By: The Investigative Reporters of the Georgia Weekly Post
As a teenager, Sam Massell was a young entrepreneur.
Atlanta and Coca-Cola are historically interwoven. He was a product of Coke. He sold it at five cents, making a profit of two-cents each in his front yard. Today, what started as a long distance relationship with Coke became as close as it could be. The CEO of Coca-Cola and Sam Massell sit together around a large table, under one “tent”, accommodating 100 members known as the Buckhead Coalition. Sam, as the president of the powerful not-for-profit organization sits at the head of the table.
Growing up during the depression became a challenge. Fighting all the odds, he exercised a positive attitude toward business. It was time to expand his repertoire, he moved up, having a coke-stand at the corner of Oakdale and North Decatur. As it is today in many parts of Buckhead, he brought more traffic until he was chased by the police. As a youngster with big ideas, he diversified, to sell flower seeds and newspapers, illegally at the time, he was able to sell fireworks.
Growing up in Atlanta, during the time of segregation was a painful process. He attended Atlanta public high schools and moved on to earn a law degree at night school. As a Jew, during his college years, he was only allowed to join Jewish fraternities. This did not prevent him from learning and get involved in school politics. He demonstrated political skills at his young age by runing for president and winning in a landslide. He went on to join the military by joining the Air force. He did not see any action, as he recalls it.
For years, the Massell family was known for their contribution to the real-estate development of the city of Atlanta. His uncle Ben Massell was a major developer in Atlanta. Mayor William Hartsfield recognized the family's contribution and those of Ben's by describing them as "Atlanta's one man boom who changed the physical appearance of Atlanta more than any man in the city." Another endorsement was provided by Former Mayor Ivan Allan, "Sherman burned Atlanta and Ben Massell built it back," he said.
▲Left to Right: Sam Massel, Ben Massell, Mayor William Hartsfield.
For 20 years he was in business with his father. He worked in law and real estate. In 1952, he married Doris, a southern Baptist who converted to the Jewish faith. He, a reformed jew, had to go to Sunday school to get her attention.
Encouraged and supported by his family, Sam ran for vice-mayor of Atlanta in 1961. He won and was able to change the ceremonial role of the office into a full-time active job.
The sixties were gone. By then, Sam Massell was ready to take the helm of the City of Atlanta. It was a very obvious choice.
Massell was elected after a difficult race, with an outpouring of support from many black voters. Maynard Jackson was elected as a vice-mayor. Black voters trusted Sam's leadership and building abilities.
During his four years as a mayor, Atlanta's politics changed forever, making it harder for him to win a second term four years later. New faces of young black civil leaders are out in droves. Black voters and leaders wanted to taste power. Maynard Jackson was able to defeat Massell in a racially divisive election, four years later. The election of the mayor of Atlanta became more important on the pages, radio and TV than the election of the president of the United States. It became a global news story followed closely by many including those at the White House and Moscow.
The White House, is not a name exclusive to Washington D.C.
It is the name of former Mayor Sam Massell's choice for lunch.
At a Greek diner named after the White House at the heart of Buckhead, there we found him having his lunch, a Greek salad.
It was hard to find the small resturant in the middle of traffic. This is a busy part of Buckhead.
"Stop complaining. Traffic is what made Buckhead. All businesses in Buckhead thrive on traffic. Let them come and stay. They spend every year over a billion dollars here. Let them spend more time and more money," sounding like a salesman, he said.
Here he is, former Mayor Sam Massell, in a gray suit, blue-striped shirt and one of a kind - once controversial tie - projecting the undiminished power and influence over state and local politics in Atlanta including Buckhead for several decades.
People frequently refer to Massell as the "Mayor of Buckhead," an unofficial cognomen he is loath to accept. As president of the Buckhead Coalition, he has spent the last twenty-six-plus years as the official representative of the enclave's business community.
During his encounter with Georgia Weekly Post, his cell phone did not stop ringing. He looked serious but fit.
When asked, it did not bother him being called the last white Mayor of Atlanta or the Mayor of Buckhead.
"Every CEO of a business in this Buckhead is one. Every civic leader, school, church, builder, store owner, in Buckhead .. they are all Mayors of Buckhead," he said with a smile.
"Sam Massell, born August 26, 1927, is a business man who served from 1970 to 1974 as the fifty-third Mayor of Atlanta. He is the first Jewish mayor in Atlanta's history. He was preceded by Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. and succeeded by Maynard Jackson. Massell is very well-briefed by his staff. His time is very well-managed. He spends over 12 hours a day and travels continuously. He returns calls, even while he was in office as a Mayor," GWP was told by a state senate leader.
▲(left to right) Former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell, former Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen, Jr., Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Economic Opportunity Atlanta (EOA) Boisfeuillet Jones, at the Boisfeuillet Jones Retirement Dinner.
When asked "you've got new cities all around you, Dunwoody, Sandy Springs, Johns Creek, Brookhaven. How about Buckhead becoming a city?" he did not hesitate. His answer was swift and his tone firm, "I am against the idea. I will oppose it. It does not make sense".
As he was enjoying his Greek salad, sitting by the window facing the passing public, banging started on the window, three generations were waving at him. He waved back. It is still election season. Signs are still posted at the windows of this diner. GWP asked, contrary to rumors, he was not running for any political office. He assured this reporter. He is helping the city of Atlanta. "I don't have to get to an elected office to help. I am a supporter of the Mayor. I know what he is facing. I was there. I am happy leading the Buckhead Coalition for all these many years," he said.
The primaries just ended. The general election is still on the horizon. "Voters’ participation in the political process is my number one priority," he said. "It disappoints me to see a very low turn out," he added.
"Where is our media? In my opinion, the local media is failing to serve the real purpose by reporting as many details as are available to assist the voters in making their choices," he said with a hand gesture to a local businessman who stopped, joined by a group to say hello and tell him of his Memorial weekend's plans in Florida.
According to his friends, Mayor Massell grew to be critical of the media's coverage of the elections for years.
"Look .. there were more than a few judges, for example, on the ballot. Those are judges ... Not too many voters knew about them. Where was the media? We have been disappointed that the current editor of our daily Atlanta Journal-Constitution has discontinued its historical endorsement procedure of those they consider the best-qualified in the other races. Unfortunately, we don't know of unbiased measuring of candidate credentials in other contests. the press is very important," he told Georgia Weekly Post.
For over twenty-five years, Sam Massell served as the president of Buckhead Coalition. It is a non-profit group. It is made of a hundred members strong. They are the who’s who of corporate CEOs and political leadership in Georgia. It is a non-profit organization. To join, you have to receive an invitation. "Some wives were were turned away and not able to join their husbands and become members," he said.
▲Members of the Buckhead Coalition. From left to right: Chad Wright, Secretary, Buckhead Heritage Society; Deputy Chief Michael Simmons, Atlanta Fire Rescue; Sam Massell, and John Thomas, Chairman, Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Foundation.
Recognizing the importance of the 2014 elections, Sam Massell, through meeting and phoning, kept on urging the critics including the media to research many of those candidates to come forward and evaluate many of the unknown candidates of posts for judicial races. He urged the public to get involved and help.
"On election day, the voters are getting tired, going through a long list as they vote. Judges are listed at the bottom of the list and none of the voters will notice them. The election is over. Many were elected. Judges are non-partisan and we should take a closer look at them before we vote. They make laws. They render judgments," he said.
"We must ensure the best-qualified judiciary fits its purpose well," he added, while sipping his iced tea.
Looking at State politics, he thinks having a two year term in the House - State or federal posts - and the state senate makes no sense. "Most office-holders are spending most of their time campaigning and less time serving the public and working here in Atlanta or in Washington D.C."
Discussing the state of relations between local and state governments he said, "we can not depend on lobbyists. The State and the city must work closer as it was under my administration. I had the goodwill ambassador not a lobbyist. They abolished it after I left office. My biggest challenge was the size of the city government. I wanted it downsized. It is still growing in numbers and costs," he told the Georgia Weekly Post.
Sam Massell is an old hand in politics and knows about elections. He held elected office for two decades including four as mayor of Atlanta. He is called the last white mayor of Atlanta.
Sam is well-respected by his critics. He is one of the most knowledgeable Realtors, having leadership positions with Alan Grayson Realty, then one of the largest Brokerage firms in Georgia.
Sam Massell enjoys telling stories about himself, his wife of sixty years, his real estate development relatives and his years after finishing college.
▲Left Picture: (from left to right) wife Doris, Sam, daughter Cindy. Right Picture: Sam and his daughter Melanie.
His first job was an editor of a women’s fashion magazine. It was a trade journal for the National Association of Women and Children Apparel Salesmen. He did a good job, according to him. He expected to be rewarded. He had to negotiate his boss out of firing him and giving him a $50.00 raise. Recognizing his talent, it was a phone call by his boss to Alan-Grayson Realty that opened the next door for Sam Massell to the world of real estate. "That call changed my life. it made me what I am today," he said. He was a fast learner. It is the family business. It is in his blood. It did not take him too long to get into development on his own. Medical buildings were his speciality. His relatives were an overwhelming force that he could not compete with.
While in Real estate, he was honored on several occasions by the powerful Georgia Association of Real Estate Boards. He became very active in a wide range of civic leaderships that led him to the political arena, serving for over twenty years in elected posts. He was elected as the 53rd mayor of Atlanta and was elected again by a 15,000 member National League of Cities as their president. He was involved on the board of the Metropolitan Rapid Transits Authority (MARTA) of Atlanta and he participated .as a member of the Atlanta Committee hosting the Olympic games.
Noticing many, including the younger generation, reaching out to Massell in public and in politics. "They all know me well. I am a hard worker, I provide leadership, I am accessible, and not to mention, I look much younger too!" "Historically, I am very popular among women. When there was the opportunity, I appointed the first woman in 125 years to serve on the City Council of the City of Atlanta," he said. "My Largest achievement as a mayor was the creation of MARTA. Love it or hate it, it is the best thing that ever happened to Atlanta" He added.
When he was asked about the state of the Democrats in Georgia as he was interrupted by more people shaking his hands and having their pictures taken with him, he said, "Democrats are not well organized. In my opinion, it is leadership. The Republicans have a super majority and it is not healthy for the debates."
Today, since he left public office, he continues the family tradition of quiet philanthropy. The unofficial "Mayor of Buckhead" is still working hard to improve Atlanta, the city he helped change from a sleepy southern town to a major metropolis.
▲Standing: Mayor Kasim Reed. Former Mayor Andrew Young on the left and former Mayor Sam Massell on the right.
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