After 44 years, Atlanta may elect a white mayor in 2017

When Maynard Jackson was elected Atlanta’s first black mayor in 1973, he was part of a national revolution that saw several big cities like Detroit and New Orleans follow suit with black leaders.

Now, 44 years later,  as Atlanta's demographics continue to shift, Atlanta might be on the verge of following those big cities that recently elected white mayors after decades of black leadership.

As Mayor Kasim Reed enters his final months in office, a wide open field of candidates is vying to replace him in a city that is vastly different from the one Jackson inherited. Three of the candidates — Peter Aman, Mary Norwood and Cathy Woolard — have polled well or raised substantial sums of money. They are also white.

VIDEO: Does the race of Atlanta’s next mayor matter?

In 1970, blacks outnumbered whites in Georgia's capital for the first time — 51 percent to 48 percent — setting the stage for Jackson's successful run in 1973.  By the time Jackson was elected to his third term in 1990, the black population peaked at 62 percent versus 36 percent white.  

Almost 20 years later in 2009 — the year Reed won by a scant 714 votes — black voters had dropped to 48.6 percent compared to 44.1 percent white. The proportion was almost identical in 2015.

Despite the numbers,  Andrew Young, who in 1981 defeated Sidney Marcus, the last major white candidate to run for mayor , downplayed the role of race in this year's race.

“If you look back at the history of politics, the smartest, best organized, and disciplined candidate has always won in Atlanta,” he said. “Hartsfield was smarter. Ivan Allen was smarter. Sam Massell was smarter. Maynard was smarter. That is why I don’t like the question about race and don’t look at race. Race had nothing to do with it.”

Sam Massell, the last white mayor of the city, said when Jackson made history against him in 1973, African Americans were motivated by 125 years of not being represented politically to change the face of Atlanta. Not much has changed, he said.

"The white community is increasing I am told, but the black numbers are still the majority, so there is no reason they would want to give it up," said Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition. "They have the motivation to keep it. The same as the white community may have increased motivation to take it."

On Monday at  1 p.m., join AJC reporters Ernie Suggs and Leon Stafford in a  Facebook Live conversation about the RE:Race series and their story  “The mayor’s race.”