TOPICS > Politics

Affirmative Court Action

August 27, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: The latest legal battle over affirmative action. Betty Ann Bowser reports from Atlanta.

CURTIS JACKSON: (calling to worker) Hey, Willie! Hey, Willie!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When Curtis Jackson started his career at 18 he had a tractor and a dream.

CURTIS JACKSON: What I wanted to do is, I’m going to let Brown come out of there with that loader, and take…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today the 40-year-old diesel mechanic is CEO of his own demolition company. And he says he owes it all to affirmative action.

CURTIS JACKSON: I don’t think I’d be where I am now. I own 20 tractors, I got 12 full-time employees. I’ll probably do in sales just a shade over 3 million this year, which I think is great.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jackson has won contracts through Atlanta’s affirmative action program for the past 15 years; he says it not only benefits him but also the other minorities he’s required to hire when he wins lucrative city contracts.

CURTIS JACKSON: All those dump trucks that you’ve seen on this job today are independent owners/operators. All those guys — they own those dump trucks. So by me having the contract, I get to pass opportunities down the ladder to other smaller contractors.

CHUCK NICHOLS: These three have double arms.

WORKER: Right.

CHUCK NICHOLS: These three are doubles.

WORKER: Right.

CHUCK NICHOLS: These two are singles.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Chuck Nichols also heads his own firm, but he doesn’t agree with the city’s requirement that he must hire minorities in order to participate in Atlanta’s affirmative action program…

CHUCK NICHOLS: The bidding process for dealing with the city of Atlanta is a very laborious and very expensive process for me, even as a small businessman. I’m trying to afford an opportunity to people to work with us, being subcontractors, material vendors and so forth, and — but when I’m forced to deal with a particular demographic population that may not be quite on my particular project at that given time, they may not be suited for that, but I’m being forced to use someone, not because of their capabilities, I’m still required to use them. That’s one of the problems I have with the affirmative action.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nichols and three other white small businessmen and women yesterday filed suit in federal court against the City of Atlanta’s affirmative action program. There’s a lot at stake. The city expects to take bids on $10 billion worth of business over the next five years, including millions of dollars in construction and demolition work at Hartsfield Airport. And the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which is sponsoring the lawsuit, wants to stop the city from using affirmative action to award some of those contracts. Matt Glavin is president of the foundation.

MATT GLAVIN, Southeastern Legal Foundation: What the City of Atlanta’s program does is essentially guarantee quotas. 34 percent of all city contracts must go to minorities. The vast majority of those go to African-Americans. When you’re benefiting a group of people because of the color of their skin, ethnic heritage or their gender,

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The issue has struck an emotional chord with people like Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell, who marched in the early days of the civil rights movement, which got its start here in Atlanta.

MAYOR BILL CAMPBELL, Atlanta: This is our Selma. This is our Birmingham. This is our march across the Edmond Pettis Bridge. We’re going to fight to the death in this struggle. We have drawn a line in the sand. There will be no turning around, no mediation, no compromise, no discussion. This is a fight to the end. (Applause)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Atlanta was home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. —

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: Free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, we are free at last!

BETTY ANN BOWSER: — and the early civil rights movement, and many of the city’s older residents have vivid memories of the day king was buried here.

MAYNARD JACKSON, Former Mayor of Atlanta: It’s amazing nobody’s thinking about these empty lots, and they probably…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Maynard Jackson worked with King as a young man. He is also the architect of the city’s affirmative action program, which he started back in 1975 when he was mayor of Atlanta.

MAYNARD JACKSON: They have no affirmative action program to speak of, and then they get…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jackson says it was a time when an all-white business establishment controlled everything, including the city’s contracts with private business.

MAYNARD JACKSON: There was a select group. The good ol’ boys had it locked up tight. The same law firm had the business, no questions asked, no competition, no bidding, no request for proposals, nothing. So this was a democratizing the whole system, and trying to create, therefore, an atmosphere and a process whereby all Atlantans, and that included African-Americans, would have an equal opportunity.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: When affirmative action started in Atlanta, less than 1 percent of all the city’s business went to minority firms. Today more than a third of the contracts are awarded to minorities. Meanwhile, the black population of Atlanta has grown to a 70 percent majority. The city has been led by three black mayors in a row, and Atlanta developed the largest, most successful black middle class of any major city in the country. So affirmative action opponents argue there is no longer a need for the program.

MATT GLAVIN: We’ve had 30 years now of race-preference programs, and in fact the statistical studies that are done that look at whether or not there is ongoing discrimination suggest that there isn’t ongoing discrimination. If the City of Atlanta is not discriminating, has not discriminated for a decade, and will not start discriminating if the race preference program were to end, then why do we need a race preference program?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mayor Campbell says affirmative action is needed because few minority firms are hired without it, even in a state the size of Georgia, where one-third of the population is African- American.

MAYOR BILL CAMPBELL: Last year, only maybe 1.7 percent of the public contracts went to minority firms. That’s just inexplicable. The contracting procedures, in essence, while they are administered by an African-American government, it’s still a part of the business process of the private sector. It’s still an issue of 200 years of advantaged access to capital.

SPOKESMAN: So there’s a lot of questions this raises…

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But City Council President Robb Pitts, who supports affirmative action, is one of those critical of the way Campbell’s administration has handled it. He says it’s not reaching the people it was designed to help.

ROBB PITTS, President, Atlanta City Council: I think the program needs to be expanded, and the emphasis on small start-up mom-and-pop-type businesses, as opposed to granting real favor to those who are financially stable, politically well-connected, and I think that there’s a silent majority out there who will tell you that. I would be surprised — I think at the present time there are some 1,000 firms that are certified by the city, but if 25 percent of those do business with the city, I would be pleasantly surprised.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The mayor denies that, and says Atlanta’s affirmative action program does benefit the little guy.

CARL TRIMBLE, Architect: When are we going to get the H.P.A.C. guy over here?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Carl Trimble is a successful Atlanta architect who says affirmative action helped him build his business, but Trimble thinks the time has come for more minority businesses to compete in the private sector, as he does.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does your business need affirmative action?

CARL TRIMBLE: My answer’s no. No. I don’t want it. I don’t seek it. We go into a company with what we refer to as a customer base, a customer-focused solution. We’re going to put our credentials on the table and say, “here we are.” You know. “We have a service to offer. If you like our service, hire us; if you don’t, hire somebody else.” And that’s how we approach it. I don’t… and there are those who will disagree with me, who perhaps still need affirmative action. It can provide opportunity, but on the other side, I think it can be a crutch for many people to not go outside and go into the other areas, both in the public and private sector, to pursue jobs under market conditions.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Trimble says Curtis Jackson is the kind of person who shouldn’t be so dependent on affirmative action, but Jackson says there’s a reason even a successful businessman like himself avoids the private sector, and that’s racism.

CURTIS JACKSON: The private sector work, a lot of times the owners tend to lean towards their buddies.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And are their friends usually white?

CURTIS JACKSON: Their friends are usually that, usually that.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And is that why it’s so hard?

CURTIS JACKSON: That’s why it’s so hard.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And you’re sure of that? You can actually see that it makes a difference, skin color?

CURTIS JACKSON: It makes a big difference.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Atlanta is known as the city that’s too busy to hate, but in this debate the rhetoric has gotten personal, and Glavin turned the temperature up when he began to embrace the language of the civil rights movement.

MATT GLAVIN: We’re not going to be able to get any closer to Dr. King’s dream of judging people based on the content of their character rather than on the color of their skin as long as we have affirmative action programs putting a wedge between the races. We need to get rid of that wedge so the races truly can, can come together, so the races can join arm and arm and walk across that bridge to the 21st century.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Former Mayor Jackson says that statement is offensive.

MAYNARD JACKSON: I cannot begin to tell you how much resentment there is in the African-American community at Matt Glavin’s distortion of King’s words and intent. It’s really such an insult that it’s very hard to put it in words.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Campbell refuses to directly answer any statement Glavin makes, but says the debate has brought back bitter memories.

MAYOR BILL CAMPBELL: Well, I was black before I was mayor. I’ve experienced discrimination from the very beginning of my life. I marched, I picketed, I protested. I’ve been spat upon. I’ve seen discrimination firsthand. I’ve seen the Klan marching on the other side of the street. And it’s my sense that these rights that are embodied in affirmative action are just as important as the Voting Rights Act of ’64 or the Fair Accommodations Act of ’68. This is the economic part of equal opportunity.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Glavin says the mayor is playing racial politics.

MATT GLAVIN: The mayor has said, “no negotiation, no capitulation.” He draws a line in the sand. He has said that this a shoot-out in the OK Corral, and he said, “let’s get ready and rumble–” all very violent rhetoric coming from the mayor of the city that’s too busy to hate. The mayor has tried to turn this issue into a race issue. It’s not about race. It’s about the City of Atlanta breaking the law, period.

SPOKESMAN: We are not going to turn back.

CROWD: All right!

SPOKESMAN: We are not going back. (Applause)

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Now affirmative action supporters have moved their fight onto another front. They held a rally to organize a boycott of products made by companies that financially support the southeastern legal foundation. Lou Walker is president of the Georgia Black Chamber of Commerce.

LOU WALKER, Georgia Black Chamber of Commerce: We’re going after anyone that we can. If we’re spending our dollars with them, we’re going to expose them. Our attorneys are looking into it and checking it. We’re going to expose them. We’re going to call for boycotts across the nation. We’ll say, “don’t buy their products because these are the same people that are putting the money behind the Southeastern Legal Foundation.”

PEOPLE SINGING: We shall overcome someday.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Supporters of affirmative action may, in fact, have much to overcome. In recent lawsuits where big-city affirmative action programs have been challenged, opponents haven’t lost a single case.