Atlanta, GA

Thoughts on Growing Up in Atlanta During the Atlanta Child Murders

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

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The racial schism in Atlanta that was more fully revealed when the child murders began, underscored social issues paramount to our youth’s well-being which are still in need of attention today.

I hadn’t thought about the Atlanta Child Murders for years until I started watching Mindhunter on Netflix in which the case was prominently featured. I hadn’t been aware that the show which is billed as fictional, includes characters that were real serial killers, including Wayne Williams, the person assumed to have committed these horrific crimes.

The show centers around a research project intended to identify factors that characterize these murderers in an effort to prevent other killing sprees, The main characters go to different prisons to speak to some of the most notorious serial killers of all time — Son of Sam, Edward Kemper, Richard Speck, and Charles Manson, among others.

The show does a great job of invoking a nostalgic sense of the ’70s and '80’s. It really has the feel of those times and even the t.v. show with its soundtrack and limited colors reminds me of shows from back then. If it wasn’t for the subject of the show it would be a nice reminiscence. Then comes season two which covers the Atlanta Child Murders, a black time in Georgia history during which at least 30 children were killed. I wasn’t prepared for the memories, emotions, thoughts, and reflections that these episodes elicited. In order to make sense of some of this, I have characteristically, if figuratively, taken pen to paper.

I suppose Atlanta had always been a powder keg racially, but when you were a young white child from an overprotective upper-class family, this reality wasn’t apparent. I grew up in a white neighborhood and attended a small Jewish Day School, also all white. I went to activities every day after school like ballet class, gymnastics, and piano that other neighborhood children went to as well.

I played with the kids in my neighborhood on afternoons when there was enough time before dinner and all my homework had been finished. We mostly played outside, riding bikes, roller skating, playing tag and hide and go seek. If the day was particularly cold, we might go to someone’s house which we were allowed to walk to alone.

I’m not sure when the child murders became news in my neighborhood. Given that these were poor kids some of whom did things to survive that weren’t legal when the first few bodies were found, they said that it was due to a drug deal or prostitution gone wrong. There wasn’t any coverage of the first several murders.

I think it was after the ninth child’s body had been found that the story first showed up on the main news stations on the T.V. and radio. I wasn’t allowed to watch the t.v. coverage but I think my parents forgot that I had a radio in my room that I kept on much of the time that I was home. It was certainly terrible, but it had occurred somewhere a world away from where I lived and in a neighborhood, I’d never even ridden through. It was a neighborhood that was one of Atlanta’s worst projects and one of my parents made a point of never going through.

Given that it was another world, I can’t say I was particularly worried. My friends and I felt safe and given the nature of our families, we had no reason not to. Everyone’s parents watched out for all the neighborhood children. We understood not to get into cars with strangers, and we all had to be in before dark so we really didn’t see any reason for concern. Plus, all of the children were black and most of them were boys. So while you couldn’t deny that it was scary, at the same time it wasn’t really scary for us.

Back then Atlanta wasn’t exactly the large international metropolis it is today. It was still growing into its future self, and at the time was still relatively small compared to now. So, you would think with children of any race or background going missing at an alarming rate that we’d have been frightened. But I can honestly say that I don’t remember ever being truly anxious about the situation. I’m not sure what that says about our empathy as children or how we would react now as adults if the same scenario presented itself

When all was said and done, at least 30 people (including at least 27 children and three adults) were dead. They were never entirely sure if they had found all the bodies, or if some bodies not presumed to be linked to these murders were in fact.

If you want to be polite about the investigation you might call the initial police work involving the case shoddy and incompetent at best. Part of the reason many people didn’t know that there was a serial killer murdering children was that for months, the police refused to accept that the killings were even connected. Investigators and Atlanta’s government leaders such as the mayor were reluctant to publicize details of the case because of fear that it could hurt the city’s reputation. They were reluctant to embrace the idea of a black killer, as the FBI profiler suggested because a white individual in these communities would be quickly noticed.

Atlanta was the first major city in the south to elect a black mayor, Maynard Jackson. He appealed for calm in the black communities where mothers had become extremely vocal, creating demands that the Klan be investigated. Mayor Jackson was verbally attacked by the black community for trying to suggest that race wasn’t important in the killings as the situation transcended race.

Some in the white community also expressed frustration over how their own reactions were criticized. They felt that if they called for a large effort they were blamed for criticizing black leadership but if they failed to do so they were blamed for not caring about the problem.

Finally, a 23-year-old man, Wayne Williams was convicted of two of the murders with investigators suggesting that he was implicated in many if not all of the rest. The other cases were closed and no further action was taken.

After the culmination of these events, many in the black community continued to remain unsatisfied by the results and conclusions, in particular, blaming all of the murders on a single, black male. One of the mothers of one of the slain children even went so far as to claim that Williams was actually the last victim since she was convinced he wasn’t linked to any of the murders. Additional evidence suggested that the Klan was responsible for several of the murders, using the situation to mask their crimes and let them be blamed on the real child murderer.

The arrest and subsequent conviction seemed hasty and some accused those in charge of just seeking to reassure the public so Atlanta would not lose any further business or sustain further harm to Atlanta’s reputation. Although Atlanta’s leaders used the cessation of child murders as further support for Williams being the murderer, others pointed out that the murders hadn’t in fact stopped at all, they were just once again being blamed on the children’s involvement with criminal activities.

This was the first time I’d really considered just how quickly the FBI arrested and charged Williams. And something I wasn’t aware of previously was that the arrest came on the very last day before the funding for the investigation ran out. I don’t know if any of that means anything as they seemed to at least have evidence tying Williams to the two adult murders.

After thinking about these cases and how they were handled for several days and being plunged back into memories of when it was happening, I know that my responses are a bit different now that I am an adult. One of the first things that came to mind which I’ve come face to face with in other situations when people were willing to sacrifice justice for their own reputation has to do with image and the role it played in this investigation.

I think that when you focus only on image and reputation, you can forget what’s really important and it can skew your notions of right and wrong. We spend so much time worrying about being politically correct and deciding what labels to use for people so as not to get negative reactions that we can forget the bigger issues. It’s not enough to do just what needs to be done to pacify others just enough while sweeping things under the rug so as not to harm our reputation.

I started watching the Netflix series, Mindhunter, simply for lack of anything else. I was totally unaware of its popularity or that it devoted an entire season to the Atlanta Child Murders. The show does a good job of representing what was going on with the murders, and many memories of the events of these 22 months returned as I watched. The discrepancy between how whites and blacks were treated in the city back then was a main focus and given that it wasn’t all that many years ago, it was difficult to watch at times.

There was something that struck me from the show that was minimized by using it as an excuse made by law enforcement to assert that the murders weren’t connected. In this scene, one of the investigators says that the culprit is actually poverty. I couldn’t help but think that this was at least in part accurate.

It was likely the murderer got the children to go with him by offering them something that would amount to money. They believed that Williams, a photographer and self-proclaimed music agent, offered the children an audition and record signing to convince them to get into his car.

Obviously, the case was much more complicated than that. But when an area is particularly poor, that is something that can be taken advantage of if someone wants to manipulate people into doing what they want. I can’t help but think desperation played at least some role in the ability of the murderer to get the kids into his car.

There was a lot of doubt regarding how these cases were resolved. They were never completely sure that Williams was responsible for some or perhaps any of the child murders. Because of that, five of the cases were reopened in 2005 but closed again a year later and in 2019, Atlanta’s mayor decided to reopen all of the cases in order to test new evidence. The intent was not to clear Williams but more to determine if there were other suspects that should have been considered.

I remember being surprised that they were reopening them, especially in light of nothing coming from reopening the first five cases. I understand that this case was a horrific one for not just Atlanta, but the nation as a whole. I also recognize that it doesn’t seem like justice was served when all of the child cases were closed without solving them based on the assumption that Williams was responsible for them as well.

If the cases were being reopened because there was a possibility the wrong man was sitting in prison that would seem warranted to me. Likewise, if there was an indication that the killer was still out there and had started killing again, that too would seem like a good reason to take another look.

But this many years later, putting the idea of closure aside, I am not sure what reopening these cases will provide that makes it a great idea. It seems like it’s reopening old wounds just to see if new technology can be used to analyze old data or from a more cynical view, that it might have been triggered by the response to a popular television show.

While I realize that many would feel a sense of closure or of justice finally being served if the uninvestigated cases were finally solved, I can’t help but wonder if Atlanta’s resources wouldn’t be better used trying to address the large number of black youth who still die each year in the city. Doing more to provide resources, opportunity, and equality would help this community more, I think, going forward than to examine the evidence for a case that, however horrific, is more than 40 years old.

My final thoughts are that when such a horrific situation occurs, we need to do whatever we can to eradicate the problem as completely as possible. If it is a social issue, then we should work to find the source of the problem to address it in order to decrease the likelihood of the problem situation occurring again.

When there is a minority group that is vulnerable in some way, providing them with resources to help them overcome this vulnerability and which will enable them to continue to display strengths in the face of adversity is the best defense. When discrimination limits members of a minority in terms of housing, income, employment, education, and overall opportunities afforded them without options to fight any of this, then desperation can lead to doing whatever is seemingly necessary to survive.

Considering these ideas more deeply, a theme kept surfacing in my mind. While there are numerous issues that need to be examined regarding these cases, it seems that much of it can be boiled apathy. I think this is something to pertains to many other cases and areas in addition to the Atlanta Child murders but certainly, in regards to prejudice and discrimination. apathy contributes in a big way. We need to challenge ourselves, each other, our education institutions, and our government to fight indifference, complacency, and apathy in a way that promotes empathy as well as judicial accountability.

If there is anything that we can take away from this case it is this: The issues that erupted in Atlanta regarding racism during the child murders have to be reconciled but also must be better addressed. We can’t look at the progress we’ve made in regards to civil rights, then jump to the conclusion that this fight is a thing of the past. Order at the expense of justice cannot continue to be the way in which we progress. Our youth are our future and we cannot sacrifice any of them whether it’s to a serial killer or to social ills.

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