Atlanta, Georgia – in many ways ahead of the game for decades – was the cradle of the American Civil Rights Movement, though it took more than gentle rocking to get that movement fully underway, as well as to later keep those fires for freedom burning.
This month, April 2023, is the 75th anniversary of the integration of the Atlanta Police Department, among the first cities in the then Jim Crow South to do so. Atlanta’s Mayor William B. Hartsfield was facing a tough re-election campaign.
During 1946, a supreme court decision outlawed prohibiting Black voters from participating in Democratic Party primaries in Georgia. Up to that point and for more than 15 years to come, a healthy majority of African-American voters were still Republican, dating back to the days of Lincoln and Reconstruction. The end of poll taxes and the primary voting prohibition brought many Black Atlantans into Atlanta’s mayoral politics where the majority of candidates were long-established White Democrats, similar to Hartsfield.
Pastors, funeral home directors, and minority business owners had been quietly advocating for years that the police in their communities should also be persons of color. The issue began to gain momentum and heat, landing before the Atlanta City Board of Aldermen in the spring of 1948. By a vote of only 8-7, it was decided that Atlanta would hire its first Black police officers, and though cautious, Hartsfield had been lending a sympathetic ear.
A long list of speakers and sentiments were expressed the night of that vote, but the city clerk records only quote one speaker directly, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. King emphatically told city leaders, “The hour and the time is now for change, advancement, and courage.”
Rev. King Sr. is much less known than his son, but he is credited by some as birthing the Atlanta Civil Rights Movement, from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, as well as on his local radio program on WAEC-AM. It would still be another 15 years before the Atlanta Fire Department would be integrated.
Those first eight Black Atlanta police officers operated out of a separate precinct in the basement of the Butler Street YMCA. Initially, the officers were only allowed to patrol and make arrests in Black neighborhoods. Thanks to the continuing voices and urgings of King Sr., aided by the editorials and reporting of The Atlanta Daily World, educator Benjamin Mays and others, minority officers would eventually not only become equal to their other peers in blue but would eventually lead the force.
The Atlanta Police Department is now not only the state’s largest but among its most diverse. Better training is needed, particularly in these days of policing after the racial justice protests of 2020. And to build that better-trained police officer, facilities to train in are needed.
More training is particularly needed in critical areas such as conflict de-escalation and resolution, equitable policing in minority communities, and the appropriate use of deadly force. Atlanta police cadets already receive significantly more training than required by state minimums or for peace office service and training certification, but a new state-of-the-art training center for Atlanta police and fire fighters will not only mean better training, it will also mean better police and firefighters, and hopefully help reduce the shortage and staffing gaps in both departments.
The Atlanta Police Foundation is raising in excess of $90 million privately to fund and construct the bulk of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center (APSTC) on land used for decades as the Atlanta Prison Farm, adjacent to the Metro Transitional Correction Center, a state prison. The land is owned by the city, though inside DeKalb County.
And as we look ahead to building broad-based public support for the APSTC, I’d like to propose naming the education and training facilities there in honor of “Daddy King.” The Martin Luther King Sr. Center for Racial Justice and Equity in Policing could not only set the standard for 21st century police training but could also possibly become a beacon for those police departments and agencies across the nation, wrestling with some of these same issues and concerns.
And though I never had the pleasure of meeting senior King, or his best-known offspring, I have met each of his grandchildren, including the Rev. Bernice King, who is now CEO of the King Center. She might have a word or two of reminder for those continually advocating to “Stop Cop City,” on the realities and constraints of truly peaceful and nonviolent protest as well. So, I will say again, in the wise words of her grandfather, “The hour and the time is now for change, advancement, and courage.”
Bill Crane is political analyst and commentator in metro Atlanta, as well as a columnist for The Champion, DeKalb Free Press and Georgia Trend. Crane is a DeKalb native and business owner, living in Scottdale. You can contact him or comment on a column at firstname.lastname@example.org.