Legends and Legacies
by Vince Vanguard Vainglorious
Seldom does a local public official rise to a level where they are regarded as a world leader. It is also unusual that a local politician would implement policies that are capable of efficacy on a national and international scale. Maynard Holbrook Jackson is that rare local politician who can be considered an authentic world leader and a person of national political potency. Jackson was the primary architect of one of the only successful “movements” to seize economic and political control of a major geopolitical entity – the city of Atlanta and place it under the control of a majority Black population. Although he is not conventionally thought of as such, in that regard he should also be considered an authentic “Black Nationalist.” While it is customary for macro or world events to affect local political issues, the example of the transformation of the power structure of the city of Atlanta is a model that would be replicated by local and national political entities worldwide.
The system of Apartheid that held a grip on the Black population of the Republic of South Africa until 1994 was essentially undistinguishable from the “Jim Crow” laws that ruled the lives of the southern United States’ Black citizens until 1964. As majority Black populations nationwide would attempt to manifest their political power, many would also have the burden of struggling to energize moribund economies that were as economically and culturally behind the times as they were politically. On the contrary it could be argued that although South Africa faced its own unique challenges, after the end of Apartheid, their emerging Black leadership had an advantage because of their access to an abundant supply of resources and well-developed financial and transport sectors. Jackson would be responsible for spearheading Atlanta’s development of thriving home-grown industries, a diverse financial community and a much needed ground transportation system and International airport. Maynard Jackson would not only prove that a Black man could run the government of a major American city, he would also invigorate and expand the economy, create new business opportunities, introduce a more representative legal system and elevate Atlanta to the status of an “International City.”
In 1974, Jackson would take office as the first Black mayor of a major southern city. Almost immediately, Maynard would initiate programs to expand the Black business sector by increasing participation in municipal business and by encouraging entrepreurship. Although many people challenged such “affirmative action” programs at the time, it has proven to be successful for creating economic opportunity and considered far more equitable and palatable than measures to seize and reallocate businesses and land that have been used in other “Post-Colonial” societies. Atlanta’s example of awarding municipal contracts to “minority” businesses has proven to be a successful re-allocation scheme. It has proven to be a superior alternative to more intrusive schemes that have been used to redistribute economic factors. Although corruption, bribery and other criminal activities marred some of the success stories of this era, these are universal characteristics of similar situations where large sums of money are transacted. Nevertheless, it can be said that the overall scope and activity of the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia’s economies have been positively affected by the transformation that took place under the Jackson administrations. Without the visionary efforts of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta would not be regarded today as a “Black Mecca” or the “Empire City of the South.”
Another similarity to post apartheid South Africa and the emerging “New South” of the Jackson administrations, was the opportunity to cure an adversarial and untrusting relationship between Atlanta’s majority Black population and the city’s law enforcement community. While Atlanta’s segregated neighborhoods were not exactly comparable to the “Townships” of South Africa’s urban areas, there still existed an adversarial relationship between the legal system and Atlanta’s Black residents. The presence of police officer’s in neighborhoods such as Vine City, “Sweet Auburn” and Mechanicsville seldom incited feelings of good will and warm feelings. Maynard realized the need to assure and secure the integrity and fidelity of the police department and the legal system. He spearheaded the appointment of a Black police chief, public safety commissioner and judges. He created an environment of safe communities in which all citizens were assured of fair and equitable treatment. Jackson understood this was essential to creating an environment where talented people from all walks of life would be allowed to thrive.
After the fall of the South African system of Apartheid in 1994, the country faced similar obstacles and opportunities as Atlanta following the “Jim Crow” era. The iconic South African anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was eventually released from prison and ultimately became President of the Republic of South Africa in 1994. Although the “Jim Crow” era of the American south had ended, this parallel system of inequity had managed to drag on for another thirty years in South Africa. This fact alone makes it obvious that although the situations are very similar they are also very different. Mandela, despite his international reputation and magnanimous renown, could not achieve the same degree of success in transforming South Africa and empowering the Black population as Jackson did in Atlanta.
In the case of South Africa we have a “conquered” and invaded population rather than an assimilated population. American Blacks were brutally forced to come to a new land and do the dirty work of building a nation. Black South Africans on the other hand had their own land stolen from them and were then forced to live as second class citizens in their own “homelands.” While both were similarly tragic, brutal and evil systems they presented different obstacles and opportunities on the road towards “freedom” and “liberation.” Although the different degrees of adversity and brutality between Apartheid and “Jim Crow” cannot be measured empirically, it is intuitive that the former system was especially complex given its longevity. The Apartheid system was a multi-faceted leviathan of “Gordian Knot” intricacy, filled with all of the obstacles Maynard Jackson’s regime faced in 1970s Atlanta but quite a few more. While the situation in the South was mainly a question of “Black or White” Mandela had to also address the interests of people of diverse racial, cultural and tribal distinctions. Nevertheless President Mandela’s key challenges were similarly that of introducing economic equity and equal treatment under the law into a system that was built on securing economic inequity via legal inequality.
Because the level of inequity in South Africa was so severe under Apartheid, the task of achieving an equitable economic allocation has been especially problematic. Despite various schemes to privatize industries, redistribute lands and create a Black middle class, South Africa continues to have one of the most unequal income distribution patterns in the world. Poverty continues to be defined almost exclusively on a racial basis with a very small percentage of the population holding the great majority of the countries wealth and earning disproportionately higher incomes. It appears that only recently (January 2004) South Africa opted to institute the Broad-Based Black Empowerment Act of 2003, which seeks to institute programs to increase employment preparedness and business ownership. Critics of this program argue that it seeks to elevate one group to the detriment of another, rather than attempting to achieve equity in a more organic way. Saddled with a myriad other problems such as an epidemic HIV/AIDS infection rate, an astronomically high crime rate and a woefully high unemployment rate, South Africa’s transformation has a ways to go before it can be considered successful.
Nelson Mandela is a larger than life figure of almost saintly proportion. He took a stand on principled issues that have affected liberation struggles world wide. He also paid the near ultimate sacrifice of spending over two decades of his life in prison because of his principled stances. Mr. Mandela’s place in history is well deserved. Maynard Jackson is highly regarded amongst native Atlantans and most Southerners are well aware of his legacy. Nevertheless his true legacy and contribution is not as fully understood or heralded on an international or national level.
At that moment in history when Black people nationwide were challenged to prove they were worthy of the rights and freedoms they had fought for over a century to gain, Maynard Jackson came forward and took it upon himself to shoulder the burden of proving that a Black man had the intellect, vision and ability to run a major U.S .city. He stood tall and embodied the epitome of a proud capable Black man in the face of continued bigotry and prejudice. Had Jackson failed to capably lead this city, the cause of “minority” empowerment and “Black Power” would have failed miserably and suffered a blow that would have been almost impossible to recover from. Inasmuch as people like Frederick Douglass fought for our emancipation, Marcus Garvey fought for our dignity and Martin Luther King Jr. and others fought for our right to equality under the law, Maynard Holbrook Jackson stood tall and fought for the right to prove that Black men and women could achieve anything that any other race of people were capable of and could ascend any height they would aspire to.