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The year was 1974. Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr., who had just been inaugurated as Atlanta’s first black mayor, was holding court with the city’s business leadership. He told them that he was going to move forward with the expansion of Hartsfield Airport, transforming one of the nation’s busiest airports into an international hub. Then, he dropped the bombshell: 25% of all contracts would be set aside for minority firms.
Members of Atlanta’s business establishment recoiled as they heard this new mandate; many charged that the act was illegal. For minority businesses, however, it meant many would gain a substantial share of a project initially valued at $450 million.
Jackson reportedly told those in opposition: “We simply won’t build [the airport] if you don’t agree to this. You can have 75% of the project or you can have 100% of nothing. What is your choice?”
The meeting led to a two-year battle with the some of the most powerful men in the South. They used their clout to call in political chips to get the governor and state legislature to wrest control of the airport expansion project from the Jackson administration. By 1976, however, all parties would eventually agree to Jackson’s modified version of his set-aside plan: a goal of 20% to 25% participation of minority-owned firms. Ever pragmatic, the mayor used the delay to sell corporations on the previously unheard of concept of joint ventures with minority firms, as well as to reassure black businesses that they would get something heretofore denied them: fair access to their share of contracts on a major public works project.
The result: Jackson increased the percentage of contracts to minorities from less than 1% in 1973 to roughly 39% five years later. In the process, he strengthened the black middle class, created scores of black millionaires, and bolstered BE 100S companies such as The Gourmet Cos. and H.J. Russell & Co.
“Jackson was like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when it came to ensuring African Americans got a chance to participate in the nation’s economic marketplace,” says Herman Russell, chairman and CEO of the nation’s largest black-owned construction company. Russell maintains that his $300 million firm would not be the size it is today if not for Jackson’s policy. H.J. Russell alone did about $100 million worth of work at Hartsfield Airport over a three-year period.
In terms of black business development, Jackson not only opened doors for African American entrepreneurs in Atlanta, but others nationally. “He got the attention of black mayors, and some white mayors, in other major cities like Detroit, Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago,” Russell adds. “He helped put us on another plateau in terms of our dollar volume, the larger jobs, and getting joint ventures with major contractors that would not look at us before. He opened the doors where we otherwise would have been shut out.”
His audacious moves earned him the distinction of being considered one of the godfathers of affirmative action. Jackson used the mayor’s office as an agency of change and