Burris, Chuck 1951–
Chuck Burris 1951–
Mayor of Stone Mountain, GA
In 1923, on the northern face of Stone Mountain, an artist began to carve the largest bas-relief sculpture in the world. The sculpture, a 90-by-120 foot memorial to the Confederacy, featured the likenesses of Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. A mere eight years before the sculpture was begun, the Ku Klux Klan staged their 20th-century rebirth on that same spot, and the area remained the headquarters for the National Knights of the Klan. In 1997, in the shadow of this mountain, Chuck Burris was elected mayor of Stone Mountain, Georgia, becoming the first African American to hold this position.
Burris was born in New Orleans, Louisiana on March 5, 1951 to Seymour and Vermont Burris. Seymour was an elementary school principal, and Vermont taught high school English. Burris’ mother imposed strict discipline in the home and encouraged her children to excel academically. Before Burris reached the first grade, she had taught him mathematics and the works of Shakespeare. He used to pray for the end of the summer, he told Kevin Sack of the New York Times, “because at least there was a limit to homework during school.”
The lessons Burris learned from his parents were not restricted to those found in textbooks. They also taught him how to survive as an African American living in the racially segregated South. Both of Burris’s parents spent their free time registering people to vote and participated in public-service projects with the NAACP. Burris was also forced to confront racial hatred at an early age. When he was only three-years-old, someone burned a cross on the family’s front lawn. While he was a middle school student in Alexandria, Louisiana, his school was targeted for a cross burning. “If you grow up in the South,” he explained to Kelly Starling of Ebony, “you had experiences like that all through life.”
In 1967, at the age of 16, Burris graduated from Peabody High School and was admitted to Morehouse College as a Merrill Scholar. At Morehouse, he held various positions in student government, reported for the school newspaper, joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and competed on the swimming and diving teams. During this time, he also pursued Saturday seminars, which were often taught by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. King’s message of nonviolence and promoting change from within energized Burris.
Born Charles Burris, March 5, 1951 in New Orleans, Louisiana; father Seymour, elementary school principal and mother Vermont, high school English teacher. Married Marsha Baird Burris, 1996; five children. Education ; Morehouse College, B.A., 1971; John Marshall Law School, L.L.B., 1975. Religion : Christian.
Career: Research analyst, Crime Analyst Team, City of Atlanta, 1975-77; supervisor, evaluation division/budget officer for police, fire, corrections, civil defense, municipal court, aviation, City of Atlanta, 1977-81; accounting services supervisor, Finance Department, Atlanta Housing Authority, 1981-82; co-founder, Strategic Targeting and Research Computer Consulting firm, 1981-86; consultant, computer projects, Office of Secretary of State, State of Georgia, 1991-94; president, MountainWare, Ltd., 1994-; city councilman, Stone Mountain, Georgia, 1991-96; mayor. Stone Mountain, Ceorgia, 1997-.
Awards: Merrill Scholar, Morehouse College; Proclamations from Georgia state house and senate assemblies, Fulton County, Georgia Commission.
Addresses: Office —Stone Mountain City Hall, 922 Main Street, Stone Mountain, GA 30083.
Burris still vividly recalls telling Dr. King that he did not envision himself as capable of responding to violence with non-violence. “I was just a kid and he just softly put me in my place,” Burris recalled to the Atlanta Journal and Constitution.“He said I would always be a slave if I let other people control my behavior.”
Burris became active in politics while he was still in college. In 1968, he worked on the vice mayoral campaign of Maynard Jackson, who later became the first African American mayor of Atlanta. He also worked on Andrew Young’s congressional campaign in 1970. He also campaigned for Young’s reelection in 1972 and 1981.
After graduating from John Marshall Law School in 1975, Burris served in a variety of city and state government positions. He initially worked for the city of Atlanta as a research analyst for the Crime Analyst Team, a position he held from 1975 to 1977. It was in Atlanta where Burris began what he called his “social mission,” to improve life for others and to make government work for them. Having clearly incorporated Dr. King’s commitment to nonviolence into his own life, Burris told Duane Stanford of the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, “[D]emocracy is the only nonviolent way to make change.” Burris also worked as a supervisor in the evaluations division and as a budget officer for the City of Atlanta from 1977 to 1981. He left this position to work as an accounting services supervisor in the Finance Department of the Atlanta Housing Authority from 1981 to 1982. From 1986 to 1990, he worked as a computer consultant to Georgia’s Secretary of State Max Cleland. In 1991, Burris accepted a position as systems manager for the State of Georgia’s Project Connect and remained in this post until 1994.
According to Ebony, Burris first visited Stone Mountain for a college fraternity picnic. His next visit to the mountain was marred by a scheduled Klan rally. When Burris moved to Stone Mountain, he vowed to sever the town’s association with the Klan and turn Stone Mountain into a place where people of all races would be welcome.
Nearly two years after Burris moved to Stone Mountain, three city council seats became available for election. Burris began to talk with possible candidates and promised to help with their campaigns if they chose to enter the race. His preferred candidate was a woman who worked in the local post office. Although she refused to run, she challenged Burris to enter the race himself. He accepted her challenge, and she became his campaign manager.
During the campaign, Burris focused on the issues and tried to avoid personal attacks on other candidates. He tested new innovations to win votes, such as putting out a newsletter he called “The Burris Report” and using an autodialing phone system to reach every possible Stone Mountain resident. He even convinced James Venable, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, to vote for him and placed his campaign placard in Venable’s front yard.
In 1991, Burris won election to the Stone Mountain city council. Although only 15 percent of Stone Mountain’s registered voters were African American, Burris emerged as the top vote-getter. As councilman, Burris worked hard to represent issues that were of interest to the citizens of Stone Mountain. He tackled issues concerning the preservation of historic sites and pressed for the establishment of a recycling program. As chairman of the budget committee, Burris also pushed for property tax relief. He later championed legislation that was dedicated to upgrading police equipment, diversifying the city’s financial base, and increasing funding for parks. To commemorate the 30th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, Burris organized a “freedom train” that ran from underground Atlanta to Stone Mountain City Hall.
As Burris’s two-year term on the city council neared its end, many of his constituents, both black and white, encouraged him to run for mayor. Because he was a close friend of the current mayor, Pat Wheeler, Burris refused to run. However, in 1997, Burris decided to challenge Wheeler for mayor. After serving for six years on the city council, Burris felt that he was ready for a new challenge and confident that his support base was strong enough to carry him to victory.
During the campaign, Burris worked to ensure that all debates and discussions centered not on race, but on the need for economic development. On election day, the race between Burris and Wheeler was extremely close. Burris was finally declared the winner, but prevailed by only 18 votes. The voter turnout for the election was extremely low, with only 16 percent of Stone Mountain’s registered voters casting ballots.
Following his victory, Burris proclaimed that the election served as a landmark in the racial evolution of the New South. Certainly, Burris’s victory is a testament not only to his years of public service but also, as Sack noted in the New York Times, to “a gradual easing of racial politics in some Southern communities.” In an Associated Press interview, Burris stated that his victory ends any misconceptions “that a bunch of rabid racists live here and that black folks are cowering in their homes and won’t come out at night.” Burris also remarked to the New York Times, “There’s a new Klan in Stone Mountain, only it’s spelled with a C: c-l-a-n, citizens living as neighbors.”
Through his leadership style, Burris works to put the past in proper perspective and move forward to face the challenges of the future. He has focused on building new sidewalks and facilities for youth, reducing property tax appraisals on the elderly, and ridding the city of crack houses. Burris has also worked diligently to revive the business climate in Stone Mountain, enhance the city’s cultural activities, and improve the town’s appeal as a tourist destination. As Ernest Holsendolph noted in the Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, “Burris wants to build on the business foundation of Stone Mountain, not replace it—not even the Confederate flags and Southern Civil War memorabilia that make some black citizens uneasy.”
Burris set the tone for his tenure as mayor by beginning a project he had supported since his days on the city council. This project involved the construction of new sidewalks throughout Stone Mountain. One of his first acts as mayor involved allocating funds for the installation of sidewalks in the historically black neighborhood of Shermantown. Burris’s ultimate goal is to turn Stone Mountain into a pedestrian-friendly city with sidewalks that connect businesses on Main Street with their customers in the surrounding neighborhoods. “I want to see people walking up and down the street, and that’s why I am building sidewalks,” Burris emphasized in an interview with Lisa Weitzman. “I want to see people walking into town to do their shopping, to take their kids for ice cream. When people walk through town, they get to know their neighbors, and this enhances their sense of community.”
To further encourage a sense of community, Burris plans to initiate a program known as The Mayor’s Saturday Night at the Movies. An old gymnasium would be converted into a movie theater. The theater would show classic, family-oriented films and popcorn would be served. To encourage community participation, no admission fees would be charged.
Tourism is a vital industry for Stone Mountain. Among tourist attractions in the South, Stone Mountain Park is the second most popular tourist park behind Walt Disney World. Burris would like to see Stone Mountain Park added to the National Register of Historic Places. As he explained to Minna Morse in Smithsonian, “This area is rich in history. Some of it is painful to many people. I want to deal with those facts in a way that people can profit from. This should be a place where everyone can come to the table, not just black and white residents but also Hispanic and Asian. He added,” The place has a tricky history—one of the older developments here was built on a Native American burial ground. We’ve got to take a careful, respectful look at the past, in a way that educates and helps heal old wounds.”
In addition to improving economic and social opportunities for the residents of Stone Mountain, Burris “has changed the perception of a town once known as a bastion of hate.” remarked Starling in Ebony. His proactive approach to dealing with the town’s needs and changing racial demographics have made him a worthy ambassador for Stone Mountain. His wife, Marcia Baird Burris, a public relations expert who also serves as her husband’s communications manager, believes people have responded to Burris’s story because it offers hope in the face of rising racial tension nationwide. In 1998, Burris sat next to Hillary Rodham Clinton during President Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speech. It is also believed to mark the first time that a mayor of Stone Mountain was invited to the White House.
Atlanta Constitution, March 25, 1993, p. XA3; November 5, 1997, p. C5; November 10, 1997, p. B1; November 23, 1997, p. H2; January 7, 1998, p. B2; January 22, 1998, p. XJ8; January 28, 1998; February 5, 1998, p. XJA, 3; February 8, 1998, p. D2;May29, 1998, p. D1.
Detroit News, November 17, 1997.
Ebony, October 1998, pp. 128-131.
Jet, December 8, 1997, p. 25.
New York Times, November 22, 1997, p. A1.
Salt Lake Tribune, July 19, 1998.
Smithsonian, January 1999, pp. 56-67.
Sun Herald, November 1997.
Time, January 19, 1998, p. 19.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Chuck Burris by Lisa S. Weitzman on February 11, 1999.
—Lisa S. Weitzman
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