ATLANTA, JULY 27 -- It's been two years since the National Black Arts Festival debuted here for a first-of-its-kind celebration of black cultural roots that drew raves, enthralled a half-million people with stars from America's black artistic melting pot and pumped an estimated $20 million into the local economy.

Now it's show time for Act 2, as the festival kicked off again today for the second time and organizers waxed upbeat about establishing it as a permanent cultural fixture, and Atlanta -- once the command post for the Old South's civil rights movement -- as a New South mecca for the artistic dreams of black America.

"For black America, the civil rights movement was one plateau, but our African American culture can move us to another," says festival Director Michelle Smith. "But if we don't make it happen, we may lose the opportunity for a long time. There's a sense of urgency."

Some of that has to do with the first festival being a hard act to follow. "We've got to prove it wasn't beginner's luck and find our audience, our market," she says.

As the festival cranks into high gear Saturday, with a parade down Peachtree Street, more than 2,000 artists from the United States, South America, Africa and the Caribbean are warming up for a 10-day festival run, with 60 cultural events at 40 locations. Many are free, from open-air concerts featuring black classical composers to poetry readings, films, folk and visual art, theater, dance and assorted workshops.

This year, the festival holds forth under the theme "Today's Roots," pinpointing the connection between African beginnings and contemporary art. It expects 700,000 visitors, from Chicago church groups in chartered buses to drop-ins from all over the South, this time without big-name stars on the marquee.

"Someone said to me, 'There's not a lot of glitz or big names this year,' but that's the idea," says festival Artistic Director Stephanie Hughley. "We need to look at people we don't know, the ones who have probably been nurtured by the big names we had last time. The black community has big names in sports and music ... but the public only knows those who cross over, those accepted by the white community.

Not that it's a festival devoid of headliners. Cicely Tyson and Harry Belafonte chair the extravaganza, which aims to turn faded Auburn Avenue, once a proud street of black commerce, into a giant outdoor folk festival with booths devoted to hair-braiding, herbal medicine and storytelling, to name a few. For autograph hounds, there's actor Avery Brooks, TV tough guy Hawk in "Spenser for Hire" -- only he's playing against type in a one-man show Saturday through Monday at Symphony Hall. He will portray the legendary Paul Robeson, the complex singer-actor-athlete-scholar who broke the color barrier in "Othello" and made the history books singing "Ol' Man River" in Broadway's original "Show Boat."

There's a hot group of Brazilian martial artists who do a sort of macho Latin break dance, the National Dance Company of Guinea, the Philadelphia Dance Company and others.

"When someone says, 'black dance,' who do you think of? Alvin Ailey or Arthur Mitchell," says Hughley, answering her own question. "But there are 300 black dance companies in this country. Where do you think the big-name companies recruit from?"

Among the hot tickets:

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra will perform a free concert of music Sunday by major black composers, pulling from the works of Duke Ellington, Alvin Singleton, Adolphus Hailstork and George Walker.

Onstage at the Alliance Theatre will be Richard Wesley's hard-hitting dramatic comedy "Talented Tenth," coined from the W.E.B. Du Bois notion of a "talented tenth" of the black race taking responsibility for advancing the rest.

Black independent filmmaker Wendell Harris Jr. will show "Chameleon Street," a surprise hit at last year's U.S. Film Festival.

Music Alive will feature 28 performers in an overview of styles of chamber music written by African American composers, with a three-concert series featuring works by 13 living black composers, most written in the past five years.

Activities for children will include dancers who perform a history of African American culture, drummers from around the world who will demonstrate the influence of African rhythms on contemporary music, a ballet of barefooted children doing African dance and storytelling.

For Hughley, it's a festival in search of an identity. By drawing artists and performers from the Caribbean and South America, the festival is emphasizing the roots of black culture and its diaspora, how it evolved as slaves were carried away from Africa to settle in new homelands, expressing their dreams in art and dance. "Most people don't realize that 40 percent of African slaves were taken to Brazil," she says. "Less than 10 percent came to America. We want to open eyes to the range of African culture and how it's been shaped in different lands."

While the last festival opened eyes to a cultural diversity never before assembled in one place and organizers grappled with building on their headlines, that success became a mixed blessing. How to top it? Sponsors were recruited for an even bigger show, with Coca-Cola, AT&T, Ford Motor Co. and a host of foundations signing on. Indeed, local, government, corporate and foundation support is up, accounting for $1.5 million of a $2.4 million budget. The rest has to come from souvenir and ticket sales, with advance purchases slow so far. Organizers aren't nail-biting, yet.

"I feel really optimistic," says Smith. "Last {festival} our problem was we couldn't keep up with demand. We sold all our seats and ran out of mugs and T-shirts. Even the artists were overwhelmed: People were buying their art.

"But the nature of the festival is that it brings folks who wait until the last minute to buy tickets. They want to check out everything that's going on before they decide. A lot are waiting for friends to get into town. We're not worried. We just want the system to work when they start calling in for reservations."

To enlist corporate sponsors in a year of belt tightening and recession fears, Smith pitched market share, not just guilt trips. "Some guilt-tripping is always involved when you ask for big bucks for the black community," she concedes. "But there was no question last time was a first-class event that delivered beyond expectations and turned out an audience.

"We just told companies that their involvement in this festival, or lack of it, could affect their bottom line with more than 600,000 people we expected to show up -- consumers of their products. Supporting the festival isn't going to simply make them look good in the black community, but help their sales. That's what they wanted to hear."

Black leaders also say the festival serves artists as positive role models to black youth at a time when the crack trade is ravaging the inner cities and so many black TV heroes are packing guns.

That's why so many events are free and open to the public. Smith hopes the festival will attract young people and help change ghetto values. "Artists can play a vital role at a time when our communities are devastated by the drug trade and black kids are hooked on how to get a $125 pair of sneakers. I hope we can show people that art is not something that hangs on a wall. Art is life."