By Cody Snyder
Born on Saturday, March 1, 1890, William B. Hartsfield would come to be one of the most influential mayors in Georgia’s history. Serving as the longest standing Atlanta mayor, Hartsfield helped navigate Georgia through the Great Depression, a civil rights movement and helped to establish the city as the aviation capital of the South.
William Hartsfield was born and raised in Georgia where he studied business and law before being admitted to the Georgia Bar Association in 1917. From there, he was appointed to the Atlanta City Council in 1923, and eventually went on to serve in the State Legislature in 1933. In 1937, Hartsfield was elected mayor of Atlanta and served until retiring in 1961.
Although most prominently recognized by Georgia natives as the namesake for Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Mayor Hartsfield also played a pivotal role in the success of the Atlanta civil rights movement.Although most prominently recognized by Georgia natives as the namesake for Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, Mayor Hartsfield also played a pivotal role in the success of the Atlanta civil rights movement. Hartsfield’s political career took place during a turbulent time in Atlanta. Overseeing the socio-political evolution of segregation by color, Atlanta grew tenfold in its population, legitimizing its status as a large metropolitan city.
After the Georgia white primary was declared unconstitutional in 1946, the electoral system to black political participation was opened. This Supreme Court decision allowed Hartsfield to develop a gradualist approach to race relations through the creation of a biracial coalition for winning elections.
In 1947, one of Hartsfield’s more historical acts as mayor was hiring Atlanta’s first black police officer. Under his leadership, a total of seven more black officers were hired.
This progression of interracial relations proved both successful and useful as the country experienced the beginning of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and Atlanta’s racial unrest in the 1960s.
By the 1960s, racial protests, demonstrations and lunch counter sit-ins had made their way to Atlanta by way of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The most effective and recognized efforts were those led by Georgia college students involving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Rich’s department store.
On October 19, 1960, 80 students, along with King, were arrested for participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and restaurants. Hartsfield intervened, negotiating a temporary peace agreement among many influential black leaders and the student representatives.
Atlanta’s civic leaders met at city hall to discuss future negotiations as to how the social and political climate would evolve. During this time, demonstrations were put on hold for 30 days in exchange for the release of jailed students.
King, however, remained in jail to face a hearing to determine whether his arrest violated his probation. King remained in custody until October 27, when Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy personally called the judge in charge of the case, prompting his release on bail.
Although representative negotiations among the local groups eventually broke down and the sit-ins and protests regained traction, the Chamber of Commerce and Atlanta’s African-American leaders would eventually sign an agreement in early 1961, ending the demonstrations.
After the passing of Hartsfield in 1971, the city of Atlanta renamed the airport in his honor due to his efforts in transforming Atlanta into the aviation powerhouse that it is today. Hartsfield was succeeded as mayor by Ivan Allen Jr.