Atlanta’s Black culture took off with Maynard Jackson administration

Mayor Maynard Jackson poses with artist Romare Bearden in front of a new mural by Bearden in downtown Atlanta. The mural, since demolished, was commissioned by the Urban Walls Project, in hand with the Arts Festival of Atlanta and Central Atlanta Progress. Jackson made the promotion of arts and culture a key part of his administration's legacy. (Billy Downs/AJC 1976 photo)

Credit: File photo

Credit: File photo

Mayor Maynard Jackson poses with artist Romare Bearden in front of a new mural by Bearden in downtown Atlanta. The mural, since demolished, was commissioned by the Urban Walls Project, in hand with the Arts Festival of Atlanta and Central Atlanta Progress. Jackson made the promotion of arts and culture a key part of his administration's legacy. (Billy Downs/AJC 1976 photo)

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s vaunted Bureau of Cultural Affairs was 20 years old in 1994, by the time OutKast dropped the third single from their classic debut album, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik.

The album and the single, “Git Up, Git Out,” were recorded by the Atlanta duo and produced by a collection of kids from the city who grew up attending and performing in city-wide talent shows.

It was the culmination of everything Jackson wanted when the bureau opened in 1974 as an incubator to create, cultivate and nourish all forms of expressive art.

“Maynard was conscious about making sure that arts were supported,” said Camille Love, executive director of what is now the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “As someone who had grown up in an environment where he was well-educated and well-cultured, he felt it made him a better person.”

But the song, considered one of the early classics that helped launch Atlanta’s rap scene by carefully chronicling the city’s pre-Olympics grit and struggles, wasn’t particularly kind to Jackson.

On a featured bar, the Goodie Mob’s Big Gipp, in the song’s most memorable passage, brings attention to former Atlanta Police Chief Eldrin Bell and his notorious Red Dog unit and Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill before setting his sights on Jackson.

“[Expletive] Clampett cops, [Expletive] Eldrin Bell/

“And crooked-ass Jackson, got the whole country/

“Thinkin’ that my city is the big lick for ‘96.”

Jackson never publicly acknowledged the song. But according to his son, Maynard Jackson III, he understood and — at least — respected it.

“My father always talked about the importance of using your voice, even when it was critical,” Jackson III said. “He didn’t have a problem with people using their voice.”

It’s been 50 years since Jackson was inaugurated as Atlanta’s first Black mayor and the first Black mayor of a major Southern city. Tons of books and articles have been written about his place in history and how he helped transform the city through his business acumen and eye for economic equality and strength.

But Atlanta is also a cultural hub and a leading center for fashion, art, television, motion pictures, music and specifically hip hop — as acts like Goodie Mob, Future, Arrested Development and T.I. have shown.

As the world concurrently celebrates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop, a huge spotlight has been focused on Atlanta as the current epicenter. In 2023, the same OutKast became the biggest-selling rap group of all time. And next month at the Grammys, Killer Mike could come back to Atlanta with three trophies.

A lot of that is traced back to Jackson.

“Maynard understood that if you had Black political power, you needed an expressive arm,” said Maurice Hobson, author of “The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta.”

`On the cutting edge’

After Jackson was elected in 1973, a young Shirley Franklin was tasked with chairing the “arts committee.” She led a group that met with Atlanta’s artistic class, from community centers to museums to the Atlanta University Center.

Credit: AJC

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Credit: AJC

“When he was running for mayor, I don’t recall him talking about creating something specifically to incubate, incentivize and celebrate arts and culture,” Franklin said. “The artists, who sat in the room and said they couldn’t live and create if they didn’t have financial support, came up with that. It was an artists-driven agenda, not a political agenda.”

Up until that time, the city was maybe providing up to $50,000 annually to arts initiatives. Initially, Franklin said the bureau was funded with about $250,000 to support the arts through grants.

They modeled their thinking after New York City, which was the only major city at the time supporting artists and arts institutions through general fund dollars.

Franklin said Jackson’s genius was his ability to embrace the wide range of ideas that were coming to him at that time. Michael Lomax, who served on the committee with Franklin, became the first commissioner of Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs, and was charged with supporting local arts organizations and artists.

“It was historic,” Franklin said. “It might be cliche to say, but Maynard’s administration was on the cutting edge.”

Andrew Young, who served as Atlanta’s mayor in the 1980s following Jackson’s first two terms, often talks about how Jackson always carried himself as an aristocrat who was able to quote Shakespeare with the same dexterity as he could quote Al Green.

He was the grandson of civic leader John Wesley Dobbs, who historians agree was even more eloquent than Jackson.

Jackson’s mother and aunts were all Spelman-educated and fluent in languages and performative arts.


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A young Jackson sat in the audience in 1962 when his aunt, opera diva Mattiwilda Dobbs, sang before an integrated house at the old Municipal Auditorium. It wasn’t unusual to come home and find Duke Ellington or Count Basie playing the piano or Ella Fitzgerald singing.

Hobson said Jackson, who sang in the Morehouse College Glee Club, also carefully studied large cultural periods like the Harlem Renaissance, the New Negro Movement, the Black Arts Movement and the Black Power Movement.

“Maynard was very wise. A man ahead of his time,” said Love, who moved to Atlanta in 1974. “He knew that the more exposure that everyone got to art and culture would influence them to be creative in their own pursuits, whether that be education, business or entertainment. Maynard understood that access to culture was a spark to creativity.”

By 1978, the bureau had started the Atlanta Jazz Festival, now considered one of the biggest free jazz festivals in the world.

Franklin, who would go on to serve as Atlanta’s mayor from 2002 until 2010, said what they were creating was seeping down throughout the city even if they couldn’t see it at the time.

By 1978, Atlanta’s Bureau of Cultural Affairs had started the Atlanta Jazz Festival, now considered one of the biggest free jazz festivals in the world. (Akili-Casundria Ramsess/AJC 2022 photo)

Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

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Credit: Akili-Casundria Ramsess

Aside from funding the massive Atlanta Jazz Festival, the city also sponsored smaller neighborhood arts festivals, as well as theater projects, poetry slams and film festivals.

Love said the office now gives out about $2 million annually to individuals and large arts programs.

“I would conclude that the arts, as we know them, are derivative of the city’s focus and nurturing,” Franklin said. “Without that, we would not have the diversity of culture that we have today.”

Noted playwright Pearl Cleage, the distinguished artist in residence at the Alliance Theatre and Atlanta’s first poet laureate has written an upcoming play about Jackson’s impact and the moment he was elected in 1973.

“Something Moving: A Meditation on Maynard” will be a part of the Alliance season next fall.

“His legacy lives and breathes in the vibrant Atlanta arts community and this play is my personal acknowledgment of that and my offering to his memory,” said Cleage, who served for two years as the Jackson Administration’s press secretary. “This is not a bio play, but a fully imagined look at the stories of those of us who lived it.”

In the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s hip-hop documentary, “The South Got Something to Say,” several of the performers and producers talked about how city-sponsored parties and talent shows allowed them, as teenagers, to perform on real stages for the first time against real competition.

“What I have heard some of the hip-hop stars say is that their exposure to live music, played by musicians who looked like them, inspired them to be more creative,” said Love, who was hired by former Mayor Bill Campbell to run the office in 1998. “They were able to see people being themselves and making something that people were enjoying with their families. That influenced young people not to be afraid.”

Preparing the harvest

Love’s son Craig Love grew up playing the guitar and played with Jackson III and Jason Orr, who produced the “Maynard” documentary in 2017, in a group called The Original Man.

Jackson III was an infant when his parents divorced. In 1975, his mother Bunnie Jackson started a public relations firm where she promoted soul, funk and R&B acts like the S.O.S. Band, Cameo, Bohannon and Brick.

“It was like Chocolate City in my house,” Jackson III said, likening the experience to when his father’s home was filled with jazz musicians. “I was completely submerged.”

Bunnie Jackson eventually married Brick’s Ray Ransom, who taught a young Jackson III how to read music and play drums.

Often when Brick was recording, their kids would run around the studio. Jackson III was one of them (he can be heard at the beginning of “We Don’t Wanna Sit Down (We Wanna Get Down), so was Sleepy Brown, whose father, Jimmy Brown, was the group’s lead vocalist.

Sleepy Brown, years later, supported by that soul, funk and R&B foundation, would form one-third of Organized Noize, the production house that created Atlanta’s rap sound. The same production house that produced Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik and “Git Up, Git Out.”

When you think about it, he set up the environment for us to flourish and flow and have an impact nationally and globally,” Jackson III said.

In a series of 2015 interviews for his book, Hobson said Gipp told him several times that he wished he could apologize for the line to Jackson, who died in 2003.

Jackson III, who is a good friend of Gipp’s, said they laugh and joke about it every time they see each other.

“The way I see it, you have to prepare the ground when you want to plant something and prepare the harvest,” Jackson III said of his father. “You want to soil to be healthy and I don’t think we would have hip-hop to this level had my father not prepared the soil. Atlanta is a place to grow.”

Although he never apologized, Big Gipp did make amends. If you buy or stream the album today, the Jackson line is still there.

But when the song was released as a radio edit and in the accompanying music video, Gipp made a crucial but subtle adjustment.

He replaced Jackson with his successor, Bill Campbell, who was accused of corruption while in office and served 16 months in prison for tax evasion.