July 28, 1979. Rocky II and Moonraker were in the movie theaters. The Ayatollah Khomeini took over Iran, and Saddam Hussein took over Iraq. “Good Times,” and “We Are Family” played on the radio that summer (“Message in a Bottle” and “London Calling” if you weren’t into disco). Little boys wanted to grow up to be the next Michael Jackson. Three Mile Island almost melted and Skylab fell out of the sky.
Atlanta’s murder rate was unambiguously the highest in the country. Cops said they were understaffed, and they were understaffed, though, ironically, there were approximately as many cops then as there are now, even though there were far, far fewer residents in the metro area.
In 1979, the cops erected a billboard in downtown:
WARNING . . . You Are In ATLANTA
Where POLICE Are . . . UNDERPAID UNDERMANNED UNDEREQUIPPED
Use Extreme CAUTION WHILE HERE
At the bottom of the billboard, replaceable placards noted the mounting numbers of murders, robberies and rapes.
Then, on July 28, 30 years ago today, the bodies of two black children were found on Niskey Lake Road. The boys were 14 and 13. The Atlanta Child Murders had begun. Boys and young men from Thomasville Estates, East Lake Village, and neighborhoods along Memorial Drive began turning up dead. Investigators conducted “murder tours” in southeast and west Atlanta, where the bodies were dumped.
But even with all the attention — international attention, federal funding — there were even more murders that did not get counted. Little girls who got killed didn’t make “The List.” Young adult males who were prostituting themselves but survived to 23 or 25 before getting killed did not make the list. Young women who were turning tricks and ended up dead barely raised eyebrows, let alone making the list.
Wayne Williams was a classic “groomer” of young children, operating in an environment that made it possible for him to proposition mere children without attracting too much attention. One way of looking at the Atlanta child murders is this: if Williams and other, unidentified killers had stuck with older adolescents and females, they probably would have been able to keep killing for much longer without even attracting attention.
The criminals alone are legally responsible for the murders they committed, but it takes a village to overlook the systematic sexual exploitation of its children. That village was Atlanta in 1979. With its strip club culture and a business community all too happy to overlook that industry’s dark “feeder” side, no wonder predators like Williams were able to operate with impunity. Street prostitution and the strip clubs fed each other, as did the drug trade — all three of which are considered candidates for decriminalization today.
Thirty years later, what has changed? One thing, for the worse: “pimping” is now a popular and romanticized notion. Prostitution is similarly, grotesquely ennobled as “sex work.” So, on the thirtieth anniversary of the discovery of the bodies of two young, sadly street-wise, sadly dead children (one who wasn’t even reported missing), I have a request: those of you listening to songs glorifying pimps and whoring — who feel the need to police your language by using politically correct terms like “sex work” but think we shouldn’t police the “sex work industry” — consider the consequences for children in Atlanta whose lives are more vulnerable than yours.
Consider the price they pay for our twisted pieties.