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Thursday, June 26, 2003  

Requiem for a heavyweight

Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson died Monday at the age of 65. To anyone who is genuinely dedicated to civil rights for all Americans, Jackson has been a towering figure in both the contemporary and historical movements for inclusion of minorities and women in the American dream. I don't mean the filmy, shot with Vaseline on the lens of the camera version of civil rights that everyone from George W. Bush to liberal racists claims to support. In that version of the dream, people talk a mediocre game and do absolutely nothing to actually advance the inclusiveness they claim to be in favor of. The war for civil rights Jackson supported is one in which that inclusiveness is to have a solid foundation in political and economic change. He realized that as long as African-American, Hispanic and Indian Americans almost always come into the world with none of the equity -- such as owning a home, having savings and access to good health care -- that most white Americans take for granted, talk of a colorblind America is hogwash.

A descendant of Irish immigrants and West African slaves, Jackson came from a group of people who had long struggled against a society which declared their very existence unacceptable. Both in Dallas, Texas, where Jackson was born and grew up, and in Atlanta, where he spent most of his adult years, Jackson confronted the realities of de jure and de facto segregation. While a student at Morehouse College, he was forbidden by law to ride in the front of public transportation, eat in restaurants that served whites or try on clothes in department stores, as all nonwhites were. People in his family did not respond the way most people of color did -- by adapting.

Jackson's family was active in early voting rights efforts. His grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs, was the co-chairman of the Atlanta Negro Voters League, and his father, a preacher founded the Georgia Voters League.

For people with hazy historical memories, that would have been about the time that the fathers and grandfathers of a couple Georgia bloggers who declare their own histories are devoid of racism, but whose actions say otherwise, likely had relatives in the opposing segregationist White Citizens Council. The apples haven't fallen far from the trees.

Jackson's first effort in politics were trammeled by such people.

Jackson lost to Sen. Herman Talmadge, a one-time segregationist, in the Democratic primary for the Senate in 1968.

A determined and stubborn young man, Jackson did not give up his aspirations despite the harassment and disdain he was subjected to.

But the next year, he was elected vice mayor and president of Atlanta's 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.

Typical of racists who deem themselves liberals or moderates, Masselll denied their could be any racial animus in his message. According to them, only conservatives can be bigots.

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

The electorate was not swayed. What was to become a predominantly African-American city would continue to elect African-American mayors.

Jackson was not finished angering white Georgians, both conservatives and some who call themselves liberals. To please them, he would have had to drop his plans for real change in the lives of the state's predominantly poor population of people of color. Despite his own roots in the black bourgeoisie, that is something Jackson was unwilling to do. Instead, he initiated programs to include the poor, people of color and women in the economic infrastructure that was bound to grow as Atlanta became a world class city.

As mayor, Jackson called for strict affirmative-action policies. He held up a $400 million airport expansion by insisting that a portion of the action go to minorities and women. The bustling airport helped Atlanta become a major city.

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."

To this day, many white Americans sneer at the mention of Maynard Jackson's name. Even in 2003, it is impossible for them to accept that a man of color had an uncompromising dedication to changing, not just glossing over, the role of race in America and would not back down.

I had the opportunity of meeting and talking with Maynard Jackson in my youth as an intern at the Georgia Legislature and, later, as a reporter. Shy and still awed when in the presence of people of his stature, I said relatively little to him. About the only really important question I recall asking him is why he, someone who would have fared fine in the gilded black middle-class of Atlanta as a lawyer and businessman, without taking on the risks to his reputation and life an African-American politician does, had decided to make such sacrifices. His response was: "My life is not just about me."

5:44 AM