It was 50 years ago today when Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. shook up the South.

At the ripe old age of 35, the Democratic candidate defeated incumbent Sam Massell in a runoff election to become Atlanta’s first Black mayor, receiving 60% of the vote to Massell’s 40%.

Jackson’s landmark election ushered in an era of Black leadership in Atlanta that endures to this day. Ultimately serving three terms, his tenure at City Hall would solidify the city’s standing as a beacon of Black entrepreneurship and political power. On Monday, the Atlanta City Council issued a proclamation honoring the 50th anniversary of Jackson’s election.

As the first Black mayor of a major Southern city, Jackson, who died in 2003, left a more equitable seat for Black people at the political and socioeconomic tables. But amid battles over election integrity, some worry that new ballot access restrictions and growing divisions between the Black political class and everyday residents are challenging the legacy of “Action Jackson.”

A Black political trailblazer

The grandson of famed voting rights activist John Wesley Dobbs, Jackson moved to Atlanta from Dallas with his family when he was 7 years old. His first campaign was part of a wave of Black mayors elected across the country in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, when Black voters began to maximize their electoral power in urban areas.

He celebrated the milestone on election night with his friends and political allies, including fellow Morehouse College graduate and civil rights legend Julian Bond, who was a state lawmaker at the time.

Bond’s son, Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, was 7 years old the night Jackson won and recalls watching the historic election night party on TV at home. During the race, he went door to door with his dad passing out campaign flyers for Jackson while wearing a “Maynard for Mayor” T-shirt.

“Even as a child, he wasn’t just my dad’s friend. He felt like he was my friend,” the younger Bond said of Jackson. “Everybody felt attached to him and invested in his success because he represented us and his success was our success.”

‘From civil rights to silver rights’

Jackson, who previously helped advance workers’ rights as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, opened the door for Black entrepreneurs in Atlanta.

Years before the Rev. Jesse Jackson coined the phrase “from civil rights to silver rights” — referencing the need to couple the political victories of the Civil Rights Movement with advocacy for economic equity — Maynard Jackson put the principle into practice.

The rate of Black business-owner contracts with city government famously rose from less than 1% before Jackson took office to nearly 39% five years later, according to The New York Times, laying the foundation for a burgeoning Black middle class in Atlanta and creating a number of Black millionaires in the process.

Jackson led the expansion of the former Hartsfield Airport, which was renamed in his honor in 2003. He took heat after his inauguration in 1974 when he told white Atlanta business leaders that 25% of all airport construction and vendor contracts must be set aside for minority-owned firms.

“We simply won’t build [the airport] if you don’t agree to this,” Jackson reportedly told white business contractors. “You can have 75% of the project or you can have 100% of nothing. What is your choice?”

After the meeting, Jackson and powerful white business leaders engaged in a two-year political battle over control of the airport’s expansion, with Jackson emerging victorious.

Today, Hartsfield-Jackson International generates $34.8 billion in economic impact for the Atlanta metro area, enough to make it the most profitable airport in the world, according to Insider Monkey.

“He worked to build out this space where I’m standing,” Morehouse College professor of Africana studies Clarissa Myrick-Harris said of Jackson on Thursday as she prepared to board a flight to Paris. “He built it out and made sure that it was a facility that would serve and be served by a diverse audience, international travelers, clientele, vendors. … Now Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport is the largest airport on the planet.”

Jackson’s ‘Atlanta Way’ under fire

Proud Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson gives thumbs-up signs during a news conference at a Tokyo hotel Tuesday night, Sept. 18, 1990. Atlanta won a bid to host the 1996 Centennial Olympic Games during a meeting of the International Olympic Committee. (AP Photo/Sadayuki Mikami)

Jackson also paved the way for a succession of Black elected leaders in Atlanta, including mayors Andrew Young (who served from 1982 to 1990) and Shirley Franklin (who served from 2002 to 2010), as well as many city council members.

The man known as “Action Jackson” founded the Maynard Jackson Youth Foundation, a nonprofit launched in 1992 that offers academic, personal, and financial support services. He also helped bring the Summer Olympics to Atlanta in 1996.

But some observers question whether Jackson would approve of the current state of political and economic affairs in the city he helped build. Atlanta’s overall wealth has continued to increase, but so has its economic divide. An estimated 29% of Black Atlanta residents live in poverty in the nation’s most unequal major city.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act has allowed Georgia lawmakers in the Gold Dome to pass laws and draw electoral maps that critics contend  were designed to dilute Black people’s voting power.

And Atlanta officials have been accused of attempting to prevent voters from deciding whether they want to continue building the public safety training center known as “Cop City.”

Jackson and subsequent members of the city’s Black political class have championed the Atlanta Way, a more-than-a-century-old informal partnership between Black political leaders and the white business and civic community to negotiate deals to everyone’s benefit. 

But that agreement hasn’t served the interest of the Black masses in Atlanta in recent years, some say. New Georgia Project organizing director Billy Honor says it has favored white corporate interests, which support the Black leadership class controlling city government “as long as their interests are upheld.”

He said Jackson, who sought to increase diversity in law enforcement, would disapprove of the city’s stance on the training center. The project is in part funded by major businesses, and Honor characterizes it as a threat to the Atlanta Way mantra. The mayor would have taken issue with city officials’ handling of the activist referendum to put the training center on the ballot in November.

“We’ve come to a point now, for the first time in the history of the city, where that agreement now is under great duress because corporate interest wants something that the people don’t want now,” Honor said.

While Jackson was a champion of the people, some of the city’s more-recent Black elected leaders have developed adversarial relationships with Black residents, according to Morehouse professor Adrienne Jones, who teaches courses on American politics, race, and law. She juxtaposed Jackson’s relationship with Black Atlanta with former Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’ following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

“When George Floyd passed and people started protesting, I felt like the mayor started fussing at people, like she didn’t understand why people were outside and upset,” she said. “Maynard Jackson had … just a broader understanding and sensitivity to the needs of Black people of Atlanta.”

Chauncey Alcorn is Capital B Atlanta's state and local politics reporter.