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Guest Commentary: Doing The Right Thing

As Georgia Trend wraps up its 30th anniversary year, we’re taking one more look back – not at our magazine’s history, but at the history of our state. At our anniversary celebration in September, Todd Groce, president and CEO of the Georgia Historical Society, spoke about how the decisions made by leaders in our past got us to where we are today and how decisions made today will lead us into the future. Following is an edited version of his remarks.

The year in which Georgia Trend was founded, 1985, marked the beginning of perhaps the most explosive economic growth in the history of Georgia. By every measure – job creation, businesses attracted and businesses created, infrastructure built, urban and suburban expansion, population growth and an expanding housing market – the past 30 years have been the most successful ever enjoyed by our state. Although the Great Recession of the late 2000s slowed the pace of growth and persistent poverty continues to detract from it, there is no denying the miraculous transformation of Georgia from an agricultural, segregationist, one-party state to a vibrant, diversified and dynamic economic engine of the New South.

Georgia Trend has been there to record it all. It is no accident that the magazine was founded in the 1980s and not the 1930s or the 1950s. Georgia Trend is a product of its time and of a unique moment in the state’s history. When it launched, it reflected the newfound emphasis on growth and the excitement of those who were leading the state into a new era.

If the decade of the 1980s set in motion the unparalleled economic expansion we enjoy today, then it is also true that the momentous events of the 30 years prior to 1985 set the stage for that growth. The social upheaval and revolutionary change that spanned the period from 1955 to 1985 was unlike anything seen in the state since 1865 and the end of slavery.

Beginning with a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 (Brown v. Board of Education) and eventually with legislation aimed at voting and civil rights in the 1960s, the federal government responded to the demands of African Americans for full citizenship that had been denied them for nearly a century. As a consequence, white and black leaders in Atlanta, Savannah and other cities worked together – sometimes willingly and at other times by force of law – to dismantle a system of racial oppression. They desegregated lunch counters, public facilities and public schools. They repealed poll taxes and literacy tests that prevented African Americans from voting and registered thousands of new black voters. By the early 1970s, African Americans were elected for the first time since Reconstruction to local, state and national offices.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact of the Civil Rights Movement on the economic and social health of Georgia. The extraordinary energy and resources that for decades had been expended – indeed squandered – to keep African Americans from enjoying full political and legal rights could now be used to unleash latent economic potential. The dire prediction by segregationists that African-American equality would lead to the apocalypse never materialized. Leaders of both races could now focus on creating an economy powerful enough to catapult the state into the modern era.

In the decade following the Civil Rights Movement, as African Americans began to win political office during the 1970s, new leaders with an eye to the future began to emerge. Building on the first attempt at racial cooperation during the 1960s, Atlanta’s white businessmen and black politicians seized the opportunity created by the Civil Rights Movement to reinvent the state.

Freed from the icy grip of the past, they envisioned something Georgia had never had – a truly biracial society forged on the anvil of economic growth and shared political power. Leaders like Tom Cousins and Andrew Young, Maynard Jackson and John Portman, Herman Russell and Robert W. Woodruff, Ted Turner and Jesse Hill found common ground and united around a common goal – a better, economically strong Georgia. This new coalition created the Georgia World Congress Center, built MARTA and upgraded Hartsfield International Airport, setting the stage for the explosive growth that began in the 1980s.

Because of the right leadership, priorities and vision, Atlanta’s fortunes rose. Here are just a few of the events and people from the last 30 years that shaped the world we live in today and that represent what Georgia has become in 2015.

• Creation of the Georgia Lottery by Gov. Zell Miller;

• The 1995 World Series victory for the Atlanta Braves;

• The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and around the state;

• The impact of The Home Depot founders Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus through their business acumen and philanthropy;

• The rise of Leah Ward Sears as the first African-American woman chief justice of any state supreme court;

• The G-8 Summit at Sea Island;

• The elections of Newt Gingrich, Paul Coverdell, Sonny Perdue and the rise of the Republican Party;

• Gov. Roy Barnes and the creation of a new state flag;

• The 1988 Democratic National Convention in Atlanta; and

• The artistic contributions of rock band R.E.M. and Atlanta Symphony conductor Robert Shaw.

From the vantage point of 2015, the success and progress of the last 30 years seems inevitable, as if the story was fated to turn out as it did. We take it for granted that Georgia would emerge as a leader, that it would become the eighth most populous state in the country, and that Atlanta with its international airport and sports franchises would become the capital of the South. We assume that Coca-Cola, CNN, Delta, Chick-fil-A, SunTrust, Aflac, Georgia Power, Georgia-Pacific and a host of other corporate giants would emerge and prosper beyond all imagination; and that companies like The Home Depot, Cox Enterprises, UPS, NCR, Gulfstream and Mercedes-Benz would choose to locate in Georgia just because it is naturally a great place to do business.

But in reality that’s not the way it happened. There was nothing inevitable about Georgia’s growth. It was never a foregone conclusion that we would become what and who we are today. At every turn, the fate of our state hinged on the decisions – good and bad – made by our leaders, both political and business. Fortunately for Georgia, our predecessors generally made good choices. They weren’t perfect, and there are still enormous, complex and vexing issues, especially about race and poverty, that we have yet to resolve. But in general, the Georgia we live in today is a testament to the caliber of past leadership and the power of wise decisions, proper priorities, visionary planning and openness to change.

Today Georgia once again stands at a crossroads. The next 30 years will test our resolve to keep moving forward and our ability to continue to make good decisions. The challenge to remain competitive in a global economy is great, but so was overcoming segregation and forging a biracial alliance for progress. If history teaches us anything, it is that nothing is inevitable; that each step is uncertain and filled with chance; that the effects of our decisions can last for decades; and that it is leaders with the right vision and priorities that determine the outcome of a crisis or if an opportunity is seized or missed.

We need to remember that we are now competing with New York and Tokyo and Beijing, and the stakes are higher than ever before. We need to live up to our rhetoric about tolerance, to keep the promises we have made about liberty, education and economic opportunity, and be willing to think anew – or at least accept the new – even when that goes against what we have always believed.

The decisions we make now and in the future will be the legacy we leave to our children and grandchildren. Just as we live in the world created by those who came before us, succeeding generations will live in the world we shape for them. What will they say 30 years hence about how we met challenges, dealt with crisis or took advantage of opportunity? Will the next chapter in our state’s history – the one we are currently writing – be marked by growth or decline? Can we afford to become complacent, to assume that our success is inevitable, and to cede leadership to those whose priorities and vision for the future are inconsistent with economic prosperity?

The best gift we can give to the future is to remember that nothing is inevitable and that the decisions we make today will echo throughout time. If we can reach that level of consciousness, if we can heighten awareness of our own role in shaping the future, we will continue to make the right choices; and Georgia in 2045 and 2075 will be even better educated, happier and more prosperous than the one bequeathed to us by the leaders of the last 60 years.


W. Todd Groce, Ph.D., is president and CEO of The Georgia Historical Society, the independent, statewide institution responsible for collecting, examining and teaching Georgia history. Founded in 1839 and headquartered in Savannah, GHS is the oldest continuously operated historical society in the South. Learn more about The Georgia Historical Society at www.georgiahistory.com.

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