August 5, 2013, 10:42 pm
By RON FEINBERG, AJT Web Editor
Cecil Alexander was a renaissance man, a member of the “Greatest Generation” that came of age during the dark days of the Great Depression and World War II. In the second half of the 20th century, he managed to help transform the skyline of Atlanta and the hearts of its citizens. Alexander, a long-time member of The Temple and respected leader of Atlanta’s Jewish community, died last Tuesday, July 30th. He was 95.
“So much has been written about my dad in recent weeks; the scholar, the architect, the man who stood up for civil rights and put himself in dangerous positions to back up his beliefs,” Alexander’s daughter, Judith Augustine, told the Jewish Times. “But he was also just my dad and quite a guy.”
Much of Alexander’s life was spent in Atlanta—he was a descendent of one of the city’s pioneer Jewish families—designing iconic structures. He’s also remembered for the important work he did with the region’s politicians and leaders during the early years of the Civil Rights movement.
Alexander was the principal architect at the FABRAP architectural firm. He learned his craft the old-fashioned way—study and hard work. He was a brilliant student, managing to graduate from Yale University in 1940, then enrolling at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year of study before enlisting in the marines. He would later earn a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University.
But it was his years as a fighter pilot that changed his life forever.
Alexander grew up in a city and region that was segregated and he never seriously questioned the racial barriers that were a way of life in the Deep South. His thinking changed after he flew 60 missions in the Pacific, then returned home and realized black veterans remained second-class citizens. It just didn’t seem right. “I realized the opportunities that were open to me, and the country I was coming back to was a hell of a lot different for blacks who were in a lot more dangerous battles than I was,” Alexander said years ago in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
So it seemed natural at the time that Alexander marched in Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral procession, served on the King Center board and co-founded and co-chaired the Black-Jewish Coalition with John Lewis. He also co-chaired Lewis’ first campaign for Congress. And when Atlanta’s mayor, William Hartsfield, tapped Alexander to chair a special advisory committee for Urban Renewal in the 1950s, he not only accepted the appointment but managed to lead the biracial group in cleaning up some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods. “My dad’s involvement with the Black-Jewish Coalition sums up one of his greatest contributions,” Augustine said. “He was all about building bridges between communities and that’s exactly what the coalition did.”
Over the next decade, Alexander embraced the role of civic leader, running the Atlanta Housing Resources Committee for Ivan Allen, mayor of Atlanta in the 1960s, then serving as vice-chair of the Atlanta Region Metropolitan Planning Commission and as a member of Gov. Jimmy Carter’s state housing committee for low-income citizens.
He also stayed busy with his day job at FABRAP, helping transform the city’s skyline with buildings that are inextricably linked with Atlanta, including Coca-Cola’s headquarters, the original BellSouth tower and the former Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
It seemed for a while that everything Alexander touched turned to gold. Then tragedy struck one night in 1983. A teen, driving drunk, smashed into Alexander’s Buick. His wife Hermione was killed and Alexander’s pelvis was shattered. Alexander managed to turn the moment into something meaningful. Before being released from the hospital he formed a committee to focus on the state’s drunk-driving laws, ultimately making them tougher; then he worked at raising the legal drinking age in Georgia from 18 to 21.
Two years later he married Helen Eisemann, a longtime friend of both Alexander and his first wife; and in 1985 he retired.
A decade or so later he was making news yet again, this time at the center of a controversy swirling around the Georgia state flag. The pendant, adopted in 1956, prominently featured the Confederate battle flag. In the 1980s and 1990s there were numerous bills in the General Assembly to return to the state’s pre-1956 flag. They all failed. Entering the new millennia, Alexander and many other Georgians figured the time was right to rethink the flag and focus on the future – not the past. So Alexander designed a new state pendant in 2000. It featured the seal of the state in “Dahlonega gold”, surrounded by 13 white stars above a gold ribbon containing small images of the three flags that had once flown over Georgia. It was not universally applauded, but it was adopted. Two years later it was replaced.
A recent memorial service for Alexander at The Temple included former governors and mayors, family and friends. Andrew young, the former congressman, UN ambassador and mayor of Atlanta, talked of his friendship with Alexander, a man he characterized as a “member of Atlanta’s greatest generation.” Young said he spent an hour with Alexander several weeks ago, recalling a melancholy conversation the two friends shared. Alexander mentioned that he was sorry he had never met Nelson Mandela. Young responded: “You probably will meet him before too long.”
After all the words, the prayers and the military honors that special day, perhaps it was Alexander’s grandson, Jed Augustine, who best summed up the measure of the man. “My Granddad died not as a civil rights activist, or architect, or war hero, or inventor, or Atlanta icon; he died as a man,” said Augustine. “I will remember the man, at the end, when the labels and ornaments had faded away, in his sweetness and love.”
In addition to his second wife and daughter, Alexander is survived by another daughter, Terri Alexander-Cox; a son, Doug Alexander; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Want to know more?
Cecil Alexander’s memoir, “Crossing the Line: The Awakening of a Good Ol’ Boy,” and a second volume, “The War Years, 1941–1945,” was recently published and can be purchased online at the Amazon store.