Downtown Atlanta skyline, looking southwest from the Downtown Connector, January 1970, AJCNS1970-01-00e, Atlanta-Journal Constitution Photographic Archives, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.
The turning point of Black political empowerment came in 1969, when Leroy Johnson, Atlanta Life President Jesse Hill Jr., and the most prominent members of the Black political community focused their energy on adding African Americans to the sixteen-member Board of Aldermen, which previously seated only one Black member. The election of four additional Black members to the Board demonstrated the growing political power of the Black community. But, that same year, the biracial political coalition between white moderates and Black elites failed to agree on a candidate for the mayor’s race. While many moderate whites supported Republican Rodney Cook, African Americans overwhelmingly supported Vice Mayor Sam Massell, a Jewish candidate who had gained the public confidence of Johnson. With Johnson’s support, Massell won more than 90 percent of the Black vote in the mayoral run-off. Massell’s victory signaled the end of the old biracial political coalition and marked the beginning of a new era of Black political power in Atlanta—an era that began when Johnson negotiated the return of Muhammad Ali to boxing.15
Johnson had never promoted a boxing match before, but he knew the art of promotion. He was more than a shrewd politician; he was a power broker who wielded political capital. So when Harry Pett, a white local merchant, called and asked him about the chances of sponsoring an Ali fight in Atlanta, he was instantly intrigued.
In the first week of August 1970, Robert Kassel, an ambitious New York attorney and board chairman of Sports Action, Inc., called Pett, his father-in-law. Since 1967, Sports Action, Inc., created by Ali’s attorney Bob Arum and promoter Mike Malitz, had sponsored numerous boxing matches and closed circuit broadcasts. When Kassel called Pett, he had one question: was there enough Black political power in Atlanta to stage an Ali fight? “The man to see about that,” Pett answered, “is Leroy Johnson.”16
When Johnson spoke with Pett on the phone, “Old Leroy,” as his white allies affectionately called him, said that he needed to determine if there were any legal obstacles that would prevent Ali from boxing in the city. After a few phone calls he learned that there was no state boxing commission in Georgia, which meant that individual municipalities granted boxing licenses. The city’s Board of Aldermen, which included members who owed their positions to Johnson, held the authority to sanction prizefights. Kassel flew to Atlanta where he met Johnson in a motel room and made a deal: Sports Action, Inc. would underwrite everything for the fight and promote the ancillary rights. Johnson, along with Pett and Jesse Hill Jr., made House of Sports, Inc. responsible for obtaining Ali’s boxing license and securing a venue for the match.
The next day Johnson called Mayor Sam Massell and informed him of his plans to bring Ali to Atlanta. Massell, who had been in office for less than a year, was stunned at Johnson’s proposal. Massell said, “You want to bring who to do what? I don’t need to take all those brickbats on something like that.” Johnson pleaded, “Sam, I need your help. I can’t do this without you.” Johnson did not need to remind Massell that he had courted Black voters on the Mayor’s behalf. As a former selective service agent during World War II, Massell understood the laws regarding conscientious objectors and in his view Ali was a free man who had a right to earn a living. Ultimately, Massell hesitantly supported Johnson’s plan in exchange for a commitment from Sports Action, Inc. to deliver $50,000 to the city’s Commission on Alcoholism and Drugs. Finally, Massell said, “If anyone else had come in here and asked me for that, I’d told him to go straight to hell. But I can’t tell you no.”17
After Kassel learned that Johnson had the Mayor’s support, he asked, “What are you going to do about Maddox?” Lester Maddox was the Governor of Georgia and an ardent segregationist. Before he became governor in 1967, he was best known for his “family-friendly” restaurant in a working-class neighborhood on Hemphill Avenue. At the Pickrick (“You PICK it out, we RICK it up!”), Maddox served fried chicken, sweet tea, and old-fashioned southern hospitality. During the civil rights era, he published advertisements defending segregation on the basis of Christian principles, individual rights, and southern tradition. He also pointed to the financial success of the Black community in Atlanta as evidence that they benefitted from segregation. In his campaign for governor, his populist politics appealed to working-class whites. The bald, skinny man with rimless glasses, who looked like the pharmacist at the corner drugstore, railed against liberalism, welfare, and the dangers of “racial amalgamation.” Voters remembered how the day after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, he turned away a group of Black customers, brandishing a pistol and arming whites with ax-handles. A year later, rather than comply with the law, Maddox closed the Pickrick’s doors and sold ax-handles as souvenirs.18
Leroy Johnson feared that Maddox, like every other governor in America, would deny Ali the opportunity to return to the ring. When they first met in the governor’s office, Johnson tried to appeal to Maddox’s politics, arguing that Ali did not want to be on welfare; he simply wanted to earn a living as a boxer. Unconvinced, Maddox resisted the arguments. Then Old Leroy tried a different approach. He remembered that the Governor’s son had recently been arrested for burglary. At the trial, the judge said that Maddox’s son deserved “another chance.” Johnson pressed the Governor, maintaining that Ali deserved “another chance,” too. “On with the fight,” Maddox told him.19
With the Governor’s support, Johnson and Kassel flew Ali to Atlanta for a press conference where they announced that he would fight heavyweight champion Joe Frazier on October 26 at Municipal Auditorium, though Frazier had not yet signed a contract. His manager, Yancey “Yank” Durham, doubted that Ali actually had a license. While photographers snapped pictures and writers scribbled quotes into their notepads, Ali and Johnson sat behind a press table, center stage, surrounded by the old boxing fraternity and Atlanta’s Black elite: Martin Luther King Sr., Vice Mayor Maynard Jackson, Reverend Samuel Williams, State Representative John Hood, Alderman Q. V. Williamson, and a group of Black college presidents, among many others. It was a striking scene, a picture of southern Black unity in triumph, an occasion owed to Johnson who had employed “the old approaches of the string-tie Southern politicians, sweet-talkin’ and favor swappin’ in back rooms,” putting “them to work for Black power, Atlanta style.”20