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A Mayor Who Smashed a Governing Regime

Fifty years ago, Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson was elected as the first Black mayor of a major city in the Deep South. His legacy is one that today’s mayors and other public officials would serve themselves well to know about.

Maynard Jackson
Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson addresses the Georgia General Assembly in 1975.
(Boyd Lewis Collection/Atlanta History Center/licensed under Creative Commons)
Monday, Oct. 16, marked the 50th anniversary of the election of Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. as mayor of Atlanta. The first Black mayor elected to lead a major city in the Deep South, Jackson was a trendsetter who laid out a blueprint for success for all mayors to follow, especially the dozens of Black chief executives who head up major U.S. cities today.

Last week, on the date of Jackson’s election 50 years ago, Atlanta’s current mayor, Andre Dickens, and the City Council honored Jackson’s contributions and legacy. Councilman Michael Bond read aloud a city proclamation that said in part: “Mayor Jackson’s leadership, vision and unwavering commitment to civil rights, economic empowerment and inclusivity reshaped the trajectory of Atlanta, establishing the foundation for a city that would become a beacon of hope and opportunity for people of all backgrounds.”

As a city councilman, I worked closely with Jackson during his third term in office, from 1990 to 1994, and got to know him as a friend, a governing partner, and a brave and fiery politician. There are many lessons I learned from him that today’s mayors and other public officials would serve themselves well to know about.

He was sworn in to office in 1974, intent on correcting the imbalance of power between white and Black citizens and smashing the governing regime that subordinated the interests of marginalized Black citizens to those of whites. It took courage to do this, so much so that by the end of Jackson’s second term in office, mandated by the city charter to step down after two consecutive terms, he couldn’t find local work as an attorney and had to open an Atlanta office for a Chicago law firm.

What made Jackson unemployable was his strong advocacy over the years for minority participation in public contracting, which alienated many in the business community. At the time he took office, minorities and women were getting only around 1 percent of the city’s contracts. As a result of his advocacy and that of other like-minded public officials, minority contractors today across the country consider 30 percent of a city’s total contracts to be the gold standard.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates Jackson’s impact on equitable public contracting than his stewardship of the $500 million expansion of Hartsfield Airport. Despite resistance from powerful business interests, Jackson secured 35 percent participation by minority and joint majority-minority contractors. The transformed airport opened on time and under budget, and now is the busiest in the world. After Jackson’s death, the city honored him by renaming it as Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

In Red Hot City, a book published last year that focuses on housing, race and exclusion in Atlanta, Dan Immergluck described Jackson in this way: “Jackson’s first term marked a significant redirection of city policy to reform the traditional regime’s focus on business-friendly policies that paid little attention to the needs of lower-income residents.” In addition to focusing on contracting, Immergluck notes, Jackson “backed a budding neighborhood movement in the city, supporting a new system of neighborhood planning units … by providing staff to help each NPU.” Studying Jackson and his early reforms provides a glimpse into what is possible with courageous and enlightened leadership. Even 50 years later, his NPU system still is the best vehicle for grass-roots participation in the city’s land use, planning and zoning policies.

Working closely with Jackson when he was mayor afforded me a glimpse into the windows of his thinking and leadership style. I can recall a few times each year when he would meet me at my home at 6:30 a.m. for black coffee before personally chauffeuring me through my council district. He was always alone without executive protection, and he carried with him a small recording device that he spoke into as a form of note-taking. I recall him saying things like “trash in Washington Park” or “playscapes on Ashby Circle.” He expected his staff to take care of all of the things on his punch list within 48 hours. If they didn’t, he would call me and provide a progress report. He was a master at providing superb customer service, and he made me and other councilmembers feel like his most valued customers.

Jackson often preached about the “ballot, the book and the buck”: The ballot, the symbol of Black political empowerment; the book, a metaphor for the power of education and the benefits of a free and independent mind; and the buck, for financial independence that would lead to the Black community’s ultimate transformation and liberation. Only Jackson could break it down in such a way, making those ideas understandable both to the man in the street and the men in the suites.

I had my last substantive conversation with Jackson near the end of 2002 at the Tara Theater in the Buckhead community in Atlanta, where we watched the documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” Dressed in a dark blue proletariat-looking jacket and a cap that resembled one worn by Mao Tse Tung, Jackson eagerly discussed the film, which went on to win an Academy Award. We also discussed matters closer to home, particularly the defeat by the Democrats at the hands of the Republicans in a recent Georgia state election. It was strange, but I saw on his face and in his eyes a hint of humiliation and shame. He seemed like he needed to shoulder the blame himself for the puny Black vote turnout. Perhaps he was processing his loss of power as a rainmaker, the sole broker of Black politics, that he had enjoyed for so many years.

Within a year of our last meeting, Jackson died of a massive heart attack. His death set off a deep outpouring of emotions throughout the city, but especially among Blacks from all walks of life, perhaps second only to the storm of grief that followed the death of Martin Luther King Jr.

Here are some questions that today’s Black mayors like Atlanta’s Andre Dickens, Newark’s Ras Baraka, St. Louis’ Tishaura Jones, Dallas’ Eric Johnson and Charlotte’s Vi Lyles must ask themselves: Does there still exist a need for Maynard Jackson’s style of leadership? Does his example still resonate? Could he even be elected today given the changing demographics of cities like Atlanta?

Today’s Black public officials must answer these questions for themselves in light of the conditions that exist in their respective cities. But for me, I would answer yes to all of them. Jackson’s essential qualities were leadership, courage and a big heart for all of the city’s residents, especially those among “the least of us.” We could always use more of those qualities in today’s leaders.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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