Higher Ground- An Open Letter to Atlanta

Higher Ground: An Open Letter from Dr. Bernice A. King, CEO of The King Center, to Atlanta About the Planned Public Safety Training Center

by Rev. Dr. Bernice A. King

To My City, My Home – Atlanta:

For sixty years, Atlanta has been my home. I was born here. Growing up, my mother, Coretta Scott King, told me stories of my grandfather, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., and other faith leaders working with civic and corporate leaders to advance civil and human rights. Over generations, from pulpits to podiums, our preachers, politicians, and proprietors echoed the iconic phrase that has come to define our city, “Atlanta is the city too busy to hate.”   

On the 55th anniversary year of the assassination of my father, Atlanta is the epicenter of campaigns for environmental protection and against police militarization. The City of Atlanta’s planned Public Safety Training Center in South River Forest is a contentious issue, with some seeing it as a step towards better public safety and others as state-sanctioned aggression towards marginalized communities. Opinions on justice and policing are divided, with some advocating for more policing and others for a community-centered approach that equalizes opportunity and invests in underserved areas. For dissenters, the facility is a symbol of a dystopian future, a “Cop City” where urban warfare is mastered and modeled, practiced and perpetuated.

Atlanta’s division is a disheartening dichotomy of institutions against individuals and corporations against communities. Reasoned discourse for the collective good is hampered by insidious thirsts for power, control, and unilateral triumph.  We are caught in a spiral of chaos, confusion, and confrontation, with a tale of two cities at odds about what ails us and what remedies will cure us.  The reality is, we have yet to create models where ‘police reform’ is not simply a recommitment to the status quo in another form. Criminal justice system transformation and improving public safety must coexist, especially during a time marked by rising crime.

My father, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” As a nation, we have never truly prioritized justice. In its place, we have what my father described as “confused commitments” more “concerned with the size, power, and wealth of our society” than creating a just society. He said, “Social tensions will grow and the recurring turbulence in the streets will persist despite disapproval or repressive action.” And here we are in a cacophony of chaos growing louder by the day; with attempts at constructive dialogue seen by some as performative and too little, too late. Atlanta must not become too burdened to heal; a city once too busy to hate morphed into one too busy to love.

In his last book, “Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?” my father quoted Cicero, “Freedom is participation in power.” Those opposing the facility, its location, and forest destruction lack power participation. Our city, the corporations and institutions, and those with more resources have power participation, but marginalized communities experiencing the trauma of racism, police brutality, and economic and environmental disparities do not. It is time to address these concerns bravely to ensure all members of our community have an equitable voice in decision-making. True power is magnified when shared, not diminished. Will we listen and act?

Community activists, there is power in protest, and we thank those who do so peacefully. Nonviolent protests are the most potent, constructive weapon people have had when they are denied power to participate. Unfortunately, at times, peaceful protests are infiltrated with anarchy that leads to physical violence and the destruction of property. It is imperative that we reject physical retaliation and center our actions in nonviolence as we exercise our power to participate.

Corporate leaders, I urge you to reconcile the racial equity and social justice pledges made during the 2020 uprisings and beyond to ensure your financial contributions are stewarded in a way consistent with those commitments. The world is watching.

City officials, I urge you to ensure communities impacted by your actions are properly consulted in a timely, substantive, and transparent manner prior to the point of decision. I urge you to rapidly expand your efforts in police and justice reform and a new approach to holistic community safety and wellness that engenders trust and confidence in police and policymakers. I also urge you to revisit the programming and design of the training center and to identify a more suitable location. Ignoring the calls of the community will only multiply the cries.

The City of Atlanta has an opportunity to rise to higher ground in this hour of crisis with vision, integrity, and boldness to become a model for peacemaking in America. I look forward to working with you to create a just, humane, equitable, and peaceful Atlanta – The Beloved Community.

If we would but do it.