Originally created 10/12/03

Atlanta airport's name debated



ATLANTA - A push to add the name of former Mayor Maynard Jackson to the title of the city's sprawling airport pits the legacy of two popular mayors against each other and has reignited simmering tensions of new Atlanta vs. old, black vs. white.

The change seems almost certain. Two-thirds of Atlanta's 15 city council members gave tentative approval earlier this month to a moniker that might be as busy as the air hub itself - Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Much of the opposition leading up to the Oct. 20 vote is coming from the family of William B. Hartsfield, the city's longest-serving mayor. As a councilman in the 1920s, Hartsfield was instrumental in selecting a blackberry patch south of town as the original site for the airport.

"Plain and simple, Mayor Hartsfield fathered aviation in Atlanta," said distant cousin Dale Hartsfield, who has served as the family's spokesman.

"A hyphenated name will water down the honor for both men," he said. "The Hartsfield family does not have a problem with honoring Mayor Jackson. Atlanta should honor him. But why take away an honor that was bestowed on Mayor Hartsfield?"

The effort to put Mr. Jackson's name on the airport began almost immediately after his death in June.

Mr. Jackson, who became the first black mayor of a major Southern city in 1973, oversaw a $500 million expansion of the airport that was completed both on time and under budget. He also doggedly worked to ensure that a healthy percentage of the expansion's work went to minority contractors - a move credited with helping create Atlanta's sizable black middle and upper classes.

A petition in favor of putting Mr. Jackson's name on the airport received more than 50,000 signatures.

"This has never been just about what I wanted," said widow Valerie Jackson. "This has been about Atlanta and Maynard's legacy."

But some Jackson supporters drew criticism for briefly pushing to scrap Hartsfield's name entirely and framing the issue in overtly racial terms.

"This really shouldn't be about what the white business establishment would allow," state Rep. Mable Thomas, a former city council member, said at a public forum. "It's really what the strength of the African-American community will allow. What will we stand for?"

Mayor Shirley Franklin, responding to one of the first public controversies of her nearly two years in office, appointed a commission to study the best ways to honor Mr. Jackson.

The 17-member commission recommended keeping the airport's current name but naming a new $982 million terminal for Mr. Jackson.

But Ms. Franklin, who is black and once served in Mr. Jackson's administration, opted to break with the commission, becoming one of the first elected officials to push for the hyphenated Hartsfield-Jackson name.

She said the name "Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport" would be an honor to both mayors and "a compromise in the finest Atlanta tradition."

"William Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson are the two mayors who made the most significant contributions to aviation in Atlanta," she said. "Without their leadership, Atlanta would not be home to the busiest airport in the world, nor would Atlanta be the economic engine of the Southeast."

Name changes have actually not been anything new to Atlanta's airport, which ranks behind Chicago's O'Hare among the world's busiest, bringing in 77 million travelers and nearly $19 billion in business to the region each year.

The airport was originally called Candler Field in 1925 because the site was leased from Coca-Cola owner Asa Candler. Eventually it became Atlanta Municipal Airport. Mr. Hartsfield, who served from 1937 to 1940, and again from 1942 to 1961, ended his reign in office by opening what was at the time the largest single terminal in the nation.

After his death in 1971, Mayor Sam Massell pushed to rename the airport for him. It was officially dubbed William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport in 1980.

University of Georgia political scientist Charles Bullock said such incarnations should be expected as politicians drop homages to the heroes of yesteryear to honor new generations of leaders.

"You do things like this for people who have made a major contribution, but over time the significance of those contributions may begin to pale," Dr. Bullock said. "People who were active at the time leave the scene, retire or die. It warns you that all fame is fleeting."