Maynard Jackson: Black Mayor who Changed Politics in the American South

January 13, 2024
3 mins read

Maynard Jackson: First African American Mayor of Atlanta, GeorgiaBy Shola Adenekan 
The election of Maynard Jackson, who has died of a heart attack aged 65, as the first black mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, in 1973 was a major landmark in the southern US city’s history.
It signposted a change of guard in the local political class from white to black; no white person has since been elected mayor.
Jackson, who served three terms in office, was a prominent exponent of affirmative action.
In his first two terms, he rattled Atlanta’s old cosy business relationships, alienating some, but wooing them back in his third term with deft deal-making skills. In 1978, he signed a law requiring 25% of the city’s projects to be set aside for minority firms. The policy, which still operates today, made Atlanta the most hospitable place in America for black entrepreneurs.

He also pushed through an affirmative action programme that made it mandatory for contractors to take on minority-owned businesses as partners, and forced the city’s major law firms to hire African-American lawyers. He threatened that “tumbleweeds would run across the runways of Atlanta airport” if blacks were not included in city contracts.
But Jackson’s action was seen as a sign of hostility by white businesses, which moved to the suburbs, leaving segregated neighbourhoods with poverty concentrated in the inner city. He later admitted that he had mishandled relationships with some white businesses.
Born in Dallas, Texas, Jackson was the grandson of a prominent black civil rights leader, John Wesley Dobbs, and the son of a minister. His mother was a French language professor. By the age of 14 he had completed his high school education, and at 18 took a BA in political science and history from the predominantly black Morehouse College in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr had studied. He also gained a law degree from North Carolina Central University.
An eloquent orator, Jackson came to national prominence in October 1973, when he was elected Atlanta’s youngest mayor after a bitterly fought campaign with Sam Massell, the city’s first Jewish mayor.
Jackson had previously been Massell’s deputy, and the contest turned nasty when Massell, who had enjoyed wide support in the black community, ran an advertisement showing a rubbish-filled street with the slogan, “Atlanta – too young to die”. The majority of black voters found the advert offensive, and gave Jackson their overwhelming support.
A year earlier, Jackson – not known for mincing his words, and already a rising Democratic party star – caused a media stir by accusing the presidential candidate Senator George McGovern of ignoring the interests of African-Americans. McGovern heavily lost the election to Richard Nixon.
Jackson was so popular among Atlanta’s black electorate that he won a second landslide when he sought re-election in 1978. His ability to include African-Americans in his plans made him a kingmaker for aspiring politicians for almost three decades.
In 1982, forbidden by law from seeking a consecutive third term, he handpicked Andrew Young as his successor.
During the campaign, he angered most white voters by referring to the few blacks supporting Young’s opponent, the late Sidney Marcus, as “grinning, shuffling negroes”. The remark turned white voters against Young, even though he had won a congressional seat in the days when Atlanta still had a white voting majority.
After defeating Marcus, Young decided it was best not to alienate white voters and refused to publicly expound affirmative action as Jackson did.
In 1990, after Young left office, Jackson was re-elected and became the face of Atlanta’s bid for the 1996 Olympic Games. But his third term was controversial. His administration was dogged by allegations of mismanagement over contracts awarded at Atlanta airport that led to the prosecutionof his close associates.
He left office in 1994 to run a successful investment firm, and served as development chairman of the national Democratic party committee and first chairman of its voting rights institute.
Last year, following George W. Bush’s controversial presidential election, Jackson founded the American Voters League in an effort to encourage Americans of all colours and creeds to exercise their voting rights and counteract voter apathy. His fellow Georgian, former president Jimmy Carter, said that Atlanta had thrived under Jackson’s leadership.
Jackson was a member of the Georgia and New York bars, and was a 1974 recipient of the prestigious Jefferson award for “the greatest public service performed by an American 35 years or under.”
He is survived by his second wife, Valerie, three daughters, a son and a stepdaughter.
Maynard Holbrook Jackson, politician, born March 23, 1938; died June 23, 2003

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