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Atlanta's first black mayor dies

Maynard Jackson
Maynard Jackson

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Maynard Jackson Jr., a former three-term Atlanta mayor and the first African-American elected to run a major Southern city, died Monday of a heart attack at age 65, associates said.

Jackson presided over much of Atlanta's emergence as a major commercial and transportation hub in the years following the civil rights movement.

He died Monday morning after collapsing at Reagan National Airport in Washington, said Bill Campbell, another former Atlanta mayor.

"Maynard really created the new Atlanta," said Campbell, whom Jackson endorsed to succeed him in 1994. "What is known as the capital of the New South came from his insistence that minorities, including women, be allowed into business."

Jackson was the city's youngest mayor, at 35, when first elected in 1973.

"You could feel it," said former National Urban League President Vernon Jordan, a high school bandmate of Jackson's. "I knew the South had changed."

During his years in office, Atlanta built the municipal airport now often ranked as the nation's busiest -- a project he boasted as completed on time and under budget -- and mounted a successful bid to host the 1996 Olympic games.

"He was one of Atlanta's great salesmen," said Gary Pomerantz, an author who chronicled Jackson's career. Pomerantz compared him to Atlanta newspaper editor Henry Grady, the prophet of a New South a century earlier.

His leadership was critical in 1979-1981 when a series of slayings of young blacks gripped the city with grief, anger and fear.

Jackson pushed through a citywide affirmative action program that required municipal contractors to take on minority-owned businesses as partners and pressured the city's major law firms to hire black lawyers.

He once threatened that "tumbleweeds would run across the runways of the airport" if minorities were not included in city contracts.

Campbell said Jackson "was to affirmative action what Martin Luther King was to civil rights." Jackson's affirmative action program, which drew sharp criticism from Atlanta business leaders at the time, "became a model for governments around the country," he said.

"It's ironic he would die on the same day his principles were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court," Campbell said.

The high court Monday upheld an affirmative action admission program in the University of Michigan law school, although it struck down a point-based program for the university's undergraduate admissions.

Jackson moved to Atlanta with his family from Dallas, Texas, where he was born in 1938. A child prodigy, he graduated at 18 from Morehouse College, later earning a law degree from North Carolina Central University.

He was the grandson of a prominent segregation-era black leader in Atlanta, John Wesley Dobbs, and the son of the pastor of one of the city's influential black churches, the Rev. Maynard H. Jackson Sr.

"I think he understood at a very young age that he was going to be a leader, and the ballot -- politics -- is the way he was going to get there," Pomerantz said.

Jackson served two consecutive terms as mayor, stepped aside for eight years, then sought and won a third term in 1989 with 80 percent of the vote. But many observers said Jackson seemed to lack the enthusiasm he brought to the job in his earlier terms.

"Times had changed," Pomerantz said. "In the 1970s, there was a need for the great spokesman, and Maynard filled that role so well.

"Whereas by the '90s, there were so many intractable problems in cities like drugs and crime, and a mayor's role was a little bit different."

His health was a problem as well. Jackson had extensive heart surgery in 1992 to clear blocked arteries and had battled diabetes in recent years.

He was 6 feet 3 and weighed more than 300 pounds at one point: Though he lost much of that weight in the 1970s and early '80s, he regained a significant amount later.

During his three terms as mayor, he established a black Democratic political machine that still dominates city affairs.

After stepping down as mayor, Jackson founded an Atlanta-based investment-banking firm, Jackson Securities.

The business came under scrutiny in the 1990s when it received millions of dollars in business from Atlanta's city government during Campbell's administration, but no allegations of wrongdoing emerged.

"Everything he got, he earned," Campbell said. "The city owes him far more than he ever got from any business with it."

Jackson unsuccessfully sought the job of Democratic National Committee chairman in 2001. He remained active within the party, serving as its national development chair and leading its Voting Rights Institute.

Sen. Zell Miller, who was Georgia's governor during Jackson's last term as mayor, called Jackson "a good friend whose counsel I always sought."

"His passing leaves a huge vacuum of leadership that no one individual can ever fill," Miller said in a statement issued Monday. "There will never be another like him."

Another one-time Georgia governor, former President Jimmy Carter, called Jackson "a great friend and supporter" and offered his family's condolences.

"Under his leadership, Atlanta thrived and the state benefited as well," Carter said.

CNN Correspondent Art Harris contributed to this report.

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