Bill Torpy at Large: An Atlanta-style battle over the 'Peace Park'

What’s in a name?

Well, if the name is Mims, apparently a lot.

The name has ignited an ugly spat that touches on race, class, history and social activism. Call this an Atlanta story. We are The City Too Busy to Hate, but not altogether too hurried.

For five years, there’s been an effort just west of downtown to build a park in Vine City, the historic black neighborhood in the shadow of the Falcons’ new stadium.

It’s a fine idea. In 2002, the city’s ancient sewer spewed like geysers, flooding 150 homes. Now a 16-acre swath where many of those homes stood is slated to become a park with a lake.

And Rodney Mims Cook Jr., a member of a wealthy old Atlanta family, offered to pony up $10.5 million to build 16 monuments to honor Atlanta’s Legends of the Movement. The statues would include Maynard Jackson, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King (who lived around the corner on Sunset Avenue).

It would be called Mims Park, the neighborhood’s second Mims Park. The first park came in the early 1900s and was named for Mayor Livingston Mims, who donated the property. The original park was later replaced by a school. Cook’s original plan called for the new park to include statues of Mayor Mims and also his late father, Rodney Mims Cook Sr., a liberal-leaning white politician during the Civil Rights era.

In all, the park may total a $50 million investment in a neighborhood that has long decayed in plain sight of downtown.

But — and this is a big but — a cadre of opponents has surfaced recently to say putting the Mims’ name on a new park would be a nod to the city’s white supremacist past because old Livingston had served as a major in the Confederacy.

“Little kids will ask, ‘Who was Mims?’ Well, he was a Confederate,” said Aaron Turpeau, who once worked for Mayor Jackson. “It’s a strange thing. At a time when people are getting rid of Confederate flags, they’re naming a park for a Confederate.”

I told him many in Vine City support the plan, like Makeda Johnson, who has been active for decades.

“I think she’ll hold her nose to get a park for her neighborhood,” he responded.

Johnson is puzzled by the sudden emergence of the likes of Turpeau and the NAACP.

“Where have they been since 2010 when we started?” she asked. “They don’t care nothing about us. This is black-on-black oppression of a community they have long abandoned.”

Rodney Mims Cook Jr. is a ramrod straight guy with a Mercedes, a starched white shirt and perpetual smile. He’s a buddy of Prince Charles, heads something called the National Monuments Foundation and was the brain behind the Arc de Triomphesque monolith in Atlantic Station.

The latest effort, he said, is a wish by his dying father, who was a friend, ally and political opponent of Andrew Young — who also would get a statue.

“The park and its monuments would showcase the virtue of peace and the Atlanta way,” Cook said. “Andy Young beat my father in a race for Congress. Andy did the eulogy for my father. That is the Atlanta way.”

Cook first carried the plan to Councilman Ivory Young, who provided political muscle to shepherd the project, an effort that saw nothing but sunshine until recently.

“I’d call it history that heals,” said Councilman Young, who is no relation to former mayor, congressman and ambassador Young. “The park would be a catalyst to other redevelopment in the community.”

Cook said they recently agreed not to build a statue to his great, great uncle, Livingston Mims. I asked what if the Mims family name were removed?

“That would be a deal breaker, a deal breaker,” he said. “If that happens, I am not interested any more. Then we become like any other reactionary city.”

Richard Rose, head of Atlanta’s NAACP chapter, said Cook “overplayed his hand” in trying to have Livingston Mims immortalized in statue. Now, he said, the Mims name must be erased.

What if Cook and his $10.5 million pull out?

“Well, that’s life; we are not going to sell out again,” he said, adding, “Statues in a park? Birds poop all over statues.”

I mentioned that Andy Young supports including the Mims name.

“Andy has always been on the side of appeasement,” Rose said.

Young said those trying to wipe clean unwanted vestiges of history are “like the Taliban trying to destroy the ancient cultures of people they no longer support.

“For a city to thrive and survive we need to overcome and forgive. It needs to bring its heritage together. Nobody of any race has to be guilty because of their birth. The civil rights movement thrived because of reconciliation.”

As to those in opposition, Young, an MLK confidant, chuckled and said, “Most of those militants are militant now that it’s safe. The self-righteous are more likely to be bound for hell than those who are forgiving.”

Anyway, he added, things sometimes get complicated here.

“In Atlanta it’s not just black and white; there’s always been shades of gray.”

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