Atlanta’s Charlie Loudermilk

You could say Buckhead has changed. The place where there used to be a humble diner and neon Coca Cola sign at the intersection of Peachtree and Roswell roads is now Charlie Loudermilk Park. Metro Music is gone, but the Buckhead Theater has been twinklingly renovated (with a donation from Charlie Loudermilk) next to the luxury high-rise Hanover Buckhead Village, where you can rent a penthouse apartment for $8,096 a month.

Today, Sept. 8, topping the marquee of the Buckhead Theater is a gigantic megapixel portrait of Charlie Loudermilk, doubled, with the legend “R.I.P. Charlie Loudermilk, 1927-2022.” Across the street in the grass lawn park, about a dozen men and women dressed for the funeral are posing, smiling for an iPhone snapshot around the slightly larger-than-life-sized bronze statue of R. Charles Loudermilk Jr. They are a diverse group, including a man who says Charlie helped him immigrate from Mumbai to run an Aaron Rents franchise in Pennsylvania.

Charlie, who built Aaron Rents from its humble start two blocks away, helped transform Buckhead.

But in a way, Buckhead hasn’t changed. It survives and prospers, as always, with a particular spirit of leadership called the Atlanta Way. In a word, it’s a spirit of compromise, of closed-door public agreement between white and black rainmakers to avoid “bad publicity.” A Wall Street Journal feature on Charlie Loudermilk’s 4,500-acre quail-hunting plantation, furniture factories and recreational facilities in far South Georgia calls his way “benign capitalism.” In the article, Charlie calls himself a “conservative white Republican.” But that was only a guise, or at least only one ingredient of his makeup.

You needed to attend the grandiose funeral, as I did, to begin to understand the alloy that was Charlie Loudermilk. Understand that, and you begin to understand Buckhead, and Atlanta.

The service (he died Aug. 3) was in the palatial New Sanctuary of Peachtree Road Methodist Church (founded, 1925), with gleaming organ pipes (half underwritten by Charlie Loudermilk) that looked to me like a gothic dream of Atlanta’s latest skyline.

The vast black-robed choir filled the ranked steps in front on the left and right, women and men, young and old, black and white. Their bouncy conductor in prim bowtie and crewcut, Trey Clegg, is known around Atlanta for his musical mission of “Reconciliation, Equity, and Healing.” Powerful solo singers lifted the somewhat formal crowd to stand, sing, clap on the upbeat, and even applaud. The Dixieland jazz band that would lead the congregation afterwards to Charlie Loudermilk Park and the Buckhead Theater was one I could’ve joined with clarinet: “Bo Emerson and Brasstown Tonic.” Walter, my brother, was on trombone. The songs were tricky arrangements, but encoded in our local genetics: “God Bless America,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “O Happy Day,” and the sentimental favorite, “Georgia on My Mind.”

On one level, it looked like the greatest memorial service money could buy.

But deeper than Charlie’s money was his poverty. He grew up poor, and that gave him sympathy with just about everybody he met. This was the message given at the funeral by Charlie’s close life-long friend, Andy Young.

Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, Congressman and U.N. Ambassador, described how he and Charlie, along with three other powerful Atlanta figures, would get together whenever there was trouble, another crisis. The other three figures were Herman Russell, the black head of a construction firm who used his position to advance Civil Rights in Atlanta; Jesse Hill Jr., a black insurance company magnate who used his influence similarly, and John Portman, the white architect-developer who pioneered the futuristic style of jewel-lighted atriums that began in Atlanta.

“Every time there was trouble,” Young said, “we got together, we got together and would talk and we felt better.”

Maybe it was the trouble, the crisis, that reminded these men that they emerged from struggle. They would argue about who grew up poorest. Once, they decided that the winner of that game would be the one who grew up without indoor plumbing. Herman Russell was in a poor black area of Atlanta that got sewer lines early. Charlie grew up in a poor white section off Howell Mill Road, also with plumbing. It turned out, Young said, that the winner of the most-poor game, by that measure, was John Portman.

(John Portman and Charlie Loudermilk are said to be the two models Tom Wolfe embellished to create his character Charlie Croker in his novel A Man in Full, though Charlie Loudermilk’s part was probably merely to provide the quail-hunting plantation for research, not the brash personality of Wolfe’s protagonist.)

Young, a middle-class son of a teacher and dentist in New Orleans, came to Atlanta because Martin Luther King Jr. dragged and dropped him here as one of King’s lieutenants in the Civil Rights Movement. In their march from Selma to Montgomery for voting rights in 1965, it was Aaron Rents that provided the tents and trucks, he said. “I don’t know if we ever paid for that,” he said. “But we got a bill for it.”

Charlie was that way. He counted dollars, like the Scottish-stingy mascot of Aaron Rents, but was quietly unstinting in his generosity. I’d heard the story of his donating tents to the Selma March, but I’d also heard that he kept it secret so that the white Atlanta business community wouldn’t find out. His all-out support for Young as Atlanta mayor in 1980 let everybody know what kind of a “conservative white Republican” he was.

Andy Young has always been a believer in free-enterprise as a driver of social and racial progress. He was the Civil Rights veteran who served on corporate boards. Now he is 90, moves bow-legged and unsteady. But his message for those remembering Charlie Loudermilk was clear and radiant. Overcoming poverty was not just a black thing, he said. It was something every human being has inside, somewhere.

And here is where Andy’s preacher role showed itself. Growing up poor gave Charlie Loudermilk a heart not just for the poor, but for everybody he met, all over the world. He loved people. In his final years, he “adopted” the Zambian family that helped take care of him.

Andy Young suggested this came from recognizing that everybody has some inner poverty, and that there is, sure enough, a balm in Gilead.

“The hand of God has moved through the streets of Atlanta,” he testified.

A loud drum kicked off a happy rhythm and the Dixieland band led the people out onto a Peachtree Road sidewalk with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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