RIP Mayor Sam Massell
R.I.P. The Mayor of Buckhead (1927-2022)
Welcome to my newsletter by me, King Williams. A documentary filmmaker, journalist, podcast host, and author based in Atlanta, Georgia. This is a newsletter covering the hidden connections of Atlanta to everything else.
1. Mayor Sam Massell has died
Former Atlanta Mayor and Buckhead Coalition President Sam Massell (1927-2022) has died at age 94. Massell was the 53rd mayor of Atlanta, serving from 1969-73, he was Atlanta’s first and only Jewish mayor. Massell’s career as a lifelong Atlantan has seen him reach the heights of political and social capital in the city’s history. Massell’s last 25+ years have seen him act in the role of elder statesman in Atlanta, where even up until his death over the weekend, his voice mattered.
2. Pre-political career
Massell was an Atlanta area native, he graduated from Druid Hills High School in the Emory section of DeKalb at age 16. Massell then attended the University of Georgia before transferring to Emory University to complete his undergraduate degree, only to be interrupted after being drafted by the US Air Force. Massell attended basic training but at the dissolution of World War II, finished his degree at Georgia State University. Massell then proceeded to then gained his law degree from Atlanta Law School (now named John Marshall Law School). Massell’s pre-law career saw him have a successful career in real estate including being the vice president of Allan-Grayson Realty Company and a member of the Atlanta Real Estate Board.
During his time, Massell also was a co-founder in the Million Dollar Club, specialty club within the Atlanta Real Estate Board. Massell eventually found a knack for developing medical towers, cashing in on the emerging health care industry and older silent generation parents needing care at the time. Massell used some of his success to purchase a small home in Mountain Park, jump starting his political career.
3. Political career
Massell’s career began in the 1953, after an internal uproar of Black Atlantans attempting to join the White Democratic Executive Committee, all but one resigned. Massell quickly jumped at the opportunity, as the organization allowed for Massell to learn on local politics from Atlanta’s longest tenured mayor William B. Hartsfield.
Massell’s career took another step forward by first running for office in the small north Fulton municipality of Mountain Park. Mountain Park is a micro-city then composed of mostly vacation homes at the edge of North Fulton and Cherokee County. At the time Mountain Park had a unique stipulation that those who owned property but did not live in the area could run for office, Massell did, won, then started his career. Shortly after being elected to office in Mountain Park Massell quickly moved into Atlanta politics, becoming an influential member throughout the 1960s and early 1970s.
3b. Atlanta city council
Massell first became involved in city politics in the last days of Atlanta’s aldermen system (the precursor to the current city council system) in the early 1960s. Massell first got involved by serving on the Atlanta City Executive Committee. Shortly after, Massell ran for the role of Alderman President (equivalent to the current city council president), serving for eight years before he ran in 1969 for Mayor of Atlanta. Massell ran against Rodney Mims Cook, a Republican liberal-progressive candidate in the era of the political shift in white voters from southern democrats to the GOP. Cook had the support of the majority of white voters, outgoing mayor Ivan Allen, and the business community. Massell had the majority of Black voters, which tipped the election in his favor. Despite his loss in the election, Cook and Massell maintained a positive relationship years after.
4. Mayor of Atlanta
Massell was elected in 1969, becoming Atlanta’s first and only Jewish mayor. Massell’s single tenure as mayor is one of the most impactful in Atlanta’s history. Under Massell, Atlanta saw the development of Woodruff Park and Colony Square.
Massell’s run for mayor included an overwhelming majority of Black support. Massell’s tenure also saw the first appointment of a woman to the city council, alongside the first Black Atlantans appointed as heads of municipal departments in the city of Atlanta. Massell’s tenure saw the first enclosed professional arena, the Omni Coliseum in 1972. “The Omni” was the home of the Atlanta Hawks basketball team and Atlanta Flames (now Calgary) hockey team. But Massell’s biggest achievement as mayor was the formalization and development of MARTA, Atlanta’s new regional transit system which started its bus service in 1972.
4b. Re-election loss and the election of Maynard Jackson
Massell in 1973 ran for re-election against the then-Vice Mayor Maynard Jackson. That election would eventually see Jackson upset Massell to become Atlanta’s first Black mayor. That election was noticeable for the dog-whistle politics that emerged from Massell’s campaign. A sharp departure from the campaign that was presented four years prior. The most well-known slogan during the election, ‘Atlanta’s Too Young to Die’ was a direct reference to the idea of Maynard Jackson, being Atlanta’s first Black Mayor. The ad reflected the attitudes at the time overlapping a shift in attitudes towards Black political leadership and the peak of white flight from Atlanta in the 1970s. Massell in defeat did not stay away from remaining a political figure, as his proceeding third act of his life would see his merging of his entreprenuership and his city hall experience lend him to become ‘The Mayor of Buckhead’.
5. "The Mayor of Buckhead”
Massell first moved to Buckhead in 1952 as a renter at a small apartment at Adina Drive and Lindbergh, then for the rest of his life, he remained a Buckhead resident until his death over the weekend. The 20 years of Massell in Buckhead including his various political, social and entreprenuerial stints gave him a prolonged presence in city politics, earning the moniker ‘the mayor of Buckhead’.
5b. Post-mayoral career
In the post-electoral life, Massell got back into entrprenuership, starting a local tourism company, Aditus Inc. The company offered tours across the globe and to local events like the annual Falcons vs Saints NFL game. Massell continued to be involved in Jewish community concerns, mainintaing a relation the Temple, the Atlanta Jewish Federation, and the Anti-Defamation League.
5c. The political prowess remains
The post-political career of Massell saw him continue to be a force in Atlanta politics. Massell served on the Board of MARTA, as well as was a member of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games (ACOG). Massell also became a key supporter in the eventual election of Shirley Franklin in 2001.
Massell also used his political heft to aid in the creation of Georgia 400, a then-toll road connecting Buckhead to the northern suburbs. His biggest impact post-mayor being the founding of the Buckhead Coalition, arguably the most impactful civic organization in the city’s history.
5d. The Buckhead Coalition
The Buckhead Coalition is one of the most enduring legacies of Massell and his biggest post-political career. Founded in 1988, the Buckhead Coalition has become a collective of businesses, individuals, and local leaders. Massell stepped down from leading the Buckhead Coalition in June of 2020. Under the guidance of the Buckhead Coalition, the smaller economic development arm, the Buckhead Community Improvement District (Buckhead CID) that was spun off into a separate, successful organization. The Buckhead CID has aided in private and public capital raises for improvement projects in the area including the Buckhead MARTA Station bridge and the Peachtree Transformation project.
6. Sam Massell’s legacy
Massell’s legacy as one of the old guards of Atlanta has grown in importance over the years. Even in the last months of his life, Massell’s influence as a critic in stopping Buckhead's potential secession was one of the deciding voices on the matter.
There is a book of his life, 2017’s Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta's First Minority Mayor, that I would also suggest purchasing or checking out from the library. I would also recommend listening to this 2008 Massell interview with Bob Short for the UGA Library and Young Harris College.
Massell will be having funeral services on tomorrow at 3pm at The Temple. Former Mayor Andrew Young, who just held his 94th birthday over the weekend, will be speaking at the service as well. In addition to words from Mayor Andre Dickens, developer Steve Selig, (who is the cousin of Massell).
If you want to learn more about Sam Massell, here are some good reads:
The AJC - Catalyst for change - 9/3/2017
The AJC - At 92, former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell ready for his next adventure - 3/5/2020
Georgia State University - Atlanta’s Champion - 8/2014
Atlanta Magazine - 60 Voices: Sam Massell and Andre Dickens on city government - 4/27/2021