Toward the end of Play It Again, Sam, his lively, highly readable biography of Sam Massell, author Charles McNair raises an interesting question about Buckhead, the wealthy neighborhood on Atlanta’s north side.
Massell served a single, four-year term as mayor of Atlanta back in the early 1970s, and might well be forgotten today except that his accomplishments out of office, like Jimmy Carter’s, outshine the official record. At age ninety, Massell remains aglow with energy and continues to serve as Buckhead’s public face. As president of the Buckhead Coalition for nearly three decades, Massell has looked after the interests of a city-within-a-city that covers twenty-eight square miles and has a population of some 80,000 residents. Given the recent trend of communities in metro Atlanta incorporating themselves and becoming their own small, separate cities, McNair wonders why Massell hasn’t led Buckhead to do so as well, in effect seceding from the sometimes difficult challenges that confront a largely white, largely affluent section of a city that has been governed by African American mayors since 1974, the year Massell left office.
Massell recoils at such an idea. No question Buckhead would do fine on its own, Massell tells the author. “But we have to think further than self-interests here. We have to look at the bigger picture. If Buckhead’s tax base disappeared, the city of Atlanta would almost certainly go bankrupt . . . or at least face such terrible financial struggles that it would be badly damaged, probably for a long time” (206). The whole metro region would suffer.I was struck by the thoughtfulness of Massell’s answer. Atlanta owes its reputation as capital of the New South to a number of factors, but one key was the so-called Plan of Improvement, when the city limits were expanded in 1952 to add Buckhead, the finger-bowl district, to Atlanta in the first place. Unlike other cities – Birmingham and Detroit come to mind – Atlanta would survive the era of white flight with a substantial number of movers and shakers captured inside its precincts and having a stake in its future. Grudgingly, but successfully, white economic power found a way to co-exist with black political power in what came to be known as “the Atlanta Way.”
Massell’s election as mayor was a textbook example of a city in racial transition. I balked at first at McNair’s subtitle, which calls Massell Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor, a Jew winning an office held by white gentiles since the city’s founding railroad stake was pounded in 1837. Some of the best chapters of the book detail the Driving Miss Daisy character of Massell’s formative years, growing up in a city that enjoyed generally good relations between Jews and gentiles, and where some Jewish families – including Massell’s – put up Christmas trees (25). That feeling of assimilation was shattered in 1958 when the infamous bombing of the Temple, Atlanta’s premier synagogue, showed that anti-Semitism retained its place among the era’s racial hatreds.McNair’s chapters on Massell’s political career ably capture the flavor of the day, including the slapstick presence of Massell’s brother, Howard, a notorious “swinger,” who was caught shaking down nightclub owners for contributions to button-down Sam’s campaign for mayor in 1969. That episode spurred the outgoing mayor, Ivan Allen, who never cared for Massell, his vice-mayor, to go on television and demand that he withdraw. Massell answered acidly that “Allen and his friends are the same men who don’t want me to sit in their clubs. I don’t know any other way to put it” (117).
Massell survived the sniffing disapproval of the Old Guard and won the mayor’s race – but with Maynard Jackson as his vice-mayor. The optics, as they say nowadays, were dramatic. Massell, all of five-foot-six, was literally dwarfed by Jackson, “large and in charge,” as he liked to say, and headed inexorably to capture the city’s black vote and win the mayor’s office in the next election. I like to think of the black and white races in Atlanta as political parties, willing to cross lines at times but generally loyal to their own. As long as whites were a majority, they elected white mayors, but black Atlantans made their votes count, notably tipping the balance away from Lester Maddox twice, in favor of Williams Hartsfield in 1957 and Ivan Allen Jr. in 1961. But thanks to the dismantling of Jim Crow laws and white flight to the school districts of the suburbs, by 1970 the city was majority black, and Massell was seemingly doomed to a lone term.
He tied a bow on his inevitable loss in 1973 with a graceless, two-page newspaper ad that contemplated Jackson as mayor and warned ominously, “Atlanta’s Too Young to Die.” Massell himself insists to this day that the ad was not racist, but it remains seen as a regrettable stain on his otherwise laudably progressive record. Like Carter with the Camp David accords, Massell can point to one singular success that will always outweigh the occasional missteps of his term in office – MARTA. By making good use of his friendly connections at the state Capitol, Massell revived a failed plan for mass transit and oversaw a successful referendum that gave Atlanta the lone commuter rail system in the South. On one memorable occasion, nicely described by McNair, Massell even climbed into a small police helicopter armed with a bullhorn and buzzed rush-hour drivers yelling, “You wouldn’t be in this mess if you had MARTA! If you want out of this mess, vote ‘yes’!” (134).
Massell also deserves credit for pushing the expansion of Atlanta’s airport, hiring and promoting African Americans at City Hall, and building the old Omni Coliseum without a tax hike.Play It Again, Sam goes on to detail Massell’s post-political career as a travel agent, a section that might not grip the general reading audience, but throughout the book one is struck by the boundless energy and ambition that Massell has brought to the endeavors of all nine of his decades. His service as president of the Buckhead Coalition, while not an elective office, has showcased Massell’s political talents – and his love for Atlanta – in a way that his one term in office could not. McNair has drawn a compelling portrait of a dedicated public servant whose contributions to Atlanta sprawl across an era, not just a term as mayor.
Citation: Allen, Frederick. “Book Review: Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor.” Atlanta Studies. October 26, 2017. https://doi.org/10.18737/atls20171026.
Frederick Allen was a reporter and columnist with the Atlanta Constitution from 1972 to 1987 before becoming a political commentator for CNN. He is the author of Atlanta Rising: The Invention of An International City, 1946–1996, Secret Formula: How Brilliant Marketing and Relentless Salesmanship Made Coca-Cola the Best-Known Product in the World and A Decent, Orderly Lynching: The Montana Vigilantes.