On September 12, as part of its fiftieth anniversary celebration, Atlanta magazine invited every living mayor of Atlanta to come together for a discussion of the city—where it’s been and where, amid the challenges of a dismal economy and a battered public education system, it’s going. From Sam Massell to Kasim Reed, every mayor accepted. (Shirley Franklin, unfortunately, had to bow out at the last minute.)
The roundtable, held at the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead, was moderated by Douglas Blackmon, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Slavery by Another Name and senior national correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Previously, while at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Blackmon covered City Hall during the late Maynard Jackson’s second administration and Bill Campbell’s first term.
Nothing was off the table, and over two hours, the mayors spoke at length about their legacies, their priorities, and the “Atlanta way” of getting things done. What follows is a transcript of the discussion, edited for length and clarity.
Photograph by Gregory Miller
Douglas Blackmon Mayor Massell, you were the city’s last white mayor and you served one term, but that was also at a point when Atlanta’s population in 1970 was about half a million, essentially the peak of the population of the city. Through the seventies and the eighties, there was a tremendous decline in the population of the city—even though there was a facade of great success and growth—and the schools went into a kind of prolonged crisis, ultimately. How would you play it differently?
Sam Massell This was the transformation of Atlanta. This was the time when Atlanta changed from a majority white population to a majority black population—the time when Atlanta changed from white business control of the government to a black political control of the government. This was a time in Atlanta that had never happened before and will never happen again. And it took tremendous effort from everybody involved, and you know, the leadership of Atlanta is what makes Atlanta great. It’s not the mayors; it’s all of those behind us [on] whose shoulders we stand and those with whom we’ve worked. To overcome fear and hate, to change the attitudes and opinions of the public—to get through that period of transformation was, you know, the challenge and the charge for the mayor, who happened to be me at that time.
Blackmon Ambassador Young, you inherited a city government where Maynard Jackson had come in as the first black mayor and had a tumultuous time, in terms of his relationship with the business community. Your thoughts on the city that you inherited when you became mayor?
Andrew Young I inherited the city, in some measure, because Sam Massell appointed me as cochair of the Community Relations Commission when I left the SCLC. That kind of made me respectable, coming out of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. And so I’ve always been grateful to him for that. Sam was probably the first one, with Jesse Hill, that negotiated the affirmative action agreement on MARTA, and that was what set the pattern of affirmative action. The difference was that Maynard took it to a new level. So instead of just 20 percent of contracts, 25 percent of each and every contract had to be done as a joint venture, so that everything that has been done almost since then was done black and white together, economically. Charlie Loudermilk tells the tale of taking me to visit a group of bankers when I was running for mayor, and they asked me why did I want to be mayor. And I said, “Because I just think the money is drying up in Washington, and we’ve got to find a way to become a part of the global economy.” And I said, “Atlanta’s already an international city; we just have to find a way to institutionalize it.” And Charlie said that when I left, somebody said, “Damn, Charlie, where’d you get that nut from?” It’s always been a creative tension, but black politics can’t really control anything by itself without the business community, and the business community can’t do anything by itself. So we’ve really had a happy marriage.