Black history is never just a moment in time. You always have to look at who paved the way, because someone always paves the way for ‘the breakthrough’ person.
Today, I wanted to use a family to make this point.
‘The breakthrough’ Person is Maynard Jackson, the first Black mayor of Atlanta.
Who paved the way for him?
His grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs.
John Wesley Dobbs
Often referred to as the unofficial mayor of Auburn Avenue, John Wesley Dobbs was one of several distinguished African American civic and political leaders who worked to achieve racial equality in segregated Atlanta during the first half of the twentieth century.
Born in Marietta in 1882 to Minnie and Will Dobbs, John Wesley Dobbs grew up in poverty on a farm near Kennesaw. Two years after his birth his mother and father separated. His mother moved to Savannah to work in the home of a white family there, leaving Dobbs and his sister in the care of his grandparents and various other relatives. Minnie saw her children regularly, though, and in 1891 they moved to Savannah to live with her.
In Savannah Dobbs attended school full time for the first time. His formal education nearly ended after fifth grade because of his family’s financial difficulties, but a white woman intervened and offered Dobbs a job that would not interfere with his school attendance. While still in grammar school, Dobbs also shined shoes and delivered newspapers to supplement the family income.
In 1897, at the age of fifteen, Dobbs moved to Atlanta, where he continued his education at Atlanta Baptist College (later Morehouse College). His mother’s ill health forced Dobbs to drop out of school and return to Savannah to care for her. He never earned a college degree. He continued his studies independently, however, and passed a civil service exam that in 1903 allowed him to become a railway mail clerk for the U.S. Post Office in Atlanta. (Dobbs in fact would never stop studying, reading voraciously during his spare time.) Dobbs held his position at the post office, a well-respected one within the black community, for thirty-two years.
In 1906 Dobbs married Irene Ophelia Thompson, with whom he had six daughters, all of whom went on to become graduates of Spelman College in Atlanta. Mattiwilda Dobbs, his fifth daughter, became an acclaimed opera singer. Dobbs worked to instill in his children a sense of self-worth and a desire to succeed. He forbade them to attend segregated events and constantly reminded them of their equality. Additionally, he traveled with his family extensively to broaden their range of experience.
In 1911 Dobbs was initiated into the Prince Hall Masons, a fraternal order that attracted socially conscious leaders within the black middle class. Dobbs was elected Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons of Georgia in 1932, thereby earning the nickname “the Grand.” Through his leadership position with the Masons, he tried to instill in Atlanta’s African American community those same values he worked to pass on to his children.
Dobbs fervently believed that African American suffrage was the key to racial advancement. He announced a goal of registering 10,000 black voters in Atlanta and preached the importance of voter registration in Masonic halls, in African American churches, and on street corners. Dobbs also founded the Atlanta Civic and Political League in 1936 and, with attorney A. T. Walden, cofounded the Atlanta Negro Voters League in 1946. Both of these leagues advocated voter registration and black political unity.
Due largely to Dobbs’s efforts, African Americans achieved two significant political victories in the late 1940s. In the spring of 1948 Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield fulfilled a promise he had made to Dobbs by hiring eight African American police officers. Although they could patrol only black neighborhoods and could not arrest whites, the hiring was a significant challenge to segregation. The following year Hartsfield fulfilled another campaign promise by installing street lamps on Auburn Avenue, the center of Atlanta’s black community. Both of these achievements served to solidify Dobbs’s position as a leader. (Dobbs himself coined the term “Sweet Auburn,” an expression of the area’s thriving businesses and active social and civic life.)
During the 1950s Dobbs continued his work toward African American equality. He constantly pressed Hartsfield to fulfill other promises made to the black community. Dobbs’s influence began to wane, though, as the decade ended and a younger generation of African American leaders emerged at the forefront of the civil rights struggle. By this time he was suffering from arthritis, often unable to get out of bed.
Dobbs’s health declined, and on August 21, 1961, he suffered a stroke. He died nine days later, on August 30, 1961, the same day that Atlanta city schools were desegregated. Martin Luther King Jr. was one of the speakers at Dobbs’s funeral, and Thurgood Marshall, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and future Supreme Court justice, served as a pallbearer.
Dobbs Family, Spelman Graduates
Irene and John Wesley Dobbs with their six daughters and grandchildren at the Spelman College graduation of daughter June. The Dobbs girls all graduated from Spelman. (Left to right) Mr. Dobbs; Irene Dobbs Jackson, class of ’29; Juliet Dobbs Blackburn, class of ’31; Millicent Dobbs Jordan, class of ’33; Josephine Dobbs Clement, class of ’37; Mattiwilda Dobbs Janzon, class of ’46; June Dobbs Butts, class of ’48; and Mrs. Dobbs.
Elected mayor of Atlanta in 1973, Maynard Jackson was the first African American to serve as mayor of a major southern city. Jackson served eight years and then returned for a third term in 1990, following the mayorship of Andrew Young. As a result of affirmative action programs instituted by Jackson in his first two terms, the portion of city business going to minority firms rose dramatically. A lawyer in the securities field, Jackson remained a highly influential force in city politics after leaving elected office. Before and during his third term, he worked closely with Young, Atlanta Olympics organizing committee chair Billy Payne, and others to bring the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta.
Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. was born on March 23, 1938, in Dallas, Texas, where his father, Maynard H. Jackson Sr., was a minister. The family moved to Atlanta in 1945, when Maynard Sr. took the pastorship at Friendship Baptist Church. Maynard Jr.’s Atlanta roots ran deep. His mother, Irene Dobbs Jackson, a professor of French at Spelman College, was the daughter of John Wesley Dobbs, founder of the Georgia Voters League. When Jackson’s father died in 1953, Dobbs became even more influential in the life of his fifteen-year-old grandson. In 1959 Jackson’s mother became the first African American to receive a card to the Atlanta Public Library, thereby integrating that institution.
Jackson entered Morehouse College through a special early-entry program and graduated in 1956, when he was only eighteen. He attended Boston University law school but was unsuccessful, probably due to his youth. After working in the North at several jobs, including as an encyclopedia salesman, Jackson received his law degree from North Carolina Central University in 1964. In December of the following year he married Burnella “Bunnie” Hayes Burke. They had three children, Elizabeth, Brooke, and Maynard III. During the late 1960s Jackson worked as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board and a legal services firm.
In 1968 thirty-year-old Jackson undertook an impulsive, quixotic, and underfunded race for the U.S. Senate against entrenched incumbent Herman Talmadge. Although he won less than a third of the statewide vote, he carried Atlanta and immediately became a force to be reckoned with in city politics. The next year he was elected vice mayor, the presiding officer of the board of aldermen. While Jackson was serving in this role, the charter of the city of Atlanta was modified to strengthen the hand of the mayor. The new charter changed the aldermen to council members and replaced the vice mayor with the position of president of the city council.
As mayor, one of Jackson’s main priorities was to ensure that minority businesses received more municipal contracts, and he succeeded in raising the proportion from less than 1 percent to more than 35 percent. His crowning achievement was building the massive new terminal at Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport with significant minority participation, and in his own words, “ahead of schedule and under budget.” (In 2003 the airport’s name was changed to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in Jackson’s honor.) Jackson’s insistence on affirmative action, his emphasis on public involvement in neighborhood planning, and other issues created a rift between the mayor and much of the white business community in Atlanta.
Jackson remained influential in city politics behind the scenes during the Young administration, and he decided to seek a third term in 1989. The civil rights activist Hosea Williams ran against him, but Jackson carried nearly 80 percent of the vote. A defining event of his third term involved the seizure of an abandoned downtown hotel by defiant homeless protesters. Promising 3,500 new housing units for the poor, Jackson defused the conflict after a two-week standoff. Although Payne, Young, and others were more intimately involved in the bid to bring the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta, Jackson assisted the effort and represented the city at the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain. During the 1980s Jackson mended ties with much of the white business community, and as a result more of his support crossed racial and economic lines. Scandals involving payoffs and cronyism in airport concessions involved Jackson associates, but he was never implicated. Jackson denied any wrongdoing and declared that he had “a record of fighting corruption at the airport.”
In the fall of 1992 Jackson underwent major heart surgery, and the following spring he declared that he would not seek a fourth term due to health and personal concerns. There is little doubt that he would have been reelected had he run. Jackson supported the candidacy of city councilman Bill Campbell, although he later distanced himself from Campbell as scandals arose. Shirley Franklin, a longtime Jackson staffer, succeeded Campbell as mayor in 2002 with strong support from Jackson.
In 1994 Jackson returned to the bond and security business, this time founding his own firm. The Atlanta Business Chronicle reported that the state employee and teacher retirement systems were Jackson Securities’ largest clients. Among his many civic projects, he founded and funded a foundation to empower black youth with leadership skills. The ex-mayor played several major roles for the Democratic National Committee and in 2001 was in the running to become party chairman. He was also widely considered to be a possible U.S. Senate candidate to succeed Zell Miller, after Miller announced his plans to retire, but Jackson took himself out of the race early in 2003.
Jackson died in Washington, D.C., of a heart attack on June 23, 2003. He lay in state at city hall and at Morehouse College, and the memorial service at the Atlanta Civic Center drew more than 5,000 mourners.
If you’d like to read more about the Dobbs family, you can in the book Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn: The Saga of Two Families and the Making of Atlanta by Gary M. Pomerantz.