July 21, 2003

A tale of two mayors

Dana White is Goodrich C. White Professor of Liberal Arts in the Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts.

On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, two of the nation’s Founding Fathers died within hours of each other.

For many of their fellow citizens, the coincidence of the deaths of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the very same day attained an almost mystical meaning. In myth and memory, the flinty New Englander and the polymath Virginian were joined together as they never had been in life. The two had espoused competing theories of governance, had helped shape opposing political parties, and all but embodied two increasingly disparate and soon-to-be—before the passing of another 50 years—warring sections of the country. Death and anniversaries may thus not only smooth the edges of history, they can even make them seem to disappear.

At the beginning of this summer, two key figures in Atlanta’s recent history died within a week-and-a-half of each other. Before the coincidence of their passing within so short an interval establishes its own myths in local memory, their role in the making of modern Atlanta merits reflection.

The family histories of Ivan Allen and Maynard Jackson are as compelling as their individual life stories, perhaps even more so. In concert, they provide a framework for comprehending the development of the 20th century city, a narrative expertly crafted by Gary Pomerantz, former Cox Professor of Journalism at Emory, in Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: A Saga of Race and Family (Penguin, 1997).

The progenitors of both Atlanta chief executives arrived here at the turn of the century: Ivan Allen Sr. established his family’s business; John Wesley Dobbs, Jackson’s maternal grandfather, worked first for the post office, then directed a major Masonic order. Both founding fathers, each on his own “side of town,” became powers behind the scenes. Peachtree, in Pomerantz’s terms, stood for the Allens—White Atlanta—and Sweet Auburn for the Dobbs-Jacksons—Black Atlanta. Although the street and the avenue intersect on the map, the paths of the families would not cross until late in the 20th century.

Ivan Allen was Atlanta’s last “power structure” mayor, the successor to William Hartsfield, its longest serving chief executive. Between them, Hartsfield and Allen would govern the city for almost a third of the century.

In Community Power Structure: A Study of Decision Makers (University of North Carolina Press, 1953), sociologist Floyd Hunter proposed that a select group of Atlanta’s “power leaders” from business, government and a limited number of other interest groups—all of them white males—functioned as the city’s “decision makers.” The power brokers were mostly Atlanta natives, pro-business and pro-growth, as well as “moderates” on racial issues; that is, while they upheld the barriers of segregation, they also held open lines to the city’s “sub-community” representatives, the Sweet Auburn leadership. For these civic boosters, projecting the image of Atlanta as a forward-looking, progressive metropolis-on-the-make was paramount.

Allen not only represented Atlanta’s power structure, he was born into it; still, his “crowd,” as they called themselves, could not maintain their control of the city’s formal governance. When Ivan Allen Jr. stepped down in 1969 after serving two terms, the power structure could not deliver the vote for his anointed successor. Atlanta was in a transition stage, yet to establish a new order. For the interim, a compromise administration was installed; an interregnum—and the word is not inappropriate—governed.

In 1973, Peachtree finally met Sweet Auburn when Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. was elected mayor. According to political scientist Clarence Stone’s Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta, 1946–1988 (University of Kansas Press, 1989) what Hunter had earlier described as the “power structure” was now better defined as a “regime”: “the informal arrangements that surround and complement the formal workings of governmental authority” or a “governing coalition.” “Regime” seemed more expansive than “power structure”; it provided space for new players in the power game. For three terms, Jackson would orchestrate regime politics in Atlanta.

There is much that ties Atlanta’s recently deceased mayors together. There is also much that distinguishes one from the other. Both mayors were absolutely dedicated to their Atlanta. Both spoke warmly and enthusiastically about their city, in public and in private.

Each man possessed a marked presence. Journalist Furman Bisher dubbed Allen “our dandy little mayor.” The subject of said compliment objected to the “little” part of the characterization, playfully insisting that he was just as tall, possibly even taller than his sportswriter friend.

Gracious is the word that, for me, best describes Ivan Allen.

My first real contact with him was not until 1992, when Georgia State’s Tim Crimmins and I worked with Allen during the production of our public television series “The Making of Modern Atlanta.”

The segment “Monuments for Mayors,” which covered the period from Hartsfield to Jackson, previewed at the Atlanta History Center in 1993 before an audience that included people we had been criticizing. As Crimmins and I nervously awaited initial responses from our audience, Allen opened the discussion with a series of stories about Atlanta politics—all of them with Hartsfield as the hero and himself often “Mayor Bill’s” foil. Our audience warmed up, the pressure evaporated, and the evening was a success. Ivan Allen, for me, was a study in class.

Maynard Jackson was a large man: more importantly, a big man. I still think of him as the “Big M,” a title crafted by his “handlers” when the mayor fought a hilarious exhibition boxing match in 1975 with Muhammad Ali. Predictably, the Big M won by a knockout. Ali blamed his “loss” on having been distracted by the loud, drooping shorts sported by his challenger.

When I reminded Jackson during an interview in 1992 for our “Monuments for Mayors” show that he was still technically the heavyweight champion of Atlanta, and asked whether he intended to defend his title against then-champ Evander Holifield, he answered with mock sadness, “No, Evander might not be as gentle as Ali had been.” Only the mayor of my childhood, New York’s Fiorello LaGuardia, would have had the sense of humor, showmanship and self confidence to emulate Jackson’s ring exploits. The Big M could be a delight.

Ivan Allen and Maynard Jackson, like Adams and Jefferson before them, have already been joined together in print and in memory, but their life stories and records should be carefully distinguished. They were of different generations, Allen almost 30 years older than Jackson. They grew out of different Atlantas—again, Peachtree and Sweet Auburn—which finally met, but remain separate, even to this day.

The career trajectories of the two ran in opposite directions: Allen’s political life ended when he left City Hall; Jackson’s was held in check after his third and final term in office—at a point when it ought to have been ascending. He aspired to higher office and merited a run; however, as Jackson explained in our last interview, he had had to expend so much “political capital” early in his career as mayor that his prospects suffered. Jackson could have been a splendid governor of Georgia—better still, one of its U.S. senators.

The continuities and disjunctions in our history brought into relief by the recent passing of Maynard Jackson and Ivan Allen offer a suitable occasion for celebration and reflection. What Atlanta has become since the power structure/regime eras—and where it is going—also demand attention and deliberation.

At mid-century, “Atlanta” meant a half-million inhabitants largely within a two-county metropolitan area. Today, “Chatlanta,” as some wags are calling the 28-county megalopolitan region, extends almost to the Tennessee border (approaching Chattanooga), brushes against Alabama and encompasses a population of well over 4 million people. As even its most ardent boosters would have to agree, such growth has become, at best, a “challenge.”