Ex-KKK Stronghold Picks Black Mayor
Ex-KKK Stronghold Picks Black Mayor
Nov. 16, 1997
STONE MOUNTAIN, Ga. (AP) _ By the light of a blazing cross, the Ku Klux Klan proclaimed its 20th century rebirth on the granite mountain that gives the town its name. For decades white-hooded Klansmen flocked here for annual gatherings, and Confederate heroes are sculpted into the side of the mountain.
Today, the mayor's office once held by an imperial wizard of the Klan is about to be filled by a black man, who also lives in the former KKK leader's house.
Elected with biracial support, Chuck Burris is more concerned about getting new sidewalks and more police than with Stone Mountain's old image of racial division.
Burris, a city councilman, defeated a six-year incumbent in the Nov. 4 election and will lead a black majority City Council in January.
The election campaign focused on the need for more sidewalks, drainage, police and economic development, rather than race. But he acknowledges the historic benchmark of a black mayor in the town where Klansmen held that formative assembly in 1915.
``I've lived in the South all my life,'' reflected Burris, 46. ``I've seen the South change, and I've seen it remain the same. My becoming the mayor of Stone Mountain wasn't so much a question of race _ but it still is a step forward.''
He grew up in Louisiana, a son of educators, and said he twice witnessed cross-burnings there, one in his family's own yard.
He studied law at Morehouse College, where Martin Luther King Jr. sometimes lectured to his class. He worked as a crime analyst in the administration of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first black mayor, and held other city jobs in the 1970s before helping to start a computer consulting firm.
Morehouse schoolmate John Brown, who owns an Atlanta-area real estate and mortgage company, describes Burris as a racial ``trailblazer'' whose ability and qualifications attracted a coalition of voters.
``I think it's of great significance that Chuck was elected by a combination,'' Brown said. ``It's synonymous to the type of movement that really speaks well of the South and America.''
Stone Mountain has 1,681 white and 1,812 black registered voters, but only 568 people voted in the mayor's race. Burris got 49 percent of the vote against two other candidates.
White businessman Arthur Bourdon said he supported Burris ``for what he wanted to do for this city. I think he's going to do an outstanding job.''
``What we wanted was the best-qualified candidate, one that will get some things done,'' said T.J. Weatherly, a white civic activist and 58-year resident.
Burris and wife Marcia live in a two-story brick home they bought last year from the family of James R. Venable, a one-time mayor who died in 1993. Venable, as an imperial wizard of a Klan order, orchestrated annual Labor Day weekend gatherings that brought Klansmen here by the busloads until the 1980s.
Burris recalled that during his first run for City Council, the then-elderly Venable readily let him put up campaign signs in his yard.
``We have had good racial relations here for many years,'' said Weatherly. ``It has not been a racist-type city. That was an image brought about mainly from outside.''
``Stone Mountain had a reputation and history for sure,'' said Burris, who has lived here about a decade. ``But I never saw any evidence of hatred or that kind of activity.''
However, that history has attracted attention to his election to a $300-a-month part-time job in a city of 6,500, and Burris wants to capitalize on that to promote ``the best-kept secret in metro Atlanta.''
He thinks the community of historical sites, quaint shops and restaurants is ready to move from ``sleepy little town'' with an ominous reputation into a tourism spot alongside the popular Stone Mountain, acquired for a state park in the 1950s from Venable family members.
``We really have a jewel of a town,'' Weatherly said.
Burris said he's heard no negative reaction to his election. He did receive an unsolicited newsletter the other day from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, part of a long-running debate he's been involved in about Confederate symbols such as the Rebel battle flag, which many blacks oppose flying on government property.
Burris scoffs when battle flag advocates ``question my Southernness,'' saying he's a lifelong Southerner born of a Southern family.
And as for the giant carving on Stone Mountain that depicts Confederate heroes Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and Jefferson Davis on horseback, Burris grins and suggests it would be fine if they carved out a fourth horseman _ representing him.
``We've got much more pressing problems,'' Burris said. ``I'd rather make sure a little kid on his way to school doesn't get hit by a car.''