Throughout the semester, different texts and materials beckoned me to explore Atlanta’s involvement with civil and human rights, mostly from the vantage point of the literature surrounding it. My Southern Literature professor prompted her students to seek out public art that displays some kind of Atlanta memory, which perfectly complements the nature of this post. That project was discontinued because of school closings, so I am thrilled to share it here with the nuances of Maurice Hobson’s ideas of public memory.
I completed brief research on the silicon bronze statue of Atlanta Civil Rights leader John Wesley Dobbs that takes residence at the corner of Auburn and Fort. Dobbs was the “unofficial mayor” of Auburn Avenue, and he used his position as Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons to promote black votership in Atlanta in the 1930s and 40s. Dobbs secured the votership of over tens of thousands of Atlanta residents, based on the belief that voting was the “key in overcoming segregation” (“John Wesley Dobbs”). Dobbs is also the grandfather of Maynard Jackson, who carried the civil rights torch during his tenure as Mayor of Atlanta in the latter half of the 1900s. Dobbs was a highly influential figure in Atlanta, who paved the way for leaders like Jackson, Andrew Young, Joseph E. Lowery, and Martin Luther King, Jr.
The statue, titled “Through His Eyes,” is inspired by 12th-century Nigerian face masks and has “quotes inscribed on the interior of the mask” (“Through His Eyes”). Designed by Ralph Helmick, “Through His Eyes” was erected in preparation for the 1996 Olympics. When I originally learned this, I felt that it was an effort of the city to make outsiders believe that civil rights was a constant exercise. After reading Hobson, I was overwhelmed by the connections to be made between the nature of this statue and the history behind the Olympics coming to Atlanta. It boils down to a tango that occurs between intent, perception, and reality, all complicated by social implications and pressing historical realities.
Hobson explores that President Jimmy Carter wanted the world to see the United States’ devotion to “push[ing] human rights to the forefront of foreign policy” and accompanied this desire by “appoint[ing]…Andrew Young as the Ambassador to the United Nations” (“The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory”). Young’s close ties with different countries in the UN, alongside the narrative of King’s work in the city, pushed forth the bid for Atlanta to host the Olympics. As Atlanta prepared for an influx of people from all over the world, it implemented massive changes in physical and social infrastructure in a city that was already struggling to address its own varied issues with race, war, and poverty — which only worsened with the impending 1996 Olympics.
In light of this, the construction of the statue of John Wesley Dobbs stings quite a bit. Dobbs was a figure who promoted black participation in society and who laid the groundwork for King’s movements through Atlanta. All the while, higher forces capitalize upon this history in order to make America look more progressive than it actually is. These thoughts and musings invoke Dr. Calinda Lee’s notion that “doing good history means you do complete history” (“To Atlanta, With Love”). Public memory tends to remember what it wants to remember — the fact that Atlanta hosted the 1996 Olympics and brought people from all over the world to experience its hospitality and spirit of progress.
The statue of Dobbs, in good faith, stands to honor his work for Atlanta. However, in a broader social and historical context, it also represents where Atlanta falls short in rightfully serving its people. Dobbs stares down Auburn Avenue, most days seeing Atlanta’s homeless population walking the streets, asking its residents for a few spare dollars. Indeed, this is not the South that Dobbs or King likely envisioned in their times. When we face history, such as this, that carries a burden we were not necessarily aware of, the “effort to deny that [truth] is personally motivated” (“To Atlanta, With Love”). Leaders and residents want to see the best parts of the city and its history, but fail to realize that statues like the one of John Wesley Dobbs are far more nuanced than we think.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. Ralph Helmick’s silicon and bronze “Through His Eyes” monument in Atlanta, Georgia, pays tribute to Georgia civil-rights leader John Wesley Dobbs. -10-30. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/2017883813/>.
Hobson, Maurice. ““The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory.”
“John Wesley Dobbs.” Sweet Auburn Avenue: The Buildings Tell Their Story, www.sweetauburn.us/jwdobbs.htm.
“To Atlanta, With Love.” About South from Soundcloud, November 2019, https://soundcloud.com/about-south/as-s04e10-to-atlanta-with-love#t=0:00.