – that our lives don’t mean a damn thing except we’re just here. And we’re trying to change everybody on the outside attitude about our community and trying to change some of the residents’ attitude about our community. It gets tiring sometimes and it makes me want to give up a whole lot of times. It makes me want to go behind closed doors and cry a whole lot of times. But I can’t afford to go anywhere right now and as long as I’m here, I’m going to do whatever I have to make it the best place to stay at. My son is at home and my neighbors’ kids is here and I feel like I’m committed to all the kids here. And, like I say, it’s home to me. It’s public housing to everyone, but it’s home to me.
RICHMOND THEGG: One day I received a call from the Olympic Committee and they said they were looking for a minority person to print T-shirts for them. I think I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time.
BILL MOYERS: Richmond Thegg is the president of AlphaOmega Novelties, a silkscreening company in Atlanta. His firm has been chosen to be one of the printers for the Atlanta Olympic Committee. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for a struggling entrepreneur.
RICHMOND THEGG: Before we were printing for the Olympics, many months we couldn’t pay our rent. Many days I couldn’t buy lunch. I had crackers for lunch. Some days I didn’t have lunch at all. Some weeks I didn’t pay my employees. I would use my credit card. I’d go to the bank, I’d get cash, I’d pay my employees. Before, I ran the company with whatever money I had. Everything has changed. We have medical benefits. We give our employees bonuses and I can go on vacation.
BILL MOYERS: Richmond came to this country from Guyana, South America, 22 years ago. He went first to New York, dreaming of starting his own business.
RICHMOND THEGG: To make a long story short, in the place of one year I changed about 22 jobs. My first job paid me $56 a week.
BILL MOYERS: He kept moving – to an insurance company, into advertising, and eventually was recruited by Budweiser.
RICHMOND THEGG: I would work for the company again. If I ever have to look for a job, I would go and apply to Annheiser-Busch because they’re a very good company. However, I felt that it was time that I should go on my own because I realized that, as a black man, there is only so far you can get in any large corporation in this country. I felt in order for me to take my family and myself to the other level, I had to get into business for myself. It was the only way. I told my wife I was going to quit. She said I was crazy.
BILL MOYERS: Crazy or not, his wife Sherryl left New York with him for Atlanta. Richmond bought a home in the suburbs. He thought it would be a good place for his family to live. His daughter just wanted a yard to play in. Since the early 1970’s, Atlanta has served as a Mecca for black economic development and now ranks sixth among U.S. cities in the number of black-owned businesses. In 1991 the city passed a new equal business opportunity program to ensure that minority- and female-owned businesses could compete for city contracts. With mortgage payments due, Richmond Thegg decided the time had come to act on his dream. He bought a business he knew nothing about.
RICHMOND THEGG: I remember I looked at the equipment and I was trying to figure out how do they screen print. I had no idea. So I had to jump in very fast and learn about screen printing. It’s been a long road.
BILL MOYERS: He also had to learn how to do business in a city of insiders and outsiders, whites and blacks.
RICHMOND THEGG: Black Atlanta controls the political machine and white Atlanta, in most cases, from my view, controls the money. So they don’t bother with black Atlanta. When things get too hot, they just go to some place, buy some land from their friends, because the same people that own the land own the banks and has the money.
BILL MOYERS: Although he was the outsider, Richmond refused to give up.
RICHMOND THEGG: I came to work every day. I did what I was supposed to do. I made phone calls. I couldn’t get business in Atlanta. I just couldn’t get business.
BILL MOYERS: Eventually his tenacity and patience paid off. Coca-Cola, headquartered in Atlanta, announced that it would spend more than $1 billion through 1996 to purchase goods and services from minority and women vendors.
RICHMOND THEGG: They heard about us from someone and they needed something, like, yesterday. And they called us and I said, “Yes, we can do it” because, you know, when you’re from New York, you never, ever say no. You always say yes. As long as there’s time, whether it’s an hour or a minute, you can get it done. So I said yes, but I asked them, I said, “I need the business, so I’ll do this job and all I ask is in the future to get business from you.” And up to today, I’ve still got business from Coca-Cola.
BILL MOYERS: And then he landed the contract with the Olympics. As Richmond says, the rest is history. He and his partner, Victor Rodriguez, stay in close touch with Bob Hollander, their adviser at the Olympic Committee.
BOB HOLLANDER: Will you be able to reproduce that in this with the same grade, or were they talking about doing that in a full flat color?
VICTOR RODRIGUEZ: We’re going to try to get the same effect, the exact same effect.
BILL MOYERS: Bob’s advice often goes beyond Olympic business.
BOB HOLLANDER: Let me suggest, by the way, if you’re going forward with these, this other screen printer, that you ask to get some financial information from them. Have you been to see their operation yet?
RICHMOND THEGG: No, not yet.
BOB HOLLANDER: I think you probably – if, in fact, you carry that further, you ought to spend some time seeing what they’re doing.
BILL MOYERS: Because of the Olympic contract, Richmond’s staff has grown from 4 to 24.
RICHMOND THEGG: Most of the people that work for us, before we hired them, they were unemployed. And they’re single parent women who has children and they were unemployed when we hired them.
BILL MOYERS: The Olympics may prove to be a bonanza for Richmond, but he knows there are many more minorities in Atlanta who are not so lucky.
RICHMOND THEGG: I’m not sure how they’re going to benefit. I think that if you are not selling something or you’re not making something or you’re not servicing Something or providing some service, you’re not going to benefit from the Olympics. I understand that the mayor set up committees and groups to make this happen, but I don’t think that it’s going to happen the way he wants it to happen because there are just not enough people qualified and financed to take advantage of this.
BILL MOYERS: For Richmond Thegg, a good society provides economic opportunity for all its citizens. That’s not always possible without public and private collaboration. So, as he knows, it certainly helps to be in the right place at the right time.
RICHMOND THEGG: Sometimes people say to me, “Richmond, did you know the Olympics was coming to Atlanta?” And I laugh about that because it was – the Olympics wasn’t even a dream in 1987. It wasn’t – I don’t know who was thinking about it. I wasn’t thinking about it. I didn’t know anything. I just had this dream that I wanted to be in business.
JOSEPH MARTIN: I was there in Tokyo when the announcement was made and it was really an electrifying event. It was absolutely stupendous. Like everyone else, I was caught up in the great excitement. But literally an hour hadn’t gone by before I and many others were thinking, “How can we use this opportunity not just to bring great acclaim to Atlanta, not just to boost our image, not just to become more important as a world capital, but what can we do to address these social problems at the same time?”
BILL MOYERS: Joseph Martin is a real estate developer.
JOSEPH MARTIN: I’m one of those rare Atlanta natives. I grew up here in Atlanta.
BILL MOYERS: He lives with his wife and two children in a quiet neighborhood 10 minutes from downtown Atlanta. Joe Martin is definitely an insider, one of the club, a man seen as a bridge-builder between the business world and government, and between the races.
JOSEPH MARTIN: I’m a business person by training and inclination. I guess I’m a populist by philosophy. I have been involved now for over 20 years in what is sometimes referred to as the “public-private partnership.” In fact, I sometimes say I’ve done this type of work for so long, I can no longer tell my public parts from my private parts. But in any event, what we’re talking about is people working together for a common interest. We need to combine the strengths of the public sector and the private sector together to do things that neither can do by itself.
BILL MOYERS: Joe has been elected to the Atlanta Board of Education four times and currently serves as its president. Both of his children attended public schools, where 91 percent of the students are black.
JOSEPH MARTIN: I will say this, that we have a community-wide problem. I believe very much in public education. The public schools have been that place in our society here people from all walks of life could come and be on common ground. Where it occurs and how it occurs is a matter that we all have to work on together.
BILL MOYERS: This desire for common ground led Joe to coordinate the redevelopment of Underground Atlanta. Opened in the late 1960s and closed in the early 1980s, this collection of stores, restaurants and clubs in the heart of the city was given a second chance.
JOSEPH MARTIN: The city worked on it for a while, recognized that this was not something that the city could do by itself. Our political leadership turned to the business community and said, “We want your help in developing Underground Atlanta.” So sure enough, Underground was done as a partnership of local government, state government, national government and Atlanta’s business community. We raised about $142 million to plan and build Underground.
BILL MOYERS: With the Olympics coming to town, Joe saw the opportunity for a dynamic collaboration.
JOSEPH MARTIN: I talked with the Mayor for a long time – he and I are very close personal friends – about what we could do to prepare for this opportunity. And finally, after a while, Maynard said to me, “Joe, if you’re so smart and if you’re so persistent on this subject, why don’t you come and join with me and let’s develop a strategy.”
BILL MOYERS: Joe headed a team that came up with a comprehensive report focusing on the three inner-city neighborhoods most directly affected by the Olympics. The report’s 97 recommendations included everything from building new housing and renovating old housing to improving schools and getting more police protection for residents. The recommendations were based on plans that the neighborhoods had formulated themselves. The report was submitted to Mayor Jackson and that’s where it ran into city politics and bureaucracy.
JOSEPH MARTIN: Our recommendations were submitted in October of last year and then for one reason or another, they simply haven’t gone anyplace. Perhaps they didn’t fit with the thinking of some of the city leaders. Perhaps our group was a group of outsiders who were giving ideas. Perhaps the strategy was too grandiose. Perhaps what we were suggesting was too ambitious. Certainly it required a great level of cooperation within city government and with other governments and with neighborhood and business groups. Perhaps we were expecting too much.
BILL MOYERS: The silence from City Hall made some think that Atlanta’s miracle worker might have lost his magic touch.
INTERVIEWER: Doesn’t this get you angry?
JOSEPH MARTIN: I’m frustrated, sure, but not for myself, but for what our city can do. We have so many resources here, so much energy, so much talent, that we ought to do whatever’s possible to capitalize on the opportunity.
BILL MOYERS: We found Joe Martin at the Summerhill prayer breakfast. He and Bob Lupton and many others who care about their community were there this rainy morning. Joe didn’t look as if he had given up on the idea of the two Atlantas becoming one city.
JOSEPH MARTIN: Now, I don’t think anything bad’s going to happen. I’ve said that over and over again. In fact, I think many good things are going to happen just in the normal course of events. I must confess that my frustration, though, is in the sense that what could happen – what are the missed opportunities if we don’t really get together now, and perhaps we should have done so even back in the latter part of 1990, so that we put as much in place as possible to take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not just to build beautiful streets and symphony halls and magnificent stadiums, but also to rebuild the neighborhoods where these Olympic events will be held. I’m convinced that we can do it.
BILL MOYERS: The frustration that Joe Martin feels is one of the challenges Jimmy Carter’s taking on with the Atlanta Project. The former president was the guest speaker at the prayer breakfast.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: What can we do to correct our own failures and those of the President, those of the Governor and those of the Mayor – all of us are in it together – and provide that equality, that sharing, that brotherhood, that sisterhood, that understanding, that communication that makes us equal in the eyes of human beings, as well as the eyes of God.
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t you going against the grain in America, against the trends that exalt the individual over the community, which celebrates my tribe over your tribe, which rewards us for staying in closely-knit families and closely-knit communities instead of reaching out to share with the others? I mean, aren’t you going against the grain?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Exactly. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: As usual?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Well, I wouldn’t say as usual, but we are going against the grain. But the outpouring of volunteers to participate in this experiment has really been reassuring to me. That’s been one of our biggest problems, is how do you put all these volunteers to work? And the reason that we are slow about sending volunteers into these communities is that we want the people in the communities to have control. We’re going to make sure that we provide the kind of services that those people want and also that they are the major players in the shaping of the programs and the carrying out and modification of the programs. We will have other special responsibilities, for instance we have a lot of problems with drop-outs, not only in Atlanta, but in the rest of the nation. Quite often it’s the brightest kids that drop out, the ones who get bored in school. And they are the entrepreneurial types who are looking for other things to do besides sit in a classroom and be bored. So we hope to have a mentor for every 6th grade truant. As soon as a young person, say 12 years old, begins to miss classes, to assign to that child, through the school principal and school officials, a volunteer mentor to get to know the child. Why did this 12-year-old girl stop going to classes? Visit her home, get to know her family, maybe take her even on vacation during the summertime, help her with her lessons, if she needs it. And that’s the kind of means that we’ll use to break down this barrier between the two Atlantas.
BILL MOYERS: What does it say that a man can become a state senator, a governor of his state and then the president of the United States – and I’m only using you as a metaphor here for the rest of us – and only late come to understand what is within reach, how desperate things are close at hand?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I think that – I think the essence of it is that we deal with poverty and deep privation in a theoretical sense, with an element of remoteness that lets us write a new law or make administrative decisions or do a television program or make a speech about poor people when we never actually know a poor person well enough to go into that person’s home, to sit down and have a cup of coffee, to get to know the mother’s children, much less, God forgive us, to ever dream of having those people come and visit us in our home. And so that’s what I mean by this chasm that exists between people of good will, whose heart goes out to these poverty families, but who never actually know a poverty family.
BILL MOYERS: Do you personally go out to these local communities like Techwood and Summerhill?
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Sure. I go there often and I’ve learned a lot. I went to a middle school not too long ago and I had an eye-opening experience. I met with the students in the 6th, 7th and 8th grades, bright kids, almost all African-American kids, and they asked provocative questions once they got to know who I was. They knew that Jimmy Carter was the 39th president, from Georgia. They knew Jimmy Carter had a wife named Roslyn and was elected in 1976. At first they didn’t believe I was Jimmy Carter, until the principal reassured them. Then they began to ask me interesting questions. One girl, for instance, asked me a question I never would have gotten anywhere else. She said, “Why is it that an old person loses Social Security?” And I said, “Honey, I know the Social Security laws. Once you start getting Social Security, you don’t lose it unless your income goes up too high,” you know, at the early years. She said, “No, sir. My grandfather’s income hasn’t gone up.” And I said, “I don’t’ think he’s lost his Social Security.” She said, “Mr. President, you don’t understand. He lives under a bridge in the west part of Atlanta and they cut off his Social Security because he doesn’t have a mailing address.'” Afterwards, I got through going to the classrooms and I asked the principal what her major problems were and she said for the boys, increasingly, their ambition in life, their belief that the source of their prestige and success was to own a semi-automatic weapon. And I said, “How about the girls?” She said pregnancy’s a problem. And I said, ”Well, I’ve heard, obviously, about teenage pregnancy. That’s a shame.” She said, ”Well, what you probably don’t know is that the highest level of pregnancy is in the 6th grade.” And I said, “That’s hard to believe. I’ve got a granddaughter that’s 12 years old. It’s just hard for me to conceive.” I said, ”Why is it 6th-graders have more pregnancy than older girls?” She said, “I’m not sure you want to know.” And I said, “Yes, I want to know.” She said, ”Well, first of all, the drug pushers and pimps prefer sex with the little girls. Secondly, they are not as able to defend themselves. Third, they are cheaper. And fourth, they are not as likely to have AIDS.” This really shook me up because this was not, you know, Bangladesh or Zambia or Uganda. It was Atlanta, Georgia.
BILL MOYERS: Your home town.
PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Yeah, my home town. These are my neighbors. I’ve been governor of Atlanta and I’ve been president, you might say, of Atlanta. But this is a breakdown in our societal structure for which I feel increasingly responsible, but about which I’ve done very little. And I think that in the Atlanta Project and in similar projects – we hope to make it the America Project someday – there can be a healing of these societal wounds and a raising of opportunities in life for these children.
BILL MOYERS: Robert Bellah, are Jimmy Carter and those four citizens we met in Atlanta going against the grain?
ROBERT BELLAH: In a way, yes. Insofar as the grain has been “look out for yourself, look out for number one, make it on your own,” what Jimmy Carter is trying to say and what the others are trying to tell us is that that isn’t enough. But I would also like to point out that there isn’t just one American grain. Jimmy Carter comes out of another dimension of the America experience that’s rooted in religion, that’s rooted in our idea of citizenship, that reminds us that we are members, one of another, that a good citizen cares about the whole society in which he or she lives, not just his own self-interest.
BILL MOYERS: True, but given those awful realities he described that exist in Atlanta, and given the two Atlantas that we heard him and others talk about in the report, are there institutions that can bridge the two Atlantas, the rich and the poor?
ROBERT BELLAH: It’s a challenge to us, but I think in America we’ve always felt that that chasm should never be more than temporary, that we are in this thing together. Yes, we’re not all absolutely equal, but the equal opportunity, the equal possibility has to be there. And if we’re to do that, we need every church, we need every civic organization, but we also need to have a much more responsible governmental apparatus that can really respond to where people are and what they need.
BILL MOYERS: What do you say to those individuals whom we met in this film about institutions? I mean, they’re up against them. They’re part of them. How do they reform institutions?
ROBERT BELLAH: Well, I think what’s impressive about many of these people is that they work with institutions. We heard about public-private partnership. They’re not saying that they – we shouldn’t have anything to do with institutions. We need to take responsibility within institutions and we need to push institutions. Institutions are certainly part of the problem, but there’s no solution without them. They’re certainly critical if we’re to solve our problems and I think a lot of the people that we saw realize that, even though they know there’s an awful lot of work to be done to make those institutions more responsive and responsible.
BILL MOYERS: These people in Atlanta whom we met are an antidote to me to the cynicism and alienation that we feel. They really are trying to create a good society. And we’ll meet some others next time in Los Angeles. You come back and join us and we’ll finish this discussion on the good society.
You can view more about the Listening To America series on this website.
This transcript was entered on April 8, 2015.