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Cities: Atlanta

Maynard Jackson's Vision for the Movement

Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. was the first African American mayor of Atlanta and one of the nation’s pre-eminent politicians. He entered Morehouse College at the age of fourteen, and after graduating from law school in 1964, he spent nine months representing low-income Atlantans at Emory University's Community Legal Services Center. Elected Atlanta’s mayor for three terms (1974-1982 and 1990-1994), he is credited with cementing the city's reputation as the seat of the New South and a bastion of wealth, political power, business clout, and education for African Americans. 

In this WSB interview from January 3, 1980, during his second term, he speaks in his trademark eloquence and optimism about continuing the Civil Rights Movement through a focus on politics. Jackson believed that achieving social change did not rest in violence, but in using legal powers and political inroads that civil rights activists in the 1960s were able to secure.

Jackson made political history in 1968 when he captured more than 200,000 votes statewide in an unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate against fellow Georgian Herman Talmadge. Before his historic election as mayor in the fall of 1973, he was named the city’s first black vice mayor in 1969 under Sam Massell, (1970-1974). The first African American mayor of a major southern city in the United States, Jackson descended from one of Atlanta’s prominent black families, the Dobbses. He thought that the route to racial equality for African Americans lay with transforming the government, building economic power, and demanding that the nation's white leaders concede to the needs of minorities and poor residents of inner cities.

As mayor, he pushed for affirmative action programs that ensured black-owned businesses received a proportionate amount of municipal contracts, and he worked to alleviate poverty among Atlantans. His policy of continuing the struggle via political action threatened many whites, who feared losing power to a growing African American population. Police chiefs, former mayors, and businessmen all squabbled with Jackson over what they thought was his preferential treatment of blacks. Jackson was able to allay most of their fears, which were largely unfounded, by nurturing biracial coalitions later in his mayoral terms. As one of America’s first African American mayors of a major city, he faced the rising crime, urban decay, and white flight that surfaced in the early 1980s.

After Jackson's death on June 24, 2003, Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin (2002-present), the city's first female mayor and a former director of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs during Jackson’s first administration, described his unwavering commitment to using electoral politics to effect social change. In a June 24, 2003, interview with National Public Radio host Tavis Smiley, she noted Jackson's ability to "uplift the average person through the policies of the city.” Jackson left a legacy of political and social change in Atlanta. Most notable were his efforts to expand the city's global business operations and create opportunities for black businesses at the Atlanta airport, which in 2003 posthumously was renamed Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. He also is remembered for restructuring the city government, leading it through the Atlanta child murders of the early 1980s, and crusading for Atlanta to host the 1996 Olympic Games.

The emergence of more black politicians, and the redress of past inequities through government programs that Jackson envisioned, have only been partially fulfilled. In 2004, the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies reported more than nine thousand African American elected officials. In 2007 the National Conference of Black Mayors included more than 640 African Americans, and there was only one black U.S. governor (Massachusetts’ Deval Patrick). The 110th U.S. Congress had 43 black members, including the Senate’s only black member: 2008 Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Many of the problems of the inner cities and their poor that Jackson attempted to resolve still exist.

Jackson's vision underscores the evolving strategies and direction of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States.  Where the activists of the 1950s and 1960s focused on such goals as desegregation, voter registration, and dismantling separate-but-equal policies in education and other institutions, many members of the next generation such as Jackson saw their inclusion in politics and assertion of economic power as more effective in achieving lasting social change than marching, picketing, or going to jail.  His success in helping to position Atlanta as a leader of the New South and a perceived mecca for African Americans and other immigrant groups attests to the appeal of these new civil rights goals to post-1960s Americans.

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Discussion Questions

1. Read the essay on affirmative action, entitled the NAACP and the Bibb Board of County Commissioner, on our Macon city pages. Discuss the advantages and/or disadvantages of affirmative action, and consider why Maynard Jackson might have considered his affirmative action policies effective during his terms as mayor in spite of the controversy surrounding them.

2. One of the trends among African Americans since the 1970s and 1980s has been what scholars call their “reverse migration” from the North and Midwest to the southern states. This shifted a former pattern in which thousands of blacks left the South during the first half of the twentieth century. During the first four decades of the twentieth century, during what is now known as the Great Migration, African Americans sought better economic and educational opportunities, improved housing and healthcare, and social equality in the North. Read the Public Broadcasting Service's online description of the Great Migration. Then discuss how the efforts by Mayor Jackson and others to create a “New South” may have helped to attract African Americans back to the region.

3. Mayor William Hartsfield is credited for describing Atlanta as “the city too busy to hate,” and subsequent mayors of the city—Ivan Allen, Maynard Jackson, and Shirley Franklin—have continued to make this statement a reality.  Read our stories on Mayor Ivan Allen and Peyton Wall and Real Estate Blockbusting and Neighborhood Segregation housed in this web site's Atlanta pages. In what ways do these stories about the city’s neighborhood patterns both affirm and contradict Hartsfield's description of Atlanta?   

4. Read the essay in our Atlanta pages about the coalition-building efforts of the Southern Regional Council and Georgia Human Relations Council. Can you think of historical examples or instances from your own experiences where creating coalitions across racial or class divisions, as Maynard Jackson strove to accomplish in Atlanta, may not prove the most effective means of resolving conflicts?  

Take it to the Streets!

Research the demographic makeup of your city or town by ethnicity, gender, and age.  Compare your findings to the composition of your city's or town's elected officials by ethnicity, gender, and age. Compose a graph or chart presenting this data. Discuss what may account for discrepancies between groups and their representation in government. 

Writer: Kamille Bostick
Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems                       

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