Interview with Maynard Jackson

Janice Sikes laughs over "Gone with the Wind", "Gone is the South that never was." What was the Atlanta that did used to be? Could you describe the relations between Whites and Blacks when you were coming up in this town?


When I was growing up as a boy in Atlanta, from the age of seven, we moved here from Dallas, Texas where I was born, but Atlanta is my mother's native home. Ah, it was hardcore segregation, all the way. But we never bowed to it: it was against the family's policy. We never walked in anybody's back door, ever. And, um, I even dated a young lady one who wanted to go to a movie at the Fox Theatre, which at that time had a buzzards' roost, as we called it. So Black people were expected to go around the side of this theatre, walk up all these steps, this magnificent theatre which we've preserved, which, it fell in my lap by the way to save as mayor of Atlanta because I refused to ish, to issue the demolition permit to tear it down, well there was a real pressure on us by the new owners of that property to tear it down; they wanted to build another building there. So we saved the Fox Theatre. Meanwhile, ah, flashback, so back in the '50s, she wanted to go see this movie, I asked where was it playing, and she said, I asked her where it was playing and she said it was playing in the Fox Theatre. I said, "I'm sorry, but we don't go to the Fox Theatre." So we talked about it, and she said, "But this is the only movie I really want to see tonight." I said, "Well, do you understand my policy?" She said, "Yes." I said, "Well, I wa- I want to try to accommodate you, but I can't go." She said, "Well, I don't really understand that." I said, "Fine, let's go." So I took her to the theatre, I bought one ticket, gave it to her, told her I'd come back and pick her up when the movie was over. She got a little upset, but she went in and saw the movie, came out, I was there waiting, I took her home, and never called her again. Um, I've walked in to shoe stores with my father and my grandfather to be fitted for shoes. We would sit down and then they would ask us to move to the back of the shoe store. And we'd explain, "We were going to spend our money, we'd sit anywhere we wanted to." They said, "Well, you gotta go to the back." We said, "I'm sorry, no, we don't have to go to the back. Our choice: go to the back or leave, and we're leaving." Um, the White power structure of Atlanta, like cities all over this country, but especially in the South in those days, '40s, '50s, and '60s, with an iron hand, ran things. Atlanta was better than most southern cities, because we had, ah, an understanding, eh, White leadership in politics that helped to bring along the White business leadership. The business leaders of Atlanta always have loved Atlanta. It's a great asset. It's the most responsive and responsible business community in the country. But they were products of their day, and they hadn't really had broadening experiences, but Ivan Allen, Jr. was there, Hartsfield himself, when he first became mayor of Atlanta, back in the '40s, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, the man after whom our airport is named. But then he grew. He happened to grow more aware, and broader. Ah, he grew broader and, ah, more open-minded on the race issue, incidentally, as Black voters began to register more. He was a vote counter. So in those days, you had a trade-off, and I'll explain this political arrangement, because it may give a real insight into Atlanta. Ah, the arrangement was, the, um, White power structure would make its decisions politically and then send for the Black leadership. That pretty much was in the Atlanta Negro Voters' League, which was a forerunner to the Georgia Voters' League, which was founded by my grandfather John Wesley Dobbs, my mother's father, but on my father's recommendation. My father had been, was a minister but was also a politician and businessman. Atlanta Negro Voters' League was headed by two people, Republican John Wesley Dobbs, my grandfather, and Democrat Austin T. Walden. They were so respected and so revered and so trusted, that being the key point, that when the Atlanta Negro Voters' League made a decision, and issued its ticket at 12:01 a.m. on election day, 99% of the Black voters voted as the Atlanta Negro Voters' League recommended. That organization no longer exists. They would go, in response to the call, downtown to meet with the White leadership, and here is the way it would go, as explained to me by my grandfather, I was not there of course. They'd walk in, they'd be seated and so forth, and um, exchange pleasantries, and the White leadership would say, "We have decided to back Joe Blow for mayor, and we want you all to help us out and support our candidate." The Black leadership then, with the spokespersons being Dobbs and, and Walden, would say, "We hear you, and will certainly be happy to give it consideration, but first, we need a high school. We need so-and-so streets paved. We need sewers on the west side of Atlanta. We need, ah, better schools, ah, in the old fourth ward, or south side, or south Atlanta." They'd have to bargain for the things for which they were already paying taxes. But that's how we got Washington High School, Booker T. Washington High School, the first Black high school in the city of Atlanta, in 1924, um, that's how we got most of the improvements in the community across time. So we're talking about a southern city that had a special edge, in my opinion, so that when many other southern cities, um, eh, put dogs and cattle prods, firehoses in the streets, Atlanta in the '60s went to the bargaining table. It's called the Atlanta style. The Black colleges here, and the fact that we are an educational center, Black and White, ah, are factors that have contributed to that, and the fact the we are a crossroads, with the second, very often the busiest, airport in the world.


Excuse me, um, we ran out of film but we got--


We got, um, the Atlanta style.