Sandy Springs Mayor Rusty Paul is calling for a citywide dialogue on racism to be conducted by civic and religious groups, and is proposing a name change for a city street that local rumor says is a tribute to the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
His calls at the June 2 City Council meeting followed days of nationwide protests about the Minnesota police-involved death of George Floyd, including a May 30 protest at Sandy Springs Police headquarters.
“We have to begin the process of trying to eradicate racism from our community,” Paul said. “We can’t do anything about the world, the country or the state of Georgia, but we can do something about our community.”
Paul, who has sometimes spoken publicly of growing up in poverty during the Civil Rights struggles in Alabama, also spoke in strong personal terms.
“I spent my life trying to pull the weeds of racism out of my head, out of mind, and overcome the things that I was taught as a child. It’s something that we all struggle with,” he said. “But it’s time that we begin to address this at a very deep and fundamental level.”
Paul said he plans to ask every group, organization and house of worship in the city to hold their own meetings to discuss racism, how it affects their neighbors and what they can do about it.
He also said he’s asked the city attorney and city manager to draft a resolution renaming Lake Forrest Drive to Lake Forest Drive. Running between Mount Vernon Highway in Sandy Springs and Powers Ferry Road in Buckhead, the street is the subject of longstanding but unconfirmed rumor that it was named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the KKK’s first Grand Wizard. Rumor also has it that the nearby Lake Forest Elementary School’s name was spelled that way to avoid the KKK connection.
It doesn’t matter whether the road really was named for Forrest, he said. It presents the wrong message for the city, he said.
The mayor said he and his family already were discussing what the city can do when Rabbi Brad Levenberg of the local Temple Sinai, who chairs the Sandy Springs Interfaith Clergy Association, sent him an email. Levenberg asked him to have City Council hold a meeting to discuss these issues.
With COVID-19 and social distancing, that’s not possible. So the mayor decided to contact all civic, professional, religious, neighborhood and service organizations in the city to hold their own meetings and report back to the city. He wants them to take notes, discuss ideas, make suggestions and ask questions. The ideas, suggestions and questions should be sent to the mayor, and he’ll put together a presentation for the council. They should begin receiving those letters soon with contact information.
But the mayor asks the groups to do more than just gather their friends. They must include persons of color in their discussions.
“We need to hear from minority residents how they feel,” Paul said.
His comments and decisions followed a week of coverage about racism, with protests and looting even reaching Sandy Springs.
“And there’s genuine and justified righteous indignation nationally about the death of George Floyd,” Paul said. “Also in Georgia, the death of Ahmaud Arbery and really a long line of others before that.”
Arbery was shot to death in the street in February near Brunswick, Georgia, after he was confronted by two armed white residents who claimed he acted suspiciously while on a jog.
Paul said some groups are taking advantage of the protests with violence and looting.
“That is just pure dastardly. It overshadows and takes away from the pure message that comes from the street,” Paul said. “We are not going to allow that to happen, to allow that to overshadow that conversation.”