60 Voices: Sam Massell and Andre Dickens on city government

"Solving problems with conference calls, not confrontation? That remains a goal today."

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During his term as Atlanta mayor from 1970 to 1974, the city’s first Jewish mayor, Sam Massell, oversaw the campaign to create MARTA; began construction of the Omni, the city’s first enclosed sports coliseum; increased contracting opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses; and appointed the first woman member of the Atlanta City Council. After losing reelection to Maynard Jackson, the city’s first Black mayor, the real-estate executive led the Buckhead Coalition, a business group, until 2019. Now 93, Massell lives in Buckhead with his wife, Sandra.

Since defeating a three-term incumbent to join the Atlanta City Council in 2013, Andre Dickens has become one of the legislative body’s most vocal champions of affordable housing, transit improvement, and equity. Born and raised in southwest Atlanta, he is chief development officer for TechBridge, a nonprofit that helps other nonprofits use technology.

SM: Since I started serving in the 1960s, the city and city politics have dramatically changed—and mostly for the good, in my opinion. For eight years, before I became mayor in 1971, I was president of what was called, at the time, the Board of Alderman. It is now called the Atlanta City Council. At the time, Black people were not able to vote or hold office. Put that in perspective to the image of our city today and its reputation. You realize how much we’ve come forward in tapping the talents of people who were not participating before.

In the old days, the only primary in town was decided by a group called the White Democratic Executive Committee. They selected their candidates, and then, they appeared on the general election ballot. The committee members were all white, they were all Democrats, and the only names that they put on the ballot were white men. They were bankers and lawyers and heads of department stores and other major businesses who were members of that executive committee. A.T. Walden, a prominent African American attorney, and Miles Amos, a very successful African American businessman and druggist, qualified to run for their seats on the White Democratic Executive Committee. The committee turned them down, Walden and Amos went to court and won, and, in 1954, Walden and Amos became the committee’s first Black members.

So, when I became mayor, we had African Americans running for office and winning. An all-white power structure changed during this time. We were successful in Atlanta in making major changes in how we operated and doing it peacefully, very quickly. Andre will appreciate this: We always said the important way to solve problems was with a conference call, not with confrontation. Blacks and whites together, business and civic leaders of both races.

The age group of the leadership in our city during that time has helped allow it to become such a hub for Black political leadership. They were young people, they were in their 30s, they were taking the lead in our city, and they were more progressive. I remember watching television 60 years ago and, at the time, seeing all these white men barking on the news about some issue in Birmingham. It was such a contrast to the young Turks in Atlanta, both white and Black—John Portman, Charlie Loudermilk, Tom Cousins, Andy Young, John Lewis, Jesse Hill—working together.

AD: I’m a native Atlantan, and in my entire life, I’ve only had African American mayors. From a racial point of view, we have seen a big shift and pivot a little bit more as the city is closer to 50 percent Black, as opposed to almost 70 percent Black in the 1970s and ’80s. But solving problems with conference calls, not confrontation? That remains a goal today. We have done a good job of settling our differences through communication and meetings. We may take a long way to get there, but we will settle it that way.

Atlanta is a city of neighborhoods, to me, and so, the power in Atlanta still resides in the neighborhood and in the neighbors. Folks in Atlanta generally talk about things in terms of neighborhood. You meet someone and they say, Yeah, I live in Collier Heights, or Castleberry Hill, or Kirkwood. You have so many different strong leaders and neighborhoods and so much more access to information—legislation, live public meetings, social-media groups—at their fingertips.

When talking about Buckhead and the growth across the city, I want to give Sam a lot of credit for one of his major accomplishments while in office: transit. Sam got the 15 cent bus fare, sat on the MARTA board, got the sales tax on the ballot. You pushed for minority and women appointments to prominent positions. That was progressive for that time; it’s still progressive today. You talk to business folks, and community folks, they want to be near transit.

SM: In 1971, I called on the state legislature to change the sales tax from 3 percent to 4 percent in the Atlanta MARTA service area. For Atlanta, the Sin City, according to the state legislature, to come forward and ask for this additional tax was just, my gosh. It’s amazing that we were able to get it passed, for whatever reason, be it God or [the late influential Black state senator and MARTA advocate] Leroy Johnson. Then, we had to convince the voters to support the measure. I was in a helicopter over rush-hour traffic, shouting in a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes.” People thought God was talking to them. Transportation is man’s fifth freedom. Without it, you are imprisoned within your own neighborhood. You have no access to jobs, parks, schools, shopping. Keep pushing on transportation. It is the most important part of government.

AD: We have so many things we’re trying to do, in regards to infrastructure. You were able to galvanize that support that was needed for a MARTA referendum. If you were to do the same thing today, what elements are essential to make it successful? You wanted a multimodal center downtown. We still want that to happen. How do you win public support for big visions when people are really just thinking about their day-to-day, most days?

SM: Each city-changing project stands on its own. Georgia 400 connected Buckhead to the rest of the world, allowing people to go to the airport without a stoplight. But when the proposal came to add tolls in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it took us several years before the neighborhoods would speak to me. We did everything you could think: We took the city council members one by one in a helicopter over the proposed route; we showed them where trees would come down. We ran full-page ads in the daily newspapers, ran door-to-door canvassing, conducted polls. We built a campaign of 400 people for 400, and so forth. The road has had a tremendous impact, but the coalition suffered as an organization because of it. But we just felt it was that important. Just like MARTA—it was my duty. I felt it was my job to pass a referendum for a major public initiative. You have to market it. You have to believe it matters.

This article appears in our May 2021 issue.

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