The word “epic” has lost almost all meaning in modern conversation. We tend to use it to describe anything—an “epic” evening, an “epic” summer blockbuster (when there seem to be a dozen of those a year now), an “epic” tweet sent by our current president. In the world of sports, “epic” has lost even more meaning.
With more sporting events available to witness via television, radio, or the web than ever before, savoring the moment has given way to hyperbole. Whatever LeBron James does on a given night might be the greatest play in NBA history. When Duke and the University of North Carolina clash on the hardwood, or Alabama and Auburn on the gridiron, their games threaten—year in and year out—to be the greatest encounter in the illustrious histories of their rivalries.
Yet, the word “epic” does regain its meaning when properly applied. Such was the case when the Atlanta Falcons, in epic fashion, blew a 25-point lead against the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. No Super Bowl team up by more than 10 points had ever lost the game before.
And considering how rare it is in the regular season for a team to blow a lead like 28-3, the collapse of the Falcons is still, for many Atlanta sports fans, incomprehensible. In that game, however, and the hoopla that surrounded it, is something far deeper than a blown Super Bowl—it is the still-wounded Southern psyche, the hurt pride of a city that has served as the capital of several “New Souths” since the end of the Civil War, and one of the capitals of Black America.
Like a Greek epic, a Shakespearean play, a William Faulkner novel or a Sunday morning sermon that gets folks to say “amen” and “well,” the long-remembered lessons of pride, hubris, and eventual disappointment that dot Southern history came back again on a February evening in Houston, Texas.
Atlanta’s leisure activities—encapsulated by its sports teams—can never be adequately separated from the city’s long history of political and cultural ambitions. Having a professional sports team became a prerequisite for status as a major American city during the 20th century. The slow move of professional sports to the South in the 1960s through the 1990s was testament to the region’s racial problems.
The White supremacist regimes that governed the South—and subsequently squelched attempts at biracial political coalitions in the 1870s, 1890s, 1930s, and 1940s—damaged economic diversification in the region. That meant many Southern cities, even the “Phoenix” of Atlanta, would struggle to grow in comparison to big cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast.
The arrival of the Braves to Atlanta in 1966 was a sign that Atlanta, and its long campaign of being “the city too busy to hate” (coined during the 1960s by segregationist-turned-racial-moderate Mayor Ivan Allen) paid some dividends. Unlike the Falcons, created as an expansion team in the growing (in both size and popularity) National Football League, the Braves moved from another city—Milwaukee—to Atlanta.
Their move symbolized a larger move slowly but surely taking place in American society. While historians recognize the importance of the “Great Migration” of millions of African Americans from the South to the North during the period from 1910 to 1970 (which was accompanied by a similarly staggering move of White Southerners from South to North), they often ignore the flow of people and capital to the South after World War II that constituted one of the major historical events of the second half of the twentieth century in the United States (and continues to this day).
Ultimately, in 1968, with the full-blown advent of the “Southern Strategy” by Richard Nixon and the creation of a two-party South, national politics once again centered around the region as well. Republicans counted on the region as a crucial part of its chase for 270 electoral votes, while Democrats Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Southerners, gave the Democratic Party a post-New Deal blueprint of winning national elections.
Foreign car companies such as Toyota building car plants in the South, or Boeing’s factory in Charleston, South Carolina, show the modern fruit of the post-World War II flight of manufacturing from north to south (and then to parts of the Global South). Atlanta being the first Southern city to gain professional sports teams meant that the city had finally made it as a city of national and international stature.
Atlanta’s century-long ambition to be recognized as the capital of the New South had always been constrained by the South’s racial politics. The ever-present power of White supremacy, coupled with a stagnant political order, meant that even Atlanta—as ambitious and driven a city as ever existed in the United States—could only go so far.
The reputation was known by the Braves’ best player, Hank Aaron. A native of Mobile, Alabama who spent both his early years and the start of his career in the South (in the Negro Leagues and later the minor leagues), Aaron had no desire to go south for the prime of his career.
Activists such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and politicians such as then-State Senator Jimmy Carter recognized the importance of Aaron, a Black man, leading the Braves during their move south. King, of course, had no illusions about the problems facing Atlanta and the South in 1966. But he also knew the value of symbolism, and a Black man as the best player for a team in the Deep South was an important symbol to embrace.
Aaron’s value as a representation of the post-civil-rights-movement era “New South” was apparent when he chased Babe Ruth’s home run record. By the time he hit number 715 on April 8, 1974, Aaron had received thousands of pieces of mail from racists disgusted by his breaking the most hallowed record in American sports—but thousands more in support of his efforts.
He became a symbol of the “New South” of the 1970s—a region that embraced a memory of the civil rights movement centered on the spiritual and political redemption of the South, a unity of Black and White that was not possible until the great (certainly “epic”) campaigns of Montgomery, Birmingham, Nashville, and Selma.
Redemption is a purposeful word choice here. Where “redemption” meant, in the 1870s, the end of the once-unthinkable dream of Black participation in Southern politics in favor of a revanchist, White-supremacist politics of terror and intimidation, “redemption” in the 1970s meant both Black and White Southerners had been cleansed of the painful history of the past.
It was time for the South to move on, and there was no better symbol of that than Atlanta hosting Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s record in front of a 50,000 plus crowd and Governor Jimmy Carter (who, himself, grasped the symbolism of this New South and rode it to the White House in 1976).
As legendary Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully exclaimed while Aaron rounded the bases that night, "What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A Black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol.”
During an era of increased racial tensions across the nation, the New South’s political, intellectual, and cultural narrative of Black-White reconciliation provided a much-needed balm to the problem of race in American society.
But the narrative was, of course, too easy to be true. And centering it around sports in the city of Atlanta meant ignoring the problems facing African Americans in the city as Aaron and the Braves—along with the Falcons, the NBA’s Hawks (moving there from St. Louis in 1968), and the NHL’s Atlanta Flames (founded in 1972)—kept Atlanta in the sports section. It also helped the business class in Atlanta, long in league with the moderate political leaders of the city, to ignore the plight of the poor and dispossessed in town.
The area of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium was the home of several traditionally working class neighborhoods: Summerhill, Peoplestown, and Mechanicsville. By 1966, all three areas were becoming Blacker and poorer, emblematic of a national trend of White flight to the suburbs.
While Fulton County Stadium, opened in 1965, was intended to revitalize the area, racial and class tensions would explode into the Summerhill Riots of 1966. Forgotten in the shadow of larger riots in the North and West during the late 1960s, the Summerhill Riot—like the Atlanta Race Riot of 1906 or the Leo Frank lynching of 1913—gave lie to the idea that Atlanta, unlike the rest of the South, had overcome issues of racism and anti-Semitism.
Started by outrage over the shooting death of a young African-American man by a police officer, the Summerhill Riots of 1966 told the world that the model of racial progress in the South was only barely struggling to hide its racial and class problems. Summerhill was a battle cry from Atlanta’s poorer residents, who were not benefitting from the economic growth of the city and of the Sun Belt South in general.
This, like Atlanta’s will to gain political power and the city’s sports story, represent much about the modern South and modern America. Meanwhile, the displacement of the poor by the construction of massive sports stadiums and arenas is as much a part of the modern sports experience as catching a game at a sports bar or searching for tickets via Stub Hub.
The Olympics are the prime example of sports overtaking the common sense of politicians, who vouch for the Games as a vehicle for economic revitalization. The 1996 Games, awarded to Atlanta in 1990, gave the city the opportunity to both present itself as a true international city—in much the way teams such as the Braves cemented the city as one of national renown—and to rebuild the poorer sections of Atlanta that surrounded Fulton-County Stadium.
Atlanta’s winning of the Games was the century-long culmination of the city’s journey from merely being the Georgia state capital to being a city of international importance. In both 1895 and 1996, Atlanta proclaimed to the world that it was open for business, regardless of the very real problems of racism and classism plaguing the city in both eras.
In 1895, the city hosted the Cotton States Exposition. Long remembered for Booker T. Washington’s “Atlanta Compromise” speech, when the African-American leader called for an end by Blacks to agitation over political rights, in exchange for greater economic opportunity in the South, it should be remembered that the Cotton States Exposition was also Atlanta’s announcement that it was open, to the rest of the Western Hemisphere, for business.
And it was the high point of the late 19th century’s version of the “New South”—the region’s recovery from Civil War and Reconstruction, coupled with business-friendly policies—that left White supremacy unchallenged. One hundred and one years later, Atlanta’s rise to international prominence was complete.
Once again, however, to attract the world through sport Atlanta needed to displace the poor and working class elements of the city. Places such as Summerhill and Techwood were the sites of massive displacement of poor Atlantans—mostly African American—all to put on the Games to attract the world’s attention to the modern, cosmopolitan South. A South inspired to ascend its past by remembering its racism, sexism, and xenophobia as being of the past.
Since 1966, the sports teams of Atlanta have provided a proxy for larger debates about the meaning of the South. This continues the longer history of sport as a stand-in for social and cultural issues. Ever since Alabama’s upset win over Washington in the 1926 Rose Bowl, Southern college and professional sports teams have stood as representations of the South, battling with teams from the hated North for supremacy.
The South rises again—on the gridiron, the basketball court, and the baseball diamond. It’s difficult to separate that fact from this one: Atlanta’s two greatest defeats in its professional sports history came at the hands of the New York Yankees in the 1996 World Series and the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI. Both these defeats came at moments of intriguing cultural and political ferment for the city of Atlanta.
In 1996, the city was preparing to host the Olympics. A son of the South, Bill Clinton, was president of the United States. The rap group OutKast won Best New Rap Group at the 1995 Source Awards. When André 3000 proclaimed that “the South still had something to say,” that seemed true, not just in music, but in politics and especially in sports. After all, the Braves were World Series champions entering the 1996 season.
Until the introduction of the Florida Marlins in 1993, the Braves were the only baseball team in the Deep South. Made a “national” team thanks to “America’s Team” branding by Ted Turner and his Turner Broadcasting System, they gained millions of fans. In the early 1990s, with back-to-back painful defeats in the World Series and a stunning upset loss in the 1993 National League Championship Series, they perfected the art of breaking people’s hearts.
In 1995 the Braves beat the historically miserable Cleveland Indians in an underrated Fall Classic. A World Series that produced five one-run games and a one-hit pitching gem from Tom Glavine in the clinching Game Six has been largely forgotten by all but the most ardent of baseball fans. Overshadowed by Atlanta’s defeats in the rest of the 1990s, as well as by Cleveland’s own tragic Octobers, the great play of this World Series is lost in the shuffle.
It was just the luck of the Braves to win the first post-1994-strike World Series. Tom Glavine was booed on Opening Day in April of 1995, due to his role as the Braves’ player representative to the MLB Players Association. For fans who were angered by the cancellation of the previous year’s Fall Classic, anyone associated with the Players Association blamed for the strike was sure to stoke anger.
These storm clouds threatened to overshadow the Braves finally winning a championship. But when Game Three of the 1996 World Series came in Atlanta, it seemed that the Braves and the city of Atlanta were going to finally ascend to national prominence—and stay there for positive reasons. The Braves were up 2-0 coming home. They had destroyed the hated Yankees in Yankee Stadium, including by the score of 12-1 in Game One. No way the Braves, defending champions with Glavine starting on the mound in Game Three would blow this. Right?
They did. Looking back, it does not seem much of a surprise in the grand scheme of what has become the trope of Atlanta sports. But in 1996, the collapse of the Braves—blowing a 2-0 lead and losing 4-2—was genuinely shocking. This collapse included blowing a 6-0 lead in Game Four, featuring a game-tying home run by journeyman catcher Jim Leyritz that, somehow, sucked all the air out of an open-air stadium.
The collapse also featured the final game played in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium’s history. Being closed in favor of Turner Field, a refurbished Olympic Stadium, for the 1997 season, Fulton-County Stadium’s final game was a pitcher’s duel between that year’s National League Cy Young award winner John Smoltz and young Yankees ace Andy Pettitte.
The Braves had a man on second in the bottom of the ninth with no outs, down 1-0. Their failure to score was a fitting send-off for the team, and they were going back to New York destined to lose in the Bronx. It was also a sad ending for a stadium that experienced many highs (Aaron breaking Ruth’s record, the Braves winning the 1992 National League Pennant in dramatic fashion against the Pittsburgh Pirates) but was built on the backs of Atlanta’s poor, working class people.
It was closed with a dramatic whimper. The worst part? The Braves only lost Game Six 3-2, with a man in scoring position in the top of the ninth. The game ended, perhaps appropriately, on a weak foul pop.
Parallels with the Atlanta Falcons’ 2016 season and ignominious end are not hard to see. A nervous sense of anticipation gave Atlanta’s sports fans reason to hope in both 1996 and 2016. The Falcons won their division in convincing fashion, and dismantled the Seattle Seahawks in the divisional playoffs.
Unfortunately, the Braves were not as lucky as the Falcons to close their stadium with one final win. The Falcons left the Georgia Dome—only opened in 1992 and closing in 2016 to accommodate the NFL’s insatiable need for ever-larger and more modern stadiums to host the Super Bowl—with a victory over the Green Bay Packers to head to the Super Bowl.
They would face the Patriots, the NFL’s modern dynasty and equivalent to the Damn Yankees of baseball, in the Super Bowl. Perhaps, Atlanta fans dreamed, this would be the time for a championship. And this time, there would be no overshadowing of the game by a league strike or national malaise.
Perhaps a Super Bowl victory would also allow people to forget, however briefly, the politics of the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium being built for the Falcons. The location of the new stadium, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive, meant that two historic African-American churches—Mount Vernon and Friendship Baptist—would simply have to be torn down.
History, especially Black history, would have to make way for more bread and circuses. That’s the “Atlanta Way” of cultural politics, business-friendly policies, and creative historical forgetting in a nutshell. That’s the New South. Again. Friendship Baptist had been founded in 1862 by former slaves and moved to its location on what would be MLK Drive in 1871. Morehouse and Spelman can both trace their development as world-class institutions of higher learning to the early classes both schools held at Friendship Baptist in 1879 and 1881, respectively.
That would all be torn down to make way for the new stadium. With a Falcons Super Bowl win, though, the destruction of history could be put on the backburner, if only for a little while—especially after Atlanta became the symbol of anti-Trump sentiment on the eve of the game. When Donald Trump, recently sworn in as president, wrote tweets that claimed John Lewis’s district was crime-riddled—with Lewis, a civil rights icon, becoming one of the early and most prominent of Democratic Party critics of Trump—he made the Falcons into a tribune of all of Blue America’s hopes and anti-Trump aspirations.
Add to that Tom Brady being caught with a “Make America Great Again” hat in his locker and Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s support for Trump, and Super Bowl LI—the biggest of all American sports spectacles, the ultimate event for the most “stick to sports” league the nation has—had quickly become a clash of Red and Blue America.
The cultural moment also seemed ripe for an Atlanta Super Bowl victory. The television series “Atlanta” had been praised for showcasing a nuanced portrayal of Black life in Atlanta. Killer Mike, as one-half the rap duo Run The Jewels, was both a critically acclaimed rapper and a Bernie Sanders surrogate. Another local artist, Gucci Mane, had achieved previously unimagined heights as a rap artist mere months after leaving prison.
America’s celebration of the civil rights movement during the administration of an African-American president—including the opening of the National Civil and Human Rights Museum in Atlanta—meant that the heroes of the so-called Second Reconstruction were being lauded with renewed passion. Many of them were sons and daughters of the South, and several of them (King, Lewis, Andrew Young) had Atlanta roots.
Which was ironic because the Patriots played for a region of the nation that went strongly for Hillary Clinton, while Atlanta was one of the blue islands in the red sea of Georgia. But as the Falcons built a 28-3 lead, Atlantans began to dream. Could this be it? Would we put history behind ourselves and make some new history?
Yes. They made history. And, like so many other moments in Southern history, it wasn’t good.