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 today at 65.

Louie Meizlish
Former Mayor of Atlanta, Maynard Jackson Jr. (AP Photo)

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.

Jackson lost to Sen. Herman Talmadge, a one-time segregationist, in the Democratic primary for Senate in 1968. But the next year, he was elected vice mayor and president of the Atlanta Board of Aldermen.

Five years later, at 35, he was elected mayor. The city was 51 percent white, but Jackson defeated incumbent Sam Massell in a bitter primary, getting 95 percent of the black vote after Massell took out ads saying, “Atlanta’s Too Young to Die.” The slogan offended black voters.

“It was never intended to be a racial slur, but it was seen that way,” said Massell, now an Atlanta businessman.

Atlanta, now 60 percent black, has not elected a white mayor since.

Jackson was re-elected in 1977 and continued to have a stormy relationship with the business community. He led the city through one of its darkest periods: the string of slayings of young blacks from 1979 to 1981.

Jackson left office and worked as a bond attorney for eight years as Andrew Young took over as mayor. He returned to seek a third term in 1989 and was elected with 80 percent of the vote.

Jackson was involved in the early planning for the Olympics. But his third term was marred by a scandal at the airport, where a Jackson appointee was convicted of taking bribes.

He decided not to seek re-election in 1993, and opened a financial services business.

In 2001, Jackson made a bid for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee but withdrew from the race against McAuliffe. He was then named chairman of the DNC’s Voting Rights Institute and was heavily involved in the fight for election reform.

“He wanted to get involved with the Democrats on a national scale, because they’ve given up on the South,” said William Boone, a political science professor at Clark Atlanta University.

Last September, Jackson set up the Atlanta-based American Voters League, a nonpartisan organization to increase voter turnout.

The Rev. Abraham Woods, president of the Birmingham chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said Jackson will be remembered most as a pioneer of affirmative action. Urban blacks have modeled their politics on Jackson’s ever since, Woods said.

“Black businessmen were given opportunities they never had before,” he said. “It was indeed a tremendous breakthrough.”

Jackson was divorced. His survivors include two daughters and a son. Funeral plans were incomplete.

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