ATLANTA (AP) – Maynard Jackson Jr., who was elected the first black mayor of Atlanta in 1973 and transformed urban politics in America by forcing the city’s white business elite to open doors to minorities, died yesterday at 65.
Jackson, who died after collapsing at a Washington airport, oversaw the expansion of Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport, helped lay the groundwork for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and pioneered the practice of designating a portion of government contracts for minority-owned businesses.
Thirty years ago, Jackson survived a racially charged primary to become the first black mayor of a major Southern city. The victory, the same year that black mayors were elected in Detroit and Los Angeles, helped solidify the political power of urban blacks.
For the next three decades, the more than 300-pound Jackson cast a large shadow over politics in Atlanta.
“He was a lion of a man,” said Mayor Shirley Franklin. “He was a champion of inclusion for all people and never wavered in his commitment to Atlanta.”
Jackson collapsed after getting off a plane at Reagan National Airport. He was revived but was pronounced dead at Virginia Medical Center in Arlington. Jackson had suffered from diabetes and had had major heart surgery in 1992.
Jackson’s booming voice and wide girth were recognized beyond Atlanta. He made frequent trips to Washington to work with Democratic Party leaders, whom he counseled on regaining support in the South.
“The Democratic party is mourning today,” said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. “Throughout his life, Maynard was a champion for the people of Atlanta and the nation – fighting for fairness, equality and justice for all Americans.”
As mayor, Jackson called for strict affirmative action policies. He held up a $400 million airport expansion by insisting that a fair portion of the action go to minorities and women. When the project was completed, the bustling airport helped Atlanta become a major city.
In 1978, Jackson said that white Atlanta had no choice but to share the wealth: “Would our city languish in the past, or would we realize that we cannot eat magnolias?”
Similar minority contract programs were set up in many cities, including Chicago and Washington. Jackson brushed aside accusations of reverse discrimination.
“There are some who are not friends, who resent the fact that I worked hard to get blacks into a position of equal opportunity,” Jackson said in 1982. “My response is: To hell with them, and that’s tough.”
Jackson put himself at odds with the money that ran Atlanta, said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a Democrat from Atlanta. “He said if you’re going to have a contract with the city, you’ve got to have minority participation – and he didn’t back off,” Lewis said.
Born in Dallas, Jackson grew up in Atlanta and graduated from Morehouse College at 18. He earned a law degree from North Carolina Central University.
Jackson’s family was active in early voting rights efforts. His grandfather John Wesley Dobbs was co-chairman of the Atlanta Negro Voters League, and his father, a preacher, founded the Georgia Voters League.