More on the Atlanta Child Murders

Interesting article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution about the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the first bodies in the Atlanta Child Murders.  See also, my post here.

A few things to add to the AJC’s coverage today:

Mayor Maynard Jackson

Jackson played an extremely toxic role in the child murder crisis, something Atlanta historians and political pundits never seem to remember.  First he denied and played down the crimes (sound familiar?).  Then he played politics, antagonizing the police at every turn.  Then he monetized the dead children, raking in wads of cash from the feds and private donors.  City tax money was re-routed to go to poor neighborhoods and pay for the parenting that wasn’t happening with Atlanta’s vulnerable kids.  Jackson built a formidable patronage machine with that cash.

Dead children registered “cha-ching” in city hall.

All About the Money

Where did the money go?  Well, a lot of it got spread around to Jackson cronies who were supposed to provide after-school and pre-school and camp programs for deprived kids — this was the important historical moment when the city’s taxpayers would increasingly take on the burden of raising these kids, morning, noon, and night.

Fair enough.  The taxpayers didn’t complain.  And the practice persists to today, to such an extensive degree that it always amazes me when some well-intentioned but naive person says, “we don’t need more prisons; we need more after-school programs.”  We have after-school programs.  We have pre-school programs.  We have summer programs and overnight programs and in-school programs.  The city is saturated with these types of social services — that guy mowing his lawn next door, whose politics you don’t like, is paying more every year to help poor kids than they collect in ten years in that change jar sanctimoniously displayed at the health food collective.

So are you.

But it is a sin, the amount of money raised to help those kids that ended up in some Jackson crony’s pocket.  I arrived in Atlanta a decade after the Child Murders, and I worked in some of those social service programs that were founded to keep kids safe from the killings.  That is where I learned everything I know about the ugly side of “community outreach.”  The set-up was always the same: a few saintly neighborhood women did all the work of taking care of these kids, for minimum wage, or for free.  Then there were the crooks piggybacking off the programs, ponying up to the microphone at press conferences, hanging with the politicians and politically-connected ministers, getting grants for “consulting” or “mentoring” or some other vague blather, pretending to do job training that never really happened.  These people raked in six-figure salaries for no-show jobs on the backs of poor and vulnerable kids, and they were untouchable.

And they’re still around.

The Cops

The cops, of course, got the short end of the stick, like they always do.  They were serially accused of not caring enough, or working hard enough, by people whose idea of making a contribution was holding press conferences to denounce cops before heading out to that night’s black-tie fund-raiser, hand outstretched.

The cops were hammered by the professional activists, hammered by the Mayor, pillored by the national press.  Then, when everybody else went home, it was the cops who sat up all night under some bridge waiting for the next body to drop, or got called to the scene when a small corpse was found and had to tell the child’s mother.  The cops knew the neighborhoods where children disappeared.  They knew the pornographers trolling for kids around Cabbagetown, and they knew the middle-aged men picking up 14-year old prostitutes on Memorial Drive.  Cops are not saints, but they spent their working lives trying to keep these kids safe, and to this day they still have not been given credit for doing this.

If people had spent less time criticizing the cops and more time supporting them, would Wayne Williams have been caught any sooner?  There is no way to know.  But the city would have healed faster after these horrific crimes and emerged more united.

That path wasn’t taken thirty years ago.  Is it a lesson we can finally learn, when what is happening this time is children killing each other?


4 thoughts on “More on the Atlanta Child Murders”

  1. Another interesting aside to the “Child” Murders (in parentheses because most were over 18), is looking at who the detectives were that were the lead investigators on the case: Sidney Dorsey, now in prison for murdering his successor, Louis Graham, shoved out of office as Dekalb Cty. Police Chief for ‘reverse’ racism, and there are others whose present status show us how flawed some of the individuals- aside from the Mayor- were who had a hand in the investigations.

    I moved to Atlanta in the fall of ’81, and the white population was extremely fearful- mainly because the black elite kept pushing the idea- that a white (man) was doing the killing. One friend though, had it exactly right: the town was so well divided by race that a white person who was frequently in the presence of black kids would have stuck out like a sore thumb. And I think that reason, that many blacks would not accept a black man could be guilty of such a thing, plus the lousy investigation are the major reasons many black Atlantans do not believe Wayne Williams is guilty. Me, I don’t know if Williams killed all those who came onto the list, but I fervently believe he is not innocent of murder.

  2. Yes, the race stuff was central to Maynard Jackson’s exploitation of these murders. It was also central to the politics that went into determining which murder victims would go on “The List” of official victims, which eventually grew to include black men in their twenties but excluded black female child victims and male and female white victims.

    Yet men exploiting children sexually in the same neighborhoods also targeted young white boys in Cabbagetown and white and black adolescent and teenage girls, and several of these youths were found dead. So very specific racial/gender politics determined the focus of the investigation. It also impacted white residents of the city, as you explain, in some pretty destructive ways. The ugly prejudice practiced by the black leadership of Atlanta — while they were simultaneously hailed elsewhere as symbols of justice — is a toxic reality that nobody wants to acknowledge.

    Many of the “profiling” beliefs that also guided the investigation have been since proven utterly false: serial offenders may stick to one type of victim, or they may not, and black are actually slightly over-represented as serial killers, not under-represented, as so many people vehemently believe.

    I know I’ve mentioned “The List” several times as a good read. There is another interesting book on the child murders — one of the few academic press publications I’ve ever seen that reads like a story. It’s by an African-American scholar named Bernard Headley: “The Atlanta Youth Murders and the Politics of Race.”

    Did Williams kill every child or young man on the list? I don’t think anybody believes that, but many cases were closed when he was convicted. I certainly don’t blame street cops for this — I’m not sure I even blame the cop brass. These were just a few of the murders they were dealing with, with a tremendously depleted police force in a politicized moment when City Hall was calling the shots and wanted closure. And racial hostility from the mayor (and the public, and nationally, thanks to the national media’s coverage of the crimes) contributed to a lot of the shrinkage of the police force, at a time when Atlanta needed every officer.

    I’ve heard, more than once, that some of the children on the list were victims of their own parents or relatives who then blamed the murders on the Atlanta killer. Given the statistics on parental murder, than makes sense. It also underscores the way politics got in the way of the police being able to investigate these crimes, and the way some people exploited the tragedy.

    Nevertheless, the case against Williams for the crimes he committed is strong. Of course, there are exploitative defense attorneys trying for the publicity that would come from freeing him.

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