Wed, 26 September 2018
For a politician’s biography, the Sam Pollard documentary currently available on Netflix, which recounts the life and career of Maynard Jackson, the first of Atlanta’s six consecutive black mayors, is remarkably free of politics. But when you think about it, this should not be a surprise.
After all, politics in any and every historical era is how we humans address our collective affairs. Politics is how we struggle to determine who produces what for whom, and under which conditions. Politics is how we decide which groups of people get to access the resources and the wealth that the planet provides and which its people produce, and which groups see their needs ignored. It makes perfect sense then, for elites to protect themselves by constructing fake histories which portray their own triumphs as virtuous and inevitable, histories which minimize or deny the very existence of struggles from below conducted by and for the masses of people who actually produce the wealth which elites mostly take for themselves, histories stripped clean of inconvenient politics.
The Pollard film walks us through Jackson’s illustrious family history, the grandson on his mother’s side, of John Wesley Dobbs, an influential college educated postal employee and Prince Hall Grand Master who prescribed “bucks, ballots and books” as the keys to black uplift. Dobbs was a key player in registering tens of thousands of black Atlanta voters in the 1940s, a time when many rural black Georgians were either illiterate or not allowed to vote. His efforts were widely credited with getting the city of Atlanta to finally put street lights on Auburn Avenue, where many black businesses were located, and to hire the first handful of black Atlanta cops, who of course were not permitted to arrest white people. It’s not in the movie, but Billy McKinney, decades later a Georgia state representative, and the father of former Atlanta congressperson Cynthia McKinney was one of those first black Atlanta cops.
Jackson’s dad was a prominent black Atlanta pastor and his mother was one of six Dobbs daughters all of whom graduated from Atlanta’s Spelman College, earning her PhD at the University of Toulouse in France. Upon her return to Atlanta she was the first black person granted a library card by the city’s public library. If there was such a thing as an African American elite, Maynard Jackson was born into it. An exceptionally smart young man, he was admitted to Morehouse at 14, graduated at 18, and bounced around a little before obtaining a law degree in North Carolina. According to the movie, it seems Maynard Jackson never much considered a career doing anything else other than running for and winning elected office.
In 1968 Maynard Jackson ran for US Senate against arch-segregationist senator Herman Talmadge, who’d inherited a political career from his daddy, three term governor Eugene Talmadge. Jackson lost, but thanks to the black vote he did carry the city of Atlanta. The following year he was elected Atlanta’s vice-mayor, and four years later at the age of 35 he became the first black mayor of Atlanta.
The movie dwells nostalgically upon the star studded celebration which attended his ascension to mayoral office, and contemptuously dismisses the aspirations of the black masses who voted for Jackson and his successors, saying they somehow expected the election of black mayors to solve all their problems. Pollard spends the biggest chunk of the movie following the ins and outs of Jackson’s struggles, in his three terms as mayor, with Atlanta’s white elite to put black faces on the boards of banks and planning bodies, and his adamant insistence that black companies be cut a fair share of city contracts and professional services. It’s quite clear that for the film makers, for Jackson’s contemporaries who they interviewed, and for Maynard Jackson himself, that the project of diversifying and opening up the capitalist elite was then and remains today the main objective of black politics, not the struggles of ordinary people for jobs, decent wages, housing, health care, education, justice and peace.
The movie goes so far as to portray the effort of Maynard Jackson and former mayor Andrew Young in which they shamelessly invoked the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King to bring the 1996 Olympics to Atlanta as some kind of visionary achievement that really put the city on the map, whatever that term means. In real life, as lived by most residents of cities which “win” the right to host the Olympic Games, the prize consists of an orgy of predatory real estate speculation in which entire low to moderate income neighborhoods are demolished to make way for stadiums, luxury hotel and tourist destinations, for upscale shopping and residential development, all of it lavishly subsidized with tax dollars taken from property taxes and wages of the poor, not from the wealth of the rich. Atlanta was no exception to this rule. Neighborhoods surrounding the Olympic sacrifice zone experienced precipitous increases in real estate taxes and rents to levels which Atlanta residents who were there before the Olympics could not sustain. The lion’s share of the displaced Atlanta homeowners and renters were of course black. But their struggles, their politics have no place in the self-serving histories written by the black elite, so the movie just doesn’t see them.
This political biography ignores the political struggles of ordinary Atlanta residents for decent housing, wages and working conditions, when they could get a job at all. It never mentions the decades long fights for universally accessible health care which resulted for a time, in a well funded health care system in Atlanta’s Fulton and Dekalb counties – the Grady Hospital system, parts of which endure to this day. Tellingly, it omits Maynard Jackson’s decisive and shameful intervention in the 1977 strike of Atlanta’s heinously abused and underpaid black sanitation workers, in which the first black mayor hired scabs and mobilized SCLC, black pastors and civil rights leaders against self-organizing black workers standing up for their human rights.
The only person the film makers interviewed who wasn’t a family member, a successor, aide or associate of the late mayor or reverends named Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson was a relative of one of the victims of Atlanta’s child murders during Jackson’s final term as mayor. To hear them tell it, that and the insurrection following the Rodney King verdict, and Jackson’s failure, typical of every other deeply change the institution of policing beyond hiring and promoting more black officers, were the only real failures of Jackson’s career.
Sam Pollard’s kind of political history with most of the politics removed is the rancid foundational myth for the long running hoax of Atlanta as North America’s Black Mecca. Fact is, Black Mecca was never anything other than the self-promoting, self-serving and self-celebrating PR campaign of black elites. As I wrote back in 2005,
“Today's elite black leadership does not measure cities by their incarceration rates, nor do they measure their own performance by the prevalence or absence of child poverty, affordable health care, equality of access to good education or any of the things that matter to ordinary black families. What matters to these "black leaders" are big-ticket projects, bragging rights, relentless self-promotion, and the accumulation of contacts, contracts and personal wealth. "Black Mecca" was always intended to be where their dreams came true, not ours.”
For a generation now, Atlanta has been among the top four or five US cities for black millionaires. But 2013 census data plainly reveal that among the 71 US cities with populations over a quarter million Atlanta ranked 14th in child poverty with 35%, more than a third of its children – you can bet they’re mostly black children – in households below the poverty line. That yardstick pegs Atlanta's performance as a bit better than Cleveland, Newark, St. Louis or Milwaukee, but worse than Chicago, Los Angeles, Philly or Houston. But child poverty, let alone black child poverty is just NOT the the sort of measure of the learned scholars and practitioners employ to evaluate the efficacy of what passes for black politics.
The accepted wisdom ignores these things, and the Sam Pollard documentary lazily slides right into that established groove. The film does get a couple of important things right. Jackson’s enduring political legacy was the cynical hoax of Atlanta as Black Mecca, and his career, which relied on the votes of black masses whose votes were mobilized behind the first black mayor who they imagined would deliver for their class instead of his own foretold the career arc of the first black president early in the 21st century.
I’d give the thing two and a half stars out of five.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Bruce Dixon. Please note that Google has limited public access to Black Agenda Report, suppressing the appearance of our material in search results for almost 3 years now, after the Washington Post endorsed a specious claim that we were somehow under the influence of the Russians. We are the first and as far as we know the only black owned and operated outfit to enjoy this distinction. Facebook’s recent partnership with the Atlantic Council puts deep state intelligence and propaganda operatives in charge of what you can and cannot see on Facebook as well. So the only way you can be certain you’re getting fresh news, commentary and analysis from the black left is to visit us at www.blackagendareport.com and hit the SUBSCRIBE button, so you’ll receive links to all our newly published print and audio content in your email inbox each and every week, free from the interference of the corporations which otherwise run the internet.
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Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and a member of the state committee of the GA Green Party. He livesw and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via email at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.