Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,312Comments
This is the grave of Maynard Jackson.
Born in 1938 in Dallas, Jackson grew up as part of the Black elite, such as it was. His grandfather John Wesley Dobbs was a major civil rights figure who had successfully demanded the hiring of Black police in Black neighborhoods in Atlanta and led the effort to overturn Georgia’s white primary. His father was a Baptist minister who came from New Orleans and had a church in Dallas. When his father died around 1953, Jackson moved to Atlanta to live with his grandfather. They family was pretty well off and he went to Morehouse very early, graduating in 1956, still only 18 years old.
Jackson originally went to law school at Boston University, but being so young, was not really ready for it yet. He had a few years messing around, working at real jobs, before going to law school at North Carolina Central, an HBCU. He finished his law degree in 1964 and got a job with the National Labor Relations Board.
But what really motivated Jackson was the idea of elected office. Although he was not really active in the civil rights movement, his family was so prominent that he could come back to Atlanta and because Black people could now vote in Georgia, he could be their representative. So in 1968, he came back to Georgia and decided to run for Senate against the odious Herman Talmadge. No, he didn’t win, but he did win Atlanta. There were a lot of Black people wanting to vote for other Black people. So he ran for vice-mayor in 1969 and won. He pushed affirmative action programs and built up his base. That included municipal workers, mostly poor Black workers who labored as sanitation workers. They struck in 1970 and he used his power to help them win a far better wage, leading to an expansion of union power in southern cities. More on this in a minute.
Jackson ran for mayor in 1973 and won the election. He was Atlanta’s first Black mayor. At first, he pushed for greater Black power. He was good at getting public works money, including modernizing Hartsfield airport. This brought a lot of jobs into the community. But by the mid-70s, Jackson was clearly allying with the wealthy white corporate community more than once was his base. After all, in all of this, we have not talked about Jackson having much in the way of core beliefs. He almost immediately moved from his law degree to running for office, with just that brief spell in the NLRB splitting those things.
So in 1977, Jackson completely betrayed the Black working class in one of the most disgusting episodes in the history of post-Civil Rights Black politics. Remember that the sanitation workers had helped build Jackson’s reputation in Black Atlanta and they repaid him by going big time for his mayoral campaign in 73. But he immediately ignored their needs and demands.
In his first three years as mayor, the workers received no raises and salaries remained stuck at an average of $7500 a year ($29,000 today). This placed a full-time worker supporting a family of four below the poverty line. Worker anger began to grow. Jackson would not give any ground. Instead, he embraced the city’s powerful white business community. They were concerned about the growing inflation of the 1970s and so Jackson decided to alleviate their concerns and drive workers deeper into poverty without raises to match that inflation. The workers demanded a 50-cent an hour raise. He refused to negotiate with AFSCME on the pay raises. Instead, Jackson became an austerity politician, stating “There will no deficit while I am mayor.” Jackson wouldn’t even return AFSCME’s phone calls by 1975. Over the next two years, smaller labor actions began popping up such as a one day strike in July 1976 and a wildcat strike in February 1977.
Finally, on March 28, 1977, the workers marched to City Hall to demand a meeting with Jackson. While Jackson did come out, he completely dismissed them. They were shocked that their own man, a hero of the civil rights movement, would treat them so shabbily. Basically there was no meaningful difference between Jackson and the white mayors of the past when it came to their work. At this point, the workers decided to strike. The next morning, 1300 workers went on strike.
Jackson quickly moved to isolate the workers by claiming AFSCME was attacking black political power. AFSCME president Jerry Wurf, the man who brought Martin Luther King into Memphis, was called a “racist manipulator” for for wanting to see black political power in Atlanta die, which really meant siding with the black workers over the black mayor. This is particularly ironic since the 1977 strike started without Wurf’s knowledge. It came completely from the rank and file and local staffers angry over Jackson’s betrayal. Jackson accused AFSCME of seeking to eliminate black political leadership throughout the South, saying “I see myself as only the first domino in [labor’s] Southern domino theory. If organized labor makes the move on black political leadership, I think it’s going to have severe consequences for labor Southwise, particularly AFSCME.” This was a cynical attempt to undermine community support for the strikers, an open race-baiting move by Jackson.
Jackson then fired all the striking workers on April 2. The black middle class fully supported this move. Sadly, so did the civil rights leaders. Martin Luther King, Sr. said Jackson should “fire the hell” out of the sanitation workers. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, also came out against the strikers. James Farmer was an important exception to this, appearing at rallies with AFSCME. The union also took out advertisements in the New York Times to highlight Jackson’s betrayal.
It didn’t work. Jackson simply crushed the union. By the end of April, half of the strikers had already given up and applied to get their old jobs back. Leamon Hood, the AFSCME staffer in charge of the strike, recommended on April 26 that workers end the strike. AFSCME itself cut off funding for the strike on April 29. Over the next year, the workers who wanted their jobs back did eventually return to work. Somewhat ironically, the most militant workers accused Hood and Wurf of selling out but there was simply no way to win this strike in the face of overwhelming opposition from the heroes of the civil rights movement.
In the end, the strike showed that electing supposedly progressive leadership was not a panacea for worker power. Electing the right politicians is a necessary part of what unions have to do to get their members’ better lives, but it is often difficult to hold them to their promises, even when they come out of something as transformative as the civil rights movement.
In short, class over race politics is a dead end. But so is race over class politics. Jackson had no real class analysis. He just wanted power. If that meant supporting a strike, OK. If that meant busting a strike, OK.
In 1982, Jackson left office due to term limits, replaced by Andrew Young. It was Jackson who convinced Young to continue his legacy. There were tough issues to face outside of being a traitor to the working people of his city–crime was very high and this was the era of the Atlanta serial killer of children. But he came back in 1990 and was mayor when Atlanta got the 1996 Olympics, which was a big feather in his cap. He stayed one more term, leaving in 1994. After that, he was the consummate Democratic Party insider. He ran for head of the Democratic National Committee in 2001 but that went to Terry McAuliffe, boy of the Clintons, instead. Otherwise, he spent his last decades doing lobbying, corporate boards, all that rich guy stuff.
Jackson had a heart attack in 2003 and died, at the age of 65. He had his first heart surgery back in 1992, so this was not so surprising.
Maynard Jackson is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Atlanta, Georgia.
If you would like this series to visit other Black mayors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Tom Bradley is in Inglewood, California and Carl Stokes is in Cleveland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.