As a dive-bombing Marine aviator in World War II and as a citizen activist campaigning for racial equality, Atlantan Cecil Alexander is accustomed to combat.
Certainly he came close to death many times flying 62 missions over the Pacific. But it was accompanying Mayor Ivan Allen as he waded into an angry mob of black protesters in the gritty Dixie Hills housing development that jumps out in his memory.
He recounts the 1967 scene in his new memoir “Crossing the Line.” The Dixie Hills residents were outraged that a white police officer had shot and killed a black man and wounded a boy. Allen tapped Alexander to accompany him on a peace-keeping mission, with the assistance of a lone security officer.
“I compare it to my first dive-bombing mission,” said the 95-year-old Alexander recently, during a conversation at his Buckhead home. The difference: as an aviator he had machine guns. “I think I was more scared in Dixie Hills.”
If he was scared, he didn’t show it. Nor did Allen, who remained at the housing project until past dawn the next morning, meeting with residents and listening to their complaints.
Alexander’s admiration for Allen is evident in his book, which reads like a history of modern Atlanta. But Alexander has admirers of his own.
One day this month Andrew Young, former Atlanta mayor, former U.N. ambassador and stalwart civil rights champion, stopped in at Alexander’s gabled New England style house, to pay his respects and to add some footage to a documentary his film company is working on called “The Making of Modern Atlanta.”
Alexander was propped up on pillows and covered in blankets in his ground-floor bedroom. Bedridden, almost toothless, terribly hard of hearing, but still gregarious, Alexander beamed as Young walked in.
“Andy what are you doing these days?” he asked.
“I’m trying to make a film to show how people like you built Atlanta,” shouted Young. (The four-person film-crew cluttering the bedroom was a bit of a give-away.)
Build is the operative word: Alexander is a maker. One of the principals of the FABRAP architectural firm, he helped create many significant structures in Atlanta, including Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, the BellSouth building and the Coca-Cola headquarters in Midtown.
But Alexander’s skill at building bridges between black leaders and white power-brokers was perhaps more significant. He helped desegregate downtown restaurants, negotiated the tricky shoals of urban renewal, and managed successful campaigns for politicians such as Allen who championed cooperation. Young credits him with putting a statue of “New South” hero Henry Grady on Marietta Street and inventing the motto “The city too busy to hate.”
Was that line an Alexander design? The architect shrugged and deflected credit to a fellow Atlanta booster, Pulitzer-winning journalist and PR whiz George Goodwin. “It might have been George Goodwin. It might have been both of us,” Alexander said. “All I know is I woke up one morning and I was on a committee.”
Alexander’s ties to Atlanta and the South run deep. His family settled in Charleston in 1760, and has been in Atlanta for 150 years. His uncle, Henry Aaron Alexander, helped defend Leo Frank, and assembled a grand estate in Buckhead, part of which was carved away to build Phipps Plaza.
Cecil Alexander is wildly partisan for the city, and in a wide-ranging conversation subsequent to Young’s visit, declared “one day it will be right up there with Paris and London. It just needs some aging. All it takes is time.”
The conversation turned to architecture, and Alexander discussed his training at Harvard under such Bauhaus stars as Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. The “Brutalist” style of Breuer, exemplified in his design for Atlanta’s downtown library, has been described as aggressively ugly, “like scouring pads on the retinas” according to one commentator.
“The hell with them,” said Alexander of Breuer’s critics. “He was the best teacher I ever had.”
Some of Breuer’s monolithic line can be glimpsed in what is now called the A.T.& T. building, Alexander’s favorite of his creations, though it was a project originally slated to land directly on top of the Fox Theatre. When his client revealed the planned location, Alexander told him “You’ll face a plague of opposition.” The client was un-worried. “We’ll just go out one morning with a headache ball and knock it down,” said the man blithely, according to Alexander.
The architect proved prescient. Outrage ensued. The structure was built on a nearby lot, and the fight to save the Fox sparked Atlanta’s historic preservation movement.
Alexander has survived long enough to outlive several of his buildings, including Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, which was demolished after the 1996 Olympics. How did he feel? “Like I’d lost a baby,” he said.
He describes the event in his book, which he finally self-published this month, after working on it, with the help of co-author Randy Southerland, for the last six years: “The grin on the face of Mayor Bill Campbell when he pressed the button setting off the demolition is still one of my most distasteful mental images.”
There are other low points, including the death of his first wife Hermi, killed in an auto accident in 1983. But Alexander’s book also details the trimphs in his career — including his role in the adoption of a new state flag.
“I know we’ve made progress,” he said. “You wouldn’t be here talking to me, if we were going backwards.”
Alexander credits the black clergy, including Rev. G. Holmes Borders and “Daddy King” — Rev. Martin Luther King Sr. — with warding off the disasters that befell other Southern cities, along with crusading newspapermen such as Gene Patterson, executive editor of The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitition, and Constitution publisher and editor Ralph McGill.
“(Patterson) and Ralph McGill and the ministers were what made the city different from Birmingham and Memphis and Chattanooga,” Alexander said. “They knew what would make it the great city it had the potential to be. I get a thrill just talking about it.”