On the day Martin Luther King Jr. was buried, April 8, 1968, Maynard Jackson's first child was born. It caused Jackson to "ponder the life and death cycle," and provided him with the impetus to enter politics, believing that "the solution to the country's problems had to be in politics, not in violence." In six short years, he became the first black Mayor of Atlanta and would serve three terms in that capacity. Maynard Jackson passed away last Tuesday, June 23, 2003, at the age of 65.
If you ever met Maynard Jackson, and I did, it would likely be a memorable occasion. Even with numerous tries at dieting, Jackson usually tipped the scales above three-hundred pounds, and at six-foot-three, he easily fit the description, "living large." But what was even larger was his warm heart and his indelible smile, once described as "a toothpaste grin that can light up a room." I was fortunate to live in Atlanta during his first two terms and to observe his winning battle with the white Atlanta of old, a battle in which he never wavered or regretted. Accused once of reverse discrimination policies, Jackson replied,"Some...who resent the fact that I worked hard to get blacks into a position of equal opportunity, I say, To hell with them, and that's tough."
Maynard Holbrook Jackson was born in Dallas, Texas on March 23, 1938. His dad, Maynard Sr., was a prominent minister and his mom, Irene Dobbs Jackson, had enough on her hands with Maynard and his five siblings. Maynard's great-great-grandfather was a slave who had bought his own freedom, in Atlanta, and who had founded the Wheat Street Baptist Church there. Maynard's family moved there when he was seven. His maternal grandfather was a son of slaves and a man of great reknown in certain infamous black enclaves, i.e., he was the unofficial mayor of Sweet Auburn, the main street in black Atlanta. I used to frequent "The Royal Peacock" nightclub there when in high school, drinking whiskey and coke and watching Ike and Tina Turner perform.
Maynard went to Morehouse College as a Ford Foundation Early Admissions Scholar and graduated at 18. Next, he persued a law degree at North Carolina Central University, with which he began his law career as a general attorney with the National Labor Relations Board. Meanwhile, the rest of the family was deeply involved in the civil rights movement. His father was the founder of the Georgia Voters League and his grandfather, the co-chair of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. From that moment of epiphany when his son was born, Maynard was off and running. In that same year he entered and lost the race for Georgia Senator against Herman Talmadge, a mainstay of the Democratic Party for years and years. But Maynard ran because he didn't believe that Talmadge, a diehard segregationist, should run unopposed. He lost, but won a huge following, even among whites and the next year, he ran for vice mayor and won easily, getting a third of the white vote, and well, virtually all of the black vote.
Four Years later, Atlanta had a new mayor and the first black mayor in it's history. The year was 1974, and Atlanta was now off and running on a new course itself. During Maynard's first two terms, Atlanta experienced an unprecedented building boom and the expansion of Atlanta's International Airport. But it was Maynard's advocacy for the black majority that elected him, that set this administration apart. He gave neighborhoods a voice in city planning and created affirmative-action programs for hiring city workers and contractors. It created a contentious relationship with Atlanta's old and mostly white business community which was most apparent when Maynard, who was prohibited by law from seeking a third consecutive term as mayor, stepped down. The ex-mayor was obviously left out of the current job market and actually moved to Chicago to find work. But eight years later, when then Mayor Andrew Young also had to step down, Maynard was back again. Now able to seek another term, Maynard did and won with eighty per-cent of the vote. It was during that term that Atlanta was selected as the host of the 1996 Summer Olympics, with Maynard heavily, no pun intended, involved in that process.
After leaving office in 1994, Maynard formed a municipal underwriting firm, stayed active in the Democratic Party and was named the party's national development chairman in 2001. In 2002, Maynard organized the Atlanta-based American Voters League, a nonpartisan organization to increase voter turnout.
Years ago, a friend described Maynard's first visit to the slave graveyard where his great grandparents were buried. In memory of Maynard Jackson:
When he saw those two graves, and he'd never seen them before, he just sort of gasped, held his hand over his mouth, then he reached over to touch the tombstone. But he pulled his hand back before he touched it as if it were aflame. Then he reached out and touched it with one hand. And then he held it firmly with both hands, almost merging with it - standing there, in the shade of these dogwood trees that had literally grown from his slave ancestors.