NEW YORK – Even after Maynard Jackson was no longer Atlanta’s mayor, he maintained an active role in the city he transformed. On his way out after serving three terms, Jackson invited his friend the Rev. Al Sharpton to come down for a visit.
“I got there and there were police there. I said, ‘Oh God, what did I do now?’” Sharpton said with a chuckle. “He said, ‘Follow me!’ He shut me in a room with Shirley Franklin, who had become the new mayor. He said, ‘You guys need to know each other.’”
Sharpton was interviewed for “Maynard,” the documentary about Jackson that premiered here at the DOC NYC film festival on Thursday. Afterward, he expressed his thoughts about both the man and the movie.
“You never really felt you were watching a documentary,” said Sharpton, who shared screen time with notables including former President Bill Clinton, former Atlanta Mayors Sam Massell, Andy Young, Shirley Franklin and Bill Campbell, and current Mayor Kasim Reed. “It was like watching a drama.”
The film, which producers intend to take on the festival circuit before planning an Atlanta premiere next year, has been in the works for years. Its debut feels timely, coming a few weeks before Atlanta chooses its next mayor.
“Right now is the right time to talk about Maynard Jackson because in my opinion we are suffering through a crisis of integrity in our society, and he was a man of integrity,” said his daughter Brooke Jackson Edmond. “He really wanted nothing more than to serve the people of Atlanta, to leave the city a stronger, better city, to create equal economic opportunity for men and women of all colors, ages and nationalities, and everything he did was toward that end.”
“Maynard,” directed by Sam Pollard, delves into some of Atlanta’s highest and lowest points over the past decades in telling the story of its first black mayor. It captures the exuberance of landing the 1996 Summer Olympics and the tragedy of the Atlanta child murders. It explores the buoyant civic spirit surrounding Jackson’s election and the gloomier moments of personal family strife.
Maynard Jackson III, who with his wife Wendy Eley Jackson served co-producer, had to relive some challenging chapters of his own life as the film noted his arrests on drug charges in years past. But he was more interested in amplifying his dad’s legacy than in shielding his past.
“God inspired me. I literally woke up with the idea,” he said. “What inspired me was the climate of today and a need to tell my father’s story and the things he accomplished.”
The great-grandson of Cobb County slaves, the elder Jackson was born to parents whose efforts to combat racial inequality were harbingers of the trail he would later blaze. His mother, Irene Dobbs Jackson, earned a doctorate in French from the University of Toulouse in southern France and became a Spelman College professor. In 1959, she claimed an early civil rights victory by prevailing in her quest for an Atlanta library card.
Jackson’s father, the Rev. Maynard Jackson Sr., was a Morehouse College graduate who founded a voter registration league for black residents in Dallas, Texas. In 1944, Maynard Sr. was the first black candidate to run for the Dallas school board. He lost and moved his family to Atlanta, where he served as pastor of Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church.
At 30, Jackson took on powerful U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge, an unsuccessful bid that boosted his name recognition and honed his campaigning skills. Five years later, he would become mayor.
“It was unreal that the capital of the Confederacy would elect a black mayor,” Sharpton said. “The most memorable thing is he would always talk about economic development. He was the first black mayor that I know that talked about black folks making money.”
The documentary highlights Jackson’s demonstrative role in creating opportunity for black residents — informing banks that had no black board members, for example, that the city would look elsewhere for business partners if they refused to diversify. Affirmative action programs he championed ensured black business owners’ participation in city contracts.
While overwhelmingly positive in its treatment of its subject, “Maynard” does delve into some of the political controversy surrounding Jackson. At loggerheads with then-Police Chief John Inman, Jackson appointed the late Reginald Eaves as Atlanta’s public safety commissioner, a job outranking the chief. Eaves was forced to resign in 1978 amid a police exam cheating scandal, but not before Jackson held a tempestuous news conference blasting then-Councilman Wyche Fowler for calling on Eaves to step down.
“Sometimes he was a little harsh with people when they didn’t believe as strongly as he did,” Edmond said of her dad. “He was meticulous in his execution of his plan. He pushed things through to the end. He never bent. He never wavered.”
Edmond’s mom Bunnie Jackson-Ransom, Jackson’s first wife, mused during the movie that he could be like a bull in a china shop. Their marriage ended as the demands of the job contributed to stress at home. But she had only pleasant anecdotes to share, and many were humorous. He once told her to limit his ice cream intake as a health precaution, but threw a mini tantrum when she attempted to take away his favorite dessert, she recalled.
Jackson’s widow, Valerie Jackson, became emotional watching the film, during which she shared a tender poem her husband once wrote for her.
“There’s really a story here that I think is worth telling, and I’m excited,” she said.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a longtime friend of Jackson’s and among those interviewed for “Maynard,” was scheduled to attend on Thursday but didn’t make it. On Friday afternoon, he revealed he has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Sharpton mentioned Jesse Jackson during his remarks after the screening, noting how inspiring Maynard Jackson had been to them and other civil rights leaders.
“He meant a lot to me because he spent a lot of time helping a lot of us that were like a generation behind. He kind of understood we didn’t know all we thought we knew,” he said. “It wasn’t just kids in Atlanta he inspired. He inspired a race all over the country. He set a model for how a black mayor ought to leave black folks differently than how he found them. Every time anyone goes through the Atlanta airport, they should remember that it’s the capital of black economic development because of Maynard Jackson.”