“‘Aging is not lost youth but a new stage of opportunity and strength.’ And Sam is the perfect example of this.” Citing the quote from activist Betty Friedan, Gail Solomon introduced former Atlanta mayor Sam Massell at “Sam’s Stories,” July 9 at Ahavath Achim Synagogue.
Solomon is chair of AA’s Mature Active Adult Community, which co-sponsored the program attended by more than 85 people with the synagogue’s Men’s Club. Approaching his 92nd birthday, Massell shared stories about his experiences growing up in Atlanta, business ventures, getting into politics, being elected as Atlanta’s only Jewish mayor and organizing the Buckhead Coalition.
He was born at Piedmont Hospital in 1927 and grew up in Atlanta’s Druid Hills neighborhood. His careers included real estate, tourism and becoming the first and only Jewish mayor of Atlanta.
Massell recalled his first money-making venture, selling soda in his neighborhood. “I learned my work ethic at the age of 9 when I owned and operated Bud’s Place, a Coca-Cola wooden stand.”
When his business grew, he put two stands together. “The DeKalb police told me now I needed a business license.” Not having the money for the license, he shut the business down.
The young entrepreneur would later become a successful Atlanta real estate developer and tourism company owner.
Decades later, the same work ethic and knowing how to solve business problems by finding better solutions served him well.
He said most of his success in politics was in the “timing,” the ability to take advantage of opportunities. In the 1950s, the city of Atlanta was run by an all-white executive committee for which members had to submit credentials to be approved and then appointed. He remembered when two qualified African Americans applied to be on the committee. They were turned down, so they went to court to appeal the decision. Although they won the case and were able to have their applications reviewed, they were not appointed, Massell said.
Because of that legal ruling, 15 of the 16 original committee members resigned. Massell found 12 more people. He changed the name, dropping the word “white.” Not one to just talk about social justice, Massell put his core beliefs about equality into concrete action.
As mayor from 1970 to 1974, Massell’s goal was to tap into the energy, education and talent of many underrepresented minorities to work for the city, not seeing skin color or gender as a reason not to hire. He championed this philosophy by making strategic political appointments. “For 125 years, no woman was on the Atlanta Board of Aldermen.” As mayor, Massell appointed Panke Bradley, the first woman on that body of government, which became the Atlanta City Council. He gave Maynard Jackson a job in his office. When Massell decided to run for a second term, Jackson decided to run for mayor as well. Jackson won, becoming the first black mayor of Atlanta.
Massell wants his legacy to show that Atlanta’s transfer from an all-white political power structure was peaceful, unlike some of the other cities in the South. He built good relations with businesses and organizations. To help promote the passage of MARTA, for instance, Massell flew over the city in a helicopter, hovering over the traffic into and around Atlanta and yelling, “If you want to get out of this mess – vote yes – Sam Massell – Mayor.”
Later he became the founder and director of the Buckhead Coalition, a position he has held for 30 years. He continues to go to work six days a week now, leaving one day a week to spend time with his wife, Sandra Gordy Massell.
“The Buckhead Coalition is limited to 100 CEOs by invitation, a good group of leaders doing service to the community.” Five members are Democrats, including Massell, who admitted “I am a liberal Democrat.” The other 95 are Republicans, but he said “We are not partisan. We work together to better the Buckhead community.” He stated that Buckhead is known today as an “address of choice” for new businesses and individuals, in part because of improving quality of life in the area’s 46 neighborhoods. For example, the Buckhead Coalition provided defibrillators for hotels, office buildings and churches.
In his concluding remarks, Massell pointed to the audience, saying, “You all have stories to tell. Write them now to become a legacy for your families.”
After Massell spoke, he led a Q&A with questions about such subjects as gentrification, zoning and Wieuca Road potholes. Some of the issues Massell spoke about are also contained in his 2017 book, “Play It Again, Sam: The Notable Life of Sam Massell, Atlanta’s First Minority Mayor,” by Charles McNair. At the event last week, he signed copies of the book, which is available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble.