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Embattled Atlanta mayor raises racial tension

ATLANTA (Reuters) - Besieged by allegations of corruption in his administration and with federal investigators apparently nipping at his heels, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell appears to have found comfort in an old Southern tradition: playing the race card.

Campbell, a 47-year-old black lawyer who had pledged to spend his remaining 15 months in office reconciling blacks and whites, has in recent weeks used racial rhetoric that has offended many in the once-segregated Southern city.

It began with a televised speech Sept. 19 in which Campbell described an FBI investigation into his public and personal activities -- effectively confirming that he believed it existed -- as "an inquisition," comparing the agency to the KGB in the former Soviet Union.

The two-term mayor went on to say that federal officials were harassing him the way they had the slain civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.

King was jailed, wiretapped and threatened with death during his long campaign to win equal rights for millions of blacks in the United States. King was assassinated in 1968.

Campbell's comment was controversial in King's hometown of Atlanta, where he is revered. People felt it was inappropriate to compare a garden-variety corruption investigation with the civil rights movement which revolutionized the nation.

Campbell, Atlanta's third black mayor and a man once touted as a possible federal cabinet appointee, apparently believes he is a target of a federal probe into government corruption in Atlanta and Fulton County, which incorporates part of the city.

Federal officials have refused to say who specifically is under investigation.

Earlier this year, the owner of Club Nikki VIP, a local strip club, and a former Campbell staffer alleged that the mayor had accepted bribes to ensure the club received a liquor license. Campbell denied the charges.

Questions about Campbell's conduct surfaced again last week after the mayor was accused of going on trips, including a gambling outing to Las Vegas, paid for by a construction firm that had received millions in financing from the city.

In a speech to a mostly black audience in Atlanta last week, an irritated Campbell refused to directly discuss the allegations, launching instead into a blistering attack on what he described as a racially biased media.

Campbell accused the media of being all too ready to focus on problems in the black community while overlooking good news.

Campbell also mocked the influence of Atlanta's once-powerful white establishment, referring to it as "Mr. Charlie," a pejorative term that has not been commonly used since the 1960s.

"They don't influence anything ... what time we get up, who we vote for, where we spend our money," Campbell said.


Atlanta, which has tried to project an image of a city that is "too busy to hate," is dominated by a black majority. The city's top elected officials, including its police chief, district attorney and county sheriff, are all black.

Civic leaders from both races said they were disturbed by Campbell's remarks.

"I am troubled by the recent stance that he has taken particularly in light of the fact that he has appointed a commission to deal with the issues of race and racial tension in the city," said Gloria Bromell-Tinubu, a black former economics professor who placed third in the 1997 election.

"I think the mayor should lower the rhetoric," said Bromell-Tinubu, who is seeking to replace Campbell in 2001. Campbell is ineligible to seek re-election next year.

Sam Massel, the last white mayor of Atlanta and the president of the Buckhead Coalition, a local business and civic group, called Campbell's recent remarks "unfortunate and unfounded."

But Campbell, who at age 7 became the first black student to integrate the school system in Raleigh, N.C. and went on to earn degrees from Vanderbilt and Duke Universities, has powerful supporters.

Rev. Joseph Lowery, who with King co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a prominent civil rights group, recently wrote U.S. Attorney Richard Deane to question the direction of the investigation.

Kevin Ross, an Atlanta lawyer who managed Campbell's mayoral campaigns, denied that Campbell was willing to use race for political purposes. "I think people exaggerate Bill playing the race card," Ross told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution daily newspaper.

Copyright 2000 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.



Monday, October 9, 2000


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