With the 2021 Olympic Games visible on screens around the world this month, it seems appropriate to step back twenty-five years and revisit the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. What many people remember about that summer is the bomb that exploded in the early morning hours of July 27, 1996, in Olympic Centennial Park, directly killing one person. Many more might have died if security guard Richard Jewell had not spotted a suspicious backpack, which allowed authorities to start evacuating the immediate area. The story of Jewell—initially the hero, but then the FBI’s prime suspect as bomber, and subsequently cleared—overshadowed the summer’s events and even became a film directed by Clint Eastwood in 2019.
Accordingly, what many people may not know is that the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage played a significant role in Atlanta that summer—not with the international sporting event, nor with the criminal investigation, but rather to produce Southern Crossroads, a free festival of Southern music, crafts, and dance held outdoors in the very same Olympic Centennial Park. Hundreds of musical and dance performances, as well as crafts demonstrations and sales of items related to Southern culture, took place from morning to night from July 18 through August 4. The result was what the New York Times called “a quintessential Olympics experience,” which complemented the competitions for “the highest honors in sports.”
Our story begins in September 1990, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Atlanta as the site for 1996, turning down bids from Belgrade, Manchester, Melbourne, Toronto, and notably Athens—a sentimental favorite because the Greek Capital had hosted the first modern Olympics in 1896 and wanted to repeat the feat one hundred years later.
Because the Olympic Games had taken place in Los Angeles in 1984, some people believed the United States could not host another summer event so soon afterward. However, civic leaders in Atlanta had ambitious dreams, as documented by a recently opened exhibition at the Atlanta History Center, Atlanta ’96: Shaping an Olympic and Paralympic City. Led by Mayor Maynard Jackson and former Mayor Andrew Young, the Atlantans successfully convinced IOC members that their city represented a distinctive culture that had never before hosted the games—that of a “Black Mecca” at the epicenter of a new American South.
Accordingly, the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG) sought to spotlight this distinctive Southern culture when all eyes would be on Atlanta in July and August 1996. One of Atlanta’s key players was Billy Payne, ACOG’s president and CEO, and a former football star (like his father) for the University of Georgia. According to George Holt’s “Southern Culture at the Crossroads: Presenting the South at the Centennial Olympic Games,” Payne pledged not only to make the 1996 games “bigger and better than any in history,” but also to ensure that “Atlanta would out perform its predecessors in every arena, including the arts and cultural aspect.”
To realize these goals, ACOG worked with Leslie Gordon, a native of Savannah, who was senior producer for humanities programs and special projects at the Atlanta Cultural Olympiad. They soon enlisted Smithsonian staff, principally Richard Kurin, then director of the Center, and Diana Parker, then director of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Another key component was Peggy Bulger, folk and traditional arts program director for the Southern Arts Federation, who called on folklorists in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee to recommend artists, dancers, and musicians from their states. In October 1994, they hired Holt, formerly director of the Folklife Section at the North Carolina Arts Council, to serve as program director for Southern Crossroads.
Cultural events had been part of previous Olympic games since the early twentieth century, but they had always emphasized the fine arts rather than the folk arts. There were plenty of performances of classical music, opera, and dance—generally with high ticket prices—in Atlanta that summer. But the goal of Southern Crossroads was to highlight the distinctive culture of the American South at no cost to the public.
“There were many productive convenings with distinguished folklorists,” Gordon recalled. “For example, we spent an entire day defining the South. It was wonderful to have access to the experts.”
Kurin’s book, Reflections of a Culture Broker: A View from the Smithsonian (1997), includes a chapter on Southern Crossroads that takes us behind the scenes of the complicated and often-contentious planning process. Using the model of its own Folklife Festival, the Smithsonian sought something that would be highly participatory, in which visitors could obtain a genuine taste, feel, and sense of the South—by dancing to everything from country and powwow to salsa, swing, and zydeco; by purchasing both traditional down-home and nouvelle Southern cuisine prepared by diverse cooks; and by listening to extended conversations on the rich contours of Southern folklife and cultural heritage.
However, the leaders of ACOG felt that the Smithsonian Folklife Festival model was (in Kurin’s words) “too raw-looking with its tents and vernacular architectural constructions, too traditional and unstylish in its representation. At various points, ACOG leadership toyed with the idea of contracting with Dollywood, the Grand Ole Opry, and even Walt Disney World to produce a well-organized, fancy festival.”
Not surprisingly, the results of Southern Crossroads were mixed. A stadium concessions company furnished the food, which lacked the authenticity of grits and gravy. Pavement predominated inside Centennial Park, with precious little greenery. The corporate sponsors and their ubiquitous logos—namely AT&T, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, General Motors, and Swatch—were both highly visible and audible (including the roar of engines from the General Motors pavilion), which communicated vibes that were much more commercial and cosmopolitan than folk. And the tragic bombing stopped all festival programming for three days.
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Nevertheless, the sounds emanating from the Southern Music stage included everything from bluegrass, blues, funk, gospel, and soul to hot jazz, rockabilly, and voices from Indian country. The Dance Hall stage featured lessons in Cajun and country line-dance, along with performances of many other dance steps. Demonstrations of Southern crafts—such as making baskets, brooms, duck decoys, quilts, and pottery—took place near the festival marketplace, which sold similar folk art items, as well as books, music, rag rugs, and moon pies. And a small stage, called South on Record, offered a more intimate setting to appreciate the diversity of the American South.
Certainly, the one ingredient that is sadly absent from this year’s Olympics in Tokyo was abundant in Atlanta, with roughly 2.5 million people meeting at the Southern Crossroads.
“We always had a crowd, with visitors coming back over and over again,” Bulger recalled. “People from around the world were so impressed that they could always find something from their own countries within the culture of the American South. The folk and traditional arts are wonderfully diverse.”
Gordon had similar memories: “Tons of people traversed Southern Crossroads. It was a gathering place, and it didn’t cost them anything. The park became the people’s Olympic venue, and it was fantastic.”
Likewise, for Holt, “Centennial Olympic Park had become the people’s park, the place where ordinary folks—many of whom no doubt lacked the steep price of admission to a gymnastics or track and field event—came to be a part of it all.”
One of Kurin’s fondest memories is of kids cooling off in jets of water spurting from fountains in the shape of the five interlocking Olympic rings. He recalled, “People prevailed in the midst of the corporate concrete, signage, and logos. They did their own thing and showed how plain folks could overtake the plans of the powerful.”
James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He moved from Mississippi to Atlanta during Maynard Jackson’s tenure as mayor in the 1970s, in part to experience the “new American South,” but stayed only one year.