Robert ‘Mac’ McMichael, longtime Atlanta lawman, dies at 77

R.H. "Mac" McMichael II mentored many during his decades as a local and federal law-enforcement officer in Atlanta.
Caption
R.H. "Mac" McMichael II mentored many during his decades as a local and federal law-enforcement officer in Atlanta.

Credit: HANDOUT

Credit: HANDOUT

Arrested suspect in Atlanta child murders

Raised in the Jim Crow South, former Fulton County sheriff and U.S. Marshal Robert Henry “Mac” McMichael II devoted his life to racial equality through a career path all but forbidden to Blacks before him.

He entered law enforcement in 1967, when Black officers changed clothes in the police station basement, and it was understood they would not arrest white people. McMichael quietly persisted, his cases making headlines while he built a reputation of integrity and thoroughness. He fought organized crime, investigated police brutality and corruption, and arrested Wayne Williams in 1981 in connection with the Atlanta child murders. He supported prison reform, created a student internship, and mentored young deputies of all races.

“Mac faced discrimination. He was about fixing it, and fixing it didn’t have a color,” said Jarrett Grolin, a former Fulton County deputy, now a major with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department, who considered McMichael a mentor and father figure.

“With Mac, it was never like, we have a long way to go. It was like, we have to take another step today.”

McMichael died April 28 at his home in Atlanta following a brief illness. He was 77. A funeral will be held May 7 at 11 a.m. at Hoosier United Methodist Church, with burial in Lincoln Cemetery. Murray Brothers Funeral Home is handling arrangements.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Robert McMichael

One of seven children born to a union representative father and a public-school cafeteria manager mother, McMichael was proud to be a native of south Atlanta, say family and friends. He graduated in 1960 from Luther J. Price High School, where he returned to teach math for one year after graduating from Morehouse College in 1964. He was one of the first Blacks to enter the Atlanta Police Academy, after which he joined the Fulton County District Attorney’s office as an investigator, soon moving to an intelligence unit and becoming advisor to the late Fulton County District Attorney Lewis Slayton. Taking classes at night, he went on to graduate in 1981 from the now-defunct Woodrow Wilson College of Law in Atlanta. Though he passed the bar exam, he never pursued a law career.

In 1989, McMichael was appointed by former Gov. Joe Frank Harris as interim Sheriff of Fulton County. His daughter, Arlene Brooks, started work there two weeks prior as a deputy working night shifts in the jail. McMichael showed her no favoritism, and her promotion to captain did not happen until the next sheriff took office.

“He taught us short-cuts lead to disaster,” said Brooks, who retired from the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department in 2020.

McMichael became a federal lawman when former U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn nominated him as U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Georgia in 1993. Former President Bill Clinton confirmed his appointment, which McMichael held until former President George W. Bush replaced him in 2001.

He spent the next 10 years running a private probation company, as his reputation for trustworthiness continued to grow. When Atlanta rapper T.I. was arrested without bond on weapons charges in Atlanta in 2009, a federal judge allowed house-arrest on the condition McMichael oversee supervision.

“What set Mac apart was his humble spirit. He was a giant of a man, but he was a gentle man,” said Fulton County State Court Judge Patsy Y. Porter, who described McMichael as mentor, colleague, and big brother.

“He absolutely opened doors for the next generation, but he didn’t pound his chest. He had a tremendous impact on Fulton County. He began to bend the curve, and put the conversation on the table that needed to be had.”

Bob Wilson agrees. Now a lawyer in Decatur, he was the Dekalb County district attorney from 1980 to 1992, during the Wayne Williams investigation and arrest. McMichael played and role in investigating the now convicted Williams.

“Mac carried himself with a dignity and professionalism that set a standard attained by only a few in the higher levels of law enforcement. And in doing so, he pushed the door open for others. He has blazed that trail,” Wilson said.

Brooks said her father wanted to effect change and be known as someone who was for the people.

“He was a visionary. He was a light,” she said.

Survivors include his wife of 45 years, Kathye McMichael of Atlanta; daughters Arlene Brooks of Fayetteville, Ga., and Belinda McMichael of Atlanta; brother Charles McMichael of Atlanta; sisters Joyce Thomas of East Point, Ga., Birdie McKay of Washington, DC, and Kate McNease of Atlanta; and eight grandchildren.