A CHAMPION FOR ATLANTA: Maynard Jackson: ‘Black mecca’ burgeoned under leader

Published June 29, 2003

A chance encounter on an Atlanta-bound Eastern Airlines flight in 1975 changed the course of Nate Goldston’s life.

Seated next to him was Maynard Jackson, who had made U.S. history a year earlier by becoming the first black mayor of a major Southern city.

Jackson and Goldston, then a 37-year-old entrepreneur from Columbia, Mo., engaged in a brief conversation.

Ever the city booster, it wasn’t long before Jackson persuaded Goldston to move his family and fledgling food service business from Columbia to Atlanta.

“He told me, ‘We’re going to be the mecca for black business,’ " Goldston recalled.

Those words would prove to be prophetic.

By the time they met, Jackson had staged a successful revolution — in politics and business — that rocked Atlanta’s white business establishment so used to having its own way.

Jackson’s landmark affirmative action policies — he insisted that black businesses get a larger share of government contracts, mostly through partnerships with white-owned firms — ushered in sweeping changes in Atlanta’s political and business arenas. And though they later were tainted by scandal, those partnerships served as a model that other cities across the nation would emulate.

His demand that black firms be included in all aspects of the $1 billion expansion of Hartsfield International Airport — from construction to concessions — was a key victory. Jackson blocked the airport expansion until 25 percent of the construction contracts were awarded to minority-owned businesses.

“It opened up the doors for a lot of people,” said Goldston, whose Gourmet Services food management firm was an early beneficiary.

Jackson also rewrote the rules on Atlanta government contracts: Blacks no longer would be shut out or thrown crumbs.

Black-owned businesses got their first contracts from the city in 1973, the year Jackson was elected, according to Thomas D. Boston, a Georgia Tech economist and author of “Affirmative Action and Black Entrepreneurship.”

Those contracts amounted to $41,800 — less than 0.13 percent of the $33.1 million in work awarded by the city that year.

By the end of Jackson’s first term in 1978, 38.6 percent of city contracts were with minority-owned firms, according to Boston.

But the moves for inclusion were met with stiff resistance by Atlanta’s white business community. “It was probably a harsh shock in the beginning, but now it’s just a way of doing business,” Goldston said. “There’s a policy of inclusion here.”

Progeny of a ‘race man’

Those close to Jackson weren’t surprised that he pushed to include blacks in all aspects of the city’s social and economic fabric.

Jackson came to office with a “spiritual mandate” from his late father, a prominent Baptist minister, and his paternal grandfather, civil rights leader John Wesley Dobbs, said Herman “Skip” Mason Jr., a minister and expert on the history of black Atlanta.

“He was so in tune with the pride of black folks and in helping to create civil rights and equal opportunity,” Mason said. “When Maynard’s father died, his grandfather stepped in, mentored and supported him — they were both classified as ‘race men.’ "

At the time, Atlanta was a city still in the process of defining its image, Mason said. It had weathered the turbulent civil rights movement and survived the assassination of its native son, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But Atlanta also was a city with a solid black middle class. Jackson was a product of that class, which may help explain why he chose to build on the ’60s movement for social equality with a push for economic justice.

“You can scratch the surface of almost any large African-American enterprise in Atlanta, and you can trace its roots back to the city’s program under Maynard Jackson,” said Rodney Strong, an attorney and the director of contract compliance during part of Jackson’s third term.

Golden opportunities

Perhaps no one better illustrates the profound impact Jackson’s joint venture policy for city business contracts had on African-American firms than Herman J. Russell.

Russell, the Atlanta-born son of a plasterer and a maid, purchased his first property at age 16. After the death of his father, Russell took over the family construction business and built it into a profitable enterprise.

“I was already working with some white businesses,” Russell said. “But believe me, Maynard opened the doors much wider for me. We wouldn’t be the company we are today if it weren’t for Maynard. He was the Dr. King of the economic movement.”

Russell, whose company had $300.8 million in sales last year and was ranked among the largest black-owned businesses in the nation by Black Enterprise magazine, formed a joint venture with a white-owned North Carolina company to work on the airport expansion project.

“I was there to take advantage of a golden opportunity,” said Russell, whose company has since branched out to include construction, property management and concessions.

Russell also benefited from the pressure Jackson put on banks to hire black executives and add blacks to their boards. Russell served on the boards of Wachovia and First Atlanta.

“He shook up the banking industry in Atlanta,” Russell said. “So many people were upset. He said, ‘I will take all of the city’s money out of your bank unless your board includes blacks and women.’ "

But those groups weren’t the only ones to benefit from Jackson’s plan. Andrew Young, former ambassador and former Atlanta mayor, said Jackson helped create Atlanta’s image as a major economic hub and an international city.

And whites, particularly small-business owners, also gained.

Consider the decades-old partnership of Oscar “Spike” Harris, founder and chief executive of Turner Associates Architects & Planners, and Milton Pate Sr., founder of Milton Pate Architects. Harris, who is black, and Pate, who is white, joined to work on the construction of Hartsfield’s international terminal.

Pate’s son, Milton Jr., also was involved in the business. “Very candidly, there were not a whole lot of minority firms in town at the time,” he said.

But as a small white firm, “with no political clout, we were not going to get that work by ourselves,” Pate said. “We were realistic enough to know that. Our feeling has always been that we’d rather have a piece of the pie than none of it.”

Legacy intact

But Jackson’s administration was not without scandal.

During his third term, the mayor appointed Ira Jackson manager of Hartsfield. The two were not related.

But the former city councilman and D.L. “Buddy” Fowlkes, another former councilman, both were convicted of receiving more than $1 million in bribes in an airport concessions scandal.

Maynard Jackson wasn’t accused of any wrongdoing, but his critics used the scandal to denounce his affirmative action program, saying the contracts were going to Jackson supporters.

But Boston, the Georgia Tech economist, said that was an unfair characterization.

“People will say, ‘Yeah, there were probably abuses in the program,’ " Boston said. “But the abuses, that’s not his legacy. His legacy will be his role and ability to . . . bring and create opportunity.”

The promised land

Jackson’s lasting legacy may be setting the foundation for Atlanta’s status as the black mecca. According to the 2000 census, there are more than 1.2 million blacks in metro Atlanta, giving it the sixth-largest black population in the country. And today, among major metropolitan areas, Atlanta boasts the nation’s highest percentage of black middle-income households, those with household incomes between $35,000 and $75,000.

“I think it evolved from the sense of opportunities that were created both from an economic standpoint and a political one,” said Kent Matlock, the chief executive of an Atlanta-based public relations and marketing firm with $25 million in billings last year.

Matlock, a Brownsville, Tenn., native, graduated from Morehouse College in 1982 and opted to stay in Atlanta. He became part of the first wave of young black entrepreneurs who called the city home.

“Maynard helped make the path that allowed me to make a path toward making a life here,” Matlock said.”That fostered the sense that anything can be done and be realized.”