Best known for suffocating traffic, scantily clad revelers, and inspiring impassioned op-eds in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the black street party known as Freaknik also offers a fascinating glimpse into a pivotal moment in Atlanta’s history.
Freaknik and its fallout proved a test for the city, a city at once a Deep South state capital, the “Black Mecca,” an International Business Hub, and an imminent Olympic Host.1 On one hand, Freaknik was an exuberant celebration of black identity; the music, the fashion, the partying helped establish Atlanta as the capital of the Dirty South.
But Freaknik also created a crisis for a city trying to prove itself in the nation and the world, a city run by black leaders for whom Freaknik became a political conundrum. Or, to put it another way, Freaknik started as a party, but it became a question over “to whom the city of Atlanta belonged.”2
From “A Black College Thing” to “Atlanta’s Most Infamous Street Party”
Freaknik began in the early 1980s as a picnic for Atlanta University Center students from the DC area who couldn’t make it home for Spring Break. The D.C. Metro Club had chosen “The Return of the Freak” for their annual theme for 1982–83, and so the picnic was dubbed Freaknic. The name stuck, spelling change notwithstanding. For a decade, Freaknic remained a small celebration of Atlanta’s great black educational tradition, hopping from Washington Park to Piedmont Park to Adams Park. DC Metro Club member Jim Shelton, a 1989 Morehouse grad, remembered the early gatherings of touch football and music as “very wholesome.”3But in the late 1980s, Freaknic grew and began to enter the public consciousness. Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze about an HBCU student in Atlanta referenced the picnic as did a 1989 episode of A Different World. 4 After this, attendance spiked. “It was a little [AUC] thing,” one student recalled, “then all of sudden it went from three or four thousand people to 20,000 people.”5
And in 1993, the event really exploded, with 100,000 visitors taking the city by surprise. An “impromptu roll call” produced college students from Kent State, Cleveland, Southern Illinois, California, Akron, Milwaukee, Howard, Mississippi Valley, Toronto, Michigan State, Northwestern, and of course the Atlanta HBCUs.6 Then when video footage of Freaknik 1993 was featured in a popular music video for the hit song “Work It Out,” yet more national awareness of the event led the crowd to double in size in 1994. For the next several years, Freaknik annually attracted over 200,000 attendees, many of them students, but many of them not. What had once been a small college picnic had morphed into “Atlanta’s most infamous street party.”7
During Freaknik, the streets of Atlanta belonged, unquestionably, to the thousands of young black people who came to have a good time, to see and be seen. David Lowe, a twenty-six-year-old Kent State junior put it this way: “The trends, the fashion, the unity, the culture – it’s all here.”8 While groups of Omegas and Alphas did step shows in Atlanta’s parks, “Uncle Luke” blared bass music, and BET broadcast live. “The Dirty South was really starting to come into its own,” Ryan Cameron of Atlanta’s V103 said, “Freaknik was ratchet before ratchet was a word.”9
Sometimes at events or malls, but just as often cruising the streets, partiers met, exchanged numbers, made plans, traded cameras, and showed off for one another, what the kids in 1994 called “frontin.” Craig Williams, a soft-spoken Morehouse College junior described it this way: “girls in outlandish outfits, and people driving fancy cars … during Freaknik, you do whatever it take to get someone to notice you.”10
Black Partying and Black Governance
If traffic was the site of the party for some, it was also by far the most common complaint from Atlantans and the biggest logistical hurdle for city leaders. The presence of hundreds of thousands of people on Atlanta’s surface streets and highways created an unrivaled traffic jam, one so bad that it still provokes wide-eyed headshakes in a city known for terrible traffic. As the novelist Tom Wolfe described it,
For a little while the Freaknik traffic inched up Piedmont . . . inched up Piedmont . . . inched up as far as Fifteenth Street . . . whereupon it came to a complete, utter, hopeless, bogged down glue-trap halt, both ways . . .11
Though the traffic was annoying, it was predictable and, for the most part, avoidable. And so most Atlantans went out of their way, initially, to accommodate Freaknik as they would any other downtown festival. But while many Atlantans prided themselves on welcoming Freaknik, self-consciously proud of both their hospitality and their racial moderation, others buckled.12 Underneath the satisfied proclamations of biracial cooperation and assertions of the “Atlanta Way,” racial animus simmered. Midtown neighbors established a “Freaknik Fallout” group, while other angry residents picketed the mayor’s Inman Park home in protest. Even when criticizing Freaknik though, many white Atlantans twisted themselves to avoid race and “not make it a black and white issue.”13 “I don’t think we law-abiding citizens should have to give in to these students who have no respect for law and order and for the residents of Atlanta,” one resident railed, yet adding hastily, “Color has nothing to do with my thinking.”14
But Atlanta was still a Deep South city, and the role race played, of course, could not be so easily ignored. “What makes this situation slightly tense isn’t just the cars, crowds, kids, booze, springtime and the inevitable bad actors,” Atlanta columnist Colin Campbell stated, “it’s also race.” 15 And the anger directed toward Freaknik soon took on a racial edge, perhaps most troublingly encapsulated by the description of the partiers as “freaknikkers.”
Moreover, one resident tellingly referred to the visitors as “locusts … who descend on the city, chew it up and leave.” 16 City Council debates over Freaknik, too, turned bitter and vitriolic, with members exchanging “harsh words, tinged with racial overtones,” according to one journalist covering the proceedings. 17 Councilwoman Carolyn Long Banks predicted “carnage,” and at one point even compared the City’s attempts to curb traffic to “apartheid.”18
Though many wanted to see Atlanta crackdown on the revelers, the city was initially hesitant to totally disavow the event. For one thing, Freaknik was bringing scores of people – and thus consumers – to the city. For another, the city leaders themselves were black. In 1994, the forty-year-old Bill Campbell was inaugurated as mayor, continuing a then twenty-year history of black leadership of the city.19
He was soon joined by Beverly Harvard, then the only black female police chief in the country. Freaknik posed an issue for the newcomers Campbell and Harvard, as they had to assure white Atlanta they would uphold the law while they assured black Atlanta that they had their backs. And they had to do it all with the world watching, curious if the host city for the upcoming 1996 Olympic Games could handle itself. It was, as one editorial writer put it, a “political landmine.”20In 1994, Campbell and Harvard opted to tepidly welcome the event while promising a better traffic plan and increased law enforcement.21
They admonished police to be cool and avoid confrontation, praised the partiers and Atlanta neighbors for good behavior, and emphasized unity. “These 200,000 students are the doctors and lawyers and architects and teachers of tomorrow,” the Mayor said, “The fact that they want to return and live here is great,” adding, in true Atlanta form, “they have spent large amounts of money.”22 Despite the mayor’s conciliatory statements, controversy continued. In 1995, several incidents of violence, looting, and rape occurred, as did a sense that the city was cracking down on the fun with large numbers of police officers.23 Attendance then declined in 1996, as Freaknik faced what one writer has dubbed “strangulation by bureaucracy.”24 In the end, Freaknik continued for several years under stricter regulations as the Olympics came and went and Campbell was re-elected, but by the end of the 1990s, Freaknik was over.
Partying “The Atlanta Way”
It had been many things: a celebration of black identity in urban America, an announcement of the Dirty South, an urban cautionary tale, and a political quandary for municipal leaders. Ultimately, though, Freaknik reveals much about the 1990s and about Atlanta itself. When Atlanta was named host of the Centennial Olympic Games in 1990, commentators noted that, “what sets Atlanta apart is race … black and white cooperate in an unlikely but mutual self interest that is unique among the world’s large cities. … It’s the Atlanta Way.”25 And in some ways, it was. The year after the streets of Los Angeles crowded with furious black protestors, rioting in despair, the streets of Atlanta choked with young black revelers, partying. And while complaints of party suppression abounded and heated debates ensued, Atlanta managed to avoid the sort of volatile racial confrontations that had rocked Los Angeles and New York in this period. Though Campbell and Harvard balked at Freaknik at moments, and limited its scope with regulations, which ultimately led to the party’s demise, it is worth noting that they also ameliorated racial tensions that could have erupted into violence. Black partying and black governance coexisted in 1990s Atlanta, if not perfectly. And that coexistence, however fragile and contentious, that is the Atlanta Way.
A. Scott Walton, “Freaknik: What’s Going On: Just This Weekend, Students Are ‘Frontin’ for Attention,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 23, 1994, B3.[↩]
Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998), 15.[↩]
The relationship between boosterism and racial moderation has long been significant in Atlanta. Even now, the city’s tourism website boasts that Atlanta “is the embodiment of Southern hospitality, sophistication, and progress” adding, “Atlanta’s progressive character combined with its civil rights legacy creates a city determined to honor the past as it builds the future.” (“Explore Atlanta’s Civil Rights Legacy,” Atlanta, http://www.atlanta.net/things-to-do/history/civil-rights/, accessed April 18, 2017.) See: Harvey K. Newman, Southern Hospitality: Tourism and the Growth of Atlanta (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999); Clarence Stone, Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946–1988 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989); Elizabeth Jacoway and David R. Colburn, eds., Southern Businessmen and Desegregation (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982); James Cobb, The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936–1980 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982).[↩]
S.A. Reid, “Resident voice concern on handling of future Freakniks,” Atlanta Journal Constitution, April 28, 1993, D1.[↩]
Letter, Evelyn Hogg, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 13, 1995.[↩]
Colin Campbell, “What’s the Point of Freaknik?” Atlanta Journal-Constitution. April 16, 1995 1 C.[↩]
Marcia Barnett, “Atlanta merchants split on Freaknik,” Wall Street Journal, April 13, 1995.[↩]
Robert Vickers and Charmagne Helton, “Municipal Court Special Session During Freaknik,” The Atlanta Journal, April 19, 1994, B1.[↩]
Doug Monroe, “FREAKNIK ’95 – Street Party to Get Rolling,” The Atlanta Constitution, April 20, 1995, 1C; Jeff Dickerson, “City Send Mixed Message to Residents, Freaknikkers,” The Atlanta Journal, April 19, 1995 14A.[↩]
Jeff Dickerson, “Mayor, Won’t You Sell Freaknik to New Orleans?” TheAtlanta Journal, April 13, 1995, 16 A.[↩]
The City had several different positions on Freaknik over the years. See: Douglas A. Blackmon “Freaknik Flip-flop? Mayor Says he’s Stayed the Course,” The Atlanta Constitution, March 23, 1995.[↩]
Kathy Scruggs and Douglas Blackmon, “Mayor: City Won’t Ban Future Freaknik Events,” The Atlanta Constitution, April 26, 1994, A1.[↩]
Julius Evans, “Campbell Assesses Loss, Damages at Rich’s Store,” Atlanta Daily World, April 27, 1995; Paul Leavitt, “Looting, Violence Mar Freaknik Fest,” USA Today, April 24, 1995.[↩]
Whack and Burns, “Freaknik”; “Discouraged Participants Say Freaknik on the Wane Getting the Message: Would-be Partyers Cite Police Tactics Foremost among Causes of Decline,” The Atlanta Constitution; April 19, 1999, C6.[↩]