The town of Stone Mountain, Ga., holds the distinction of being the birthplace of the 20th Century revival of the Ku Klux Klan. The Dekalb County town and suburb of Atlanta also made history of another sort, when it elected its first African-American mayor on this day in 1997.
Charles “Chuck” E. Burris (pictured) faced off against incumbent Pat Wheeler in an election with a low-turnout of just 838 total voters. In a narrow win, Burris defeated Wheeler by winning 278 to 260 votes; a third candidate gained 30 votes as well. Of his win, Burris was especially candid in what it meant for the predominantly Black town.
“There’s a new Klan in Stone Mountain,” Mr. Burris said in an interview with the New York Times, ”Only it’s spelled with a C: c-l-a-n, citizens living as neighbors. And I guess I’m the Black dragon.”
Burris was no stranger to public office, serving on Stone Mountain’s City Council and working for the Atlanta’s first Black mayor, Maynard Jackson, as an analyst. The Louisiana native arrived in Atlanta in 1967 to attend Morehouse College on scholarship.
James R. Venable (pictured), the imperial wizard of the National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, continued to promote his racist ideologies up until his death in 1993, according to reports. As noted by the Times piece on Burris, the new mayor lived in Venable’s house and was amused to learn that the Klan leader shared a birthday with civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Burris and his wife became friendly with the Venable family and purchased their home from the daughter who lived there. In a show of good faith, Burris didn’t ban Klansmen from living in the town but did strike an agreement with Venable’s daughter to end the KKK’s practice of burning crosses at the base of the mountain during a yearly Labor Day celebration.
Despite enduring racism as a child and abuse from the Klan, Burris and his family survived the times. While at Morehouse, Burris attended Saturday classes with Dr. King and was inspired by his vision for a new America. And with all that shaped his past, Burris saw the election as a major step in ending some of the longstanding rifts between Whites and Blacks in the town.
”Maybe things are getting a little better,” Burris said. ”If nothing else, hopefully my election will make people know that the city of Stone Mountain is a good town, that everybody is welcome here, that there are no bars to anyone moving here and finding friends and neighbors.”
Burris died in February 2009 while recovering from surgery in Maryland. He is survived by wife, Marcia Baird Burris, five children, and several grandchildren. He was 57.
Chuck Burris Becomes 1st Black Mayor Of Stone Mountain On This Day In 1997 was originally published on newsone.com