Many protests inspired by the police killing of George Floyd have come to Buckhead over the past month, with organizers frequently citing the neighborhood’s reputation as a wealthy, White and conservative enclave as a reason to demonstrate there. And it’s having an impact, with some civic and school leaders calling for dialogue about race and racism.

City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit, whose District 8 includes some of Buckhead’s most exclusive communities, said he attended every protest held at the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road. That “absolutely” had an effect on him as an elected official, he said.

“The effect it had on me is, this is an issue that we have to wrestle with and have to address,” said Matzigkeit. “This is an issue [where] the police are one part of it, but that’s in a way a symptom of a much larger and deeper issue that we have to address as a city and as a country, and that’s racism.”

Lovett School alumnus Harrison Rodriguez speaks to a huge crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road June 7, drawing attention to prejudice in private schools. (File)

Sam Massell, a former Atlanta mayor and recently retired president of the Buckhead Coalition, said the protesters are worth listening to and that dialogue should happen.

“I’ll be the first to admit… that politicians look at numbers,” said Massell. “And so 500 marchers on the Governor’s Mansion to petition the government to do so-and-so, that’s meaningful. A thousand marchers is even more meaningful.”

“Anytime you can reduce stress and tension and friction [with] conversation — anytime you can go from confrontation to the conference table — you have moved in the right direction,” Massell added. “It would be beneficial.”

City Councilmember Howard Shook, whose District 7 includes North Buckhead, said he wants to hear ideas for police use-of-force reforms. But he questioned the protesters’ perception of Buckhead.

“Well, Buckhead always has and always will have that, the image of being the rich, White part of Atlanta. I’m merely saying, there’s a whole lot more to that story than that sentence,” said Shook. “Buckhead’s always — Buckhead is Buckhead. It’s just probably always going to be easily stereotyped.”

Buckhead has come a long way since it was a literal battlefront in the Civil War and the neighborhood’s majority-White demographic’s origins in the Jim Crow era. But its more recent history includes many chapters that have left some in the Black community, and the rest of Atlanta in general, not feeling so welcome.

Twenty years ago, there was the gentrification of Buckhead Village’s nightclubs into a luxury shopping complex unloved by tourists and locals alike. There was Buckhead attorney Tex McIver’s notorious 2016 murder of wife Diane in what he initially claimed was a gun accident caused by his fear of phantom Black Lives Matter protesters. There was the 2018 Peachtree Hills dispute about a prominent White nationalist taking up residence and joining the civic association, the sort of thing that doesn’t seem to happen in other Atlanta neighborhoods.

Then there are bigger-picture issues, like the separatist urge that rumbles from time to time about Buckhead cityhood or annexation into Sandy Springs. On the biggest stage of all has been White Buckhead candidate Mary Norwood’s razor-thin losses to Black candidates in two mayoral races fraught with racial tension for which both sides blamed the other. When Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms held a Buckhead town hall last year, she found herself reading aloud an audience criticism that her campaign had been “racially divisive.” Norwood, who now chairs the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, did not respond to a comment request about the new idea of racial dialogue.

When largely peaceful George Floyd protests began Downtown May 29, they spun off looting, vandalism and arson that came to Buckhead that night. It remains unclear who and why that activity came to the neighborhood and if any political message was intended as part of it. The certainty is that the ongoing series of peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have come to Buckhead since then are having impact.

One of the biggest, held on June 7, zeroed in on claims of lingering prejudice and lack of diversity in the area’s elite private schools. That protest triggered what appears to be long-lasting racial dialogue at The Lovett School. And it already indirectly brought down another notorious icon of Buckhead’s public image: the OK Cafe restaurant’s artwork depicting the former segregation-era Georgia flag that contained the Confederate battle emblem. As the protest organized in the West Paces Ferry Road shopping center under the name “Buckhead for Black Lives,” the neighboring OK Cafe displayed a counter-message banner reading, “Lives That Matter Are Made with Positive Purpose.” In the ensuing uproar, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported, the restaurant removed the flag artwork.

Private schools spotlighted

“The message we sent to the people of Georgia today is a powerful one,” said Harrison Rodriguez, a recent Lovett School graduate and one of three brothers involved in organizing the protest in front of the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road.

Among the multitude of students and alumni from Lovett, Pace Academy and the Westminster Schools were many others joining or observing, including Matzigkeit, Atlanta Board of Education member Cynthia Briscoe Brown and, according to a Sports Illustrated report, Atlanta Falcons football team coach Dan Quinn along with players and staff members. Fred Assaf, Pace’s head of school, marched with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in hand.

Fred Assaf, head of school at Pace Academy, marches in the June 7 protest with a “Black Lives Matter” sign. (File)

For organizers like the Rodriguez brothers — Blake, Franklin and Harrison — a driving motive was to address racism, prejudice and representation in the area’s private schools. In an interview before the march, Franklin and Harrison Rodriguez, who are of black and Puerto Rican background, said that their alma mater, Lovett, has made great strides. But, they said, it still has issues of tokenism, avoidance of black history and politics, and factors like lack of transportation that suppress diversity on the leafy campuses within the Southeast’s most exclusive neighborhood.

“They need to do a better job making black kids comfortable,” said Franklin, who graduated two years ago and now attends Louisiana State University. “There were less than 20 black students in my class out of 170,” said Harrison, who graduated last year.

The criticisms are hitting a nerve, at least at Lovett. Its history in the segregation era included a notorious rejection of Martin Luther King III as a student in the 1960s, an event detailed today on the school’s website and contrasted with its diversity efforts.

Head of School Meredyth Cole said in a statement posted on the website ahead of the march that Lovett has more to do.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we do know that words without action do not drive meaningful change,” she wrote. “We will be broken as a community until all members feel that they are equally safe to respectfully express differences of faith, background and thought without fear of being devalued, targeted, ridiculed or suffering retribution.”

Lovett spokesperson Lindsey Wohlfrom said that in the last academic year, the student body was 22% Black or people of color. Following the protest, the school held two virtual listening sessions for its community and created a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion committee to develop what the school says will be a “comprehensive plan of action.”

In a June 18 letter on the school’s website, Cole and Lovett’s incoming and outgoing board chairs said the committee is “charged by the board to ensure that all families of color thrive at Lovett. The committee’s work will seek to understand issues, determine appropriate policy, and establish the indicators and measurements for which the administration will be accountable. Our collective goal is for all members of our community to feel a true sense of belonging.”

“It was great to see the huge impact we made with such a short amount of time to prepare for it,” Franklin and Harrison Rodriguez later said in an email, though they noted, “Lovett has since not issued any formal statement regarding the George Floyd killing or their support for the Black Lives Matter movement.” They said their group will continue working with the school.

The Rodriguez brothers are the sons of Frank Rodriguez, better known as Frank Ski, a prominent entrepreneur, DJ and radio personality on Atlanta’s V-103. Frank said he chose Lovett for his sons “because academically what they provide is second to none.” And they excelled in various areas, including Franklin in football, and Harrison in jazz trumpet and Mandarin Chinese. He said the school’s racial challenges revolve around limited points of view and exclusion.

“Sometimes it’s subtle things,” said Frank. He recalled Franklin’s football coach warning that there’s no excuse for missing practice, including “going to your beach house or lake house. You can imagine who he’s talking to. He’s not talking to us…. You’re talking to a certain segment and you’re alienating others.”

The practice of legacy admissions weakens diversity, Frank said, as does the sheer difficulty of getting to campus at a school where most students must be driven in private cars, especially those from minority or lower-income communities.

“If you think about it in the context that it took a very long time for MARTA to stop at Lenox just because of the racism… When you really want diversity, you have to work hard so that kids are able to go to [the] school,” said Frank.

Wohlfrom noted that last year Lovett began a pilot program of school bus service in North Buckhead and Brookhaven, which it is expanding. However, that program was presented as a solution to campus traffic that was a controversy among neighborhood residents as well. Last year Cole had an initially positive reaction to a neighborhood idea of charging outsiders tolls to use local streets, which was later criticized by some other residents as inequitable.

Protesters march toward the Governor’s Mansion during the June 7 demonstration focused on prejudice and diversity in private schools. File)

Franklin and Harrison did not cite open bigotry as a Lovett problem. They said many individual teachers, students and administrators were welcoming and cited such organizations as Teens Against Prejudice. But they also spoke of tokenism in short-term volunteer service or one-off Black History Month events. And, they said, students were encouraged to avoid discussion — on the grounds of potential controversy — of momentous political events like the election of President Barack Obama or earlier Black Lives Matter protests. “

That stuff was very good,” Franklin said of student volunteer opportunities in less privileged parts of town. “The issue is, that only lasts for so long in somebody’s mind who is in the Lovett bubble, [which] is what we called it.”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.