Larry Gellerstedt III received American Jewish Committee’s National Human Relations Award for the example he has provided Atlanta of a business leader working for the civic good, but people left his honor dinner Monday night, Oct. 30, talking about the history lessons he applied to an America forgetting how to engage in civil discourse.
AJC Atlanta gathered more than 500 people at the Loews Atlanta Hotel in Midtown to recognize the Cousins Properties CEO and chairman, who with his current company and with his family’s former business, Beers Construction, played a part in building, owning and/or managing corporate headquarters, iconic skyscrapers, and Turner Field, the Georgia Dome and Philips Arena. He has been in Atlanta commercial real estate so long, Robert W. Woodruff Foundation President Russell Hardin joked, that some of his buildings are being torn down and replaced.
He helped bring together Scottish Rite and Egleston to form Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and has served and often led many Atlanta boards and institutions.
United Distributors CEO Doug Hertz, a lifelong friend, said Gellerstedt makes a habit of doing the right thing, from pushing the Westminster Schools a quarter-century ago to allow non-Christians to work as faculty and serve on the board to persuading state lawmakers to oppose religious liberty legislation that could be used to shield discrimination.
His National Human Relations Award Dinner raised more money for AJC than any of its 42 annual predecessors, AJC Atlanta President Melanie Nelkin said, and he became the first second-generation winner 27 years after his mother, Mary, received the award.
In accepting the honor, Gellerstedt said he is an avid student of history, reading all he could find for decades on Europe from just before World War I until the start of World War II to understand “how a developed, relatively well-educated, Western nation could allow a failed artist to take them and ultimately the world hostage.”
He doesn’t have the answer, but Gellerstedt said two essential factors stand out. First, a significant portion of the population must have given up hope for a better life. Second, when prejudice emerges as a quick answer for such hopelessness, it spreads unchecked.
The Nazis preached hate, and they weren’t “called out in a vacuum of hope.”
“By the time those that could call it out got the courage to call it out, it was too late, and the world paid a price,” Gellerstedt said.
He assured the audience that he was not comparing the United States to Nazi Germany, but he warned that a loss of hope and continuing complacency could make hate groups tough to confront in five or 10 years.
Americans must pay attention now to a population expressing hate and prejudice “because they’ve lost hope,” Gellerstedt said. “Just screaming back doesn’t provide a ladder of hope. But solutions require time, and time when you’re in despair is very hard to trust.”
Just as important, he said, “we have to fight the forces that want to offer hate and prejudice as a solution to the pain. So we have to pay attention to the pain, but we also have to have the courage to call things out that aren’t comfortable in our daily lives to call out.”