Keisha Lance Bottoms: Atlanta’s leading visionary shares story of winning

Keisha Lance Bottoms: Atlanta's leading visionary shares story of winning

Just one week after winning a contentious runoff election to become the 60th mayor of Atlanta, Keisha Lance Bottoms glanced out of a large studio window overlooking her hometown. The sun, peeking through clouds, illuminated her face as the camera captured her in a fleeting moment of solitude. Her soft smile hinted at the relief of accomplishment while her intense eyes revealed a focused determination. She stood still, comfortable in her preparedness, even as she anticipated the long road ahead.  

The moment of calm would be a brief respite from the political storms sure to come.

Since taking office in January 2018, Bottoms has been swept up in a whirlwind of activity, balancing her political ambitions with being a wife and mother to four children.

“I was born and raised in Atlanta,” Bottoms proudly shared with this rolling out reporter. “I was surrounded with love and a strong sense of community from the very beginning.  I would like my footprint to resemble that same sentiment — an inclusive, equitable and just legacy where all residents from Buckhead to Bankhead are valued and have an equal chance to grow and thrive. It is my mission to leave this city better than I found it.”

Some of her notable accomplishments during her one-year tenure have included signing an ordinance that eliminated the Municipal Court’s cash bond requirement for some low-level offenders; launching a re-entry program to help ex-inmates with job placement and therapy for mental health issues; providing a 30-percent pay raise to Atlanta police officers; and hiring the city’s first chief housing officer to help tackle the lack of affordable housing.

But with every positive step forward, Bottoms has also dealt with the negativity that often comes with the challenge of being the mayor of a major city.

“The biggest obstacle has been the crabs-in-a-barrel syndrome,” Bottoms said regarding the challenges she has faced during her first year. “There are so many who would rather see me personally fail than our city succeed.”

One of the most pressing issues Bottoms faces involves legislation the Georgia Senate recently passed that would create the Georgia Airport Authority, which would take control of Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport away from the city and give it to the state. The pending takeover would serve as a major economic blow to Atlanta, which currently controls the “world’s busiest airport” as named by Airports Council International.

However, the takeover would have to clear major hurdles in the Georgia House of Representatives and could be rejected by the Federal Aviation Administration.

For Bottoms, who considers herself to be an extreme introvert who masks as an extreme extrovert, there is no easy route. Everything she has ever accomplished in life she got the hard way. 

Not the difficult path one would expect from a child of chart-topping R&B crooner Major Lance, who with his bride Sylvia Robinson raised their daughter and son, Ronnie, in Southwest Atlanta. Bottoms’ early days were initially carefree, but they became turbulent with her father’s imprisonment for a drug charge when she was only 8 years old. Her whole life changed when her mother worked numerous jobs before enrolling in cosmetology school, eventually opening a hair salon to support the family. Those hardscrabble experiences in the early years helped fuel Bottoms, and so did her current family dynamic, both of which she shared snippets about along the campaign trail.

Despite problems in her childhood, Bottoms’ grades in school never slipped, and she even managed to maintain a balanced social life. While at Frederick Douglass High School on Atlanta’s Westside, Bottoms ran for the coveted title of Miss Ninth Grade, only to come up short — or fail forward, in hindsight.

After graduating from Douglass, she enrolled at Florida A&M University and studied broadcast journalism before earning a law degree from Georgia State University. Those years away were critical and shaped how she would ultimately view the strength of Atlanta’s Black leadership. 

“I didn’t have an appreciation of growing up in Atlanta until I went to college in Tallahassee, Florida, to attend FAMU,” Bottoms said. “Being somewhere where leadership doesn’t look like you and you don’t see people in positions of power and influence, it’s something that you really don’t have an appreciation for until you don’t have it anymore.”

That experience planted the early seeds that would lead her into public service. She has practiced law for 20 years and served as a judge (pro hac vice) in Fulton County State Court. In 2010, she added the Atlanta City Council to her ever-expanding list of responsibilities. Five years after serving District 11 on the city council, Bottoms took the ultimate leap of faith and ran for mayor of Atlanta. 

Bottoms is part of a current trend of Black women who have been elected mayors of prominent cities. Vi Lyles (Charlotte, North Carolina); LaToya Cantrell (New Orleans); Muriel Bowser (Washington, D.C.); Catherine Pugh (Baltimore); and London Breed (San Francisco) are all leading the charge with Bottoms. 

In her election night acceptance speech, Bottoms put a finer point on it, saying, “For all the little girls out there who need somebody to believe that you’re better than your circumstances, I want you all to remember that Black girl magic is real.” 

Bottoms, who finds solace in prayer, exercise, a good night’s sleep and cooking, believes her position will continue to inspire the next generation, but she also commends other women who encourage Black girls to reach their full potential.

“As the 60th mayor, I am proud to lead on a world stage many watch,” Bottoms shared. “However, there are real heroes in the lives of Black girls every day. They are the mothers who make it happen in spite of their circumstances. They are the women who stood in the gap as role models. They are the teachers and volunteers who often believe bigger things for them than they can yet see for themselves.”

There is something empowering about witnessing a Black woman named Keisha serve as mayor of a major American city. 

Maynard Jackson III son of the late Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first Black mayor — and his wife Wendy Eley Jackson (Bottoms’ childhood friend), both believe that Bottoms is up to the task at hand. 

“Keisha is very capable,” Jackson III told rolling out during an interview. “She is a very smart woman, and she will be able to navigate the ins and outs of business while making sure people from all backgrounds have opportunities. She has the tools to build on what my father started.”

Atlanta is the only place in America where Black leadership controls a city that features several Fortune 500 companies and an international airport. Its uniqueness makes it an important location for Black America.

“Atlanta is home to rich cultural history and has thrived on an influx of diverse residents and businesses,” Bottoms said. “We have stressed the importance of private and public sectors working together to build our community holistically. This is the place where you can be yourself as we encourage an inclusive environment. What works in one part of the city may not work in the other. However, this is the beauty of Atlanta.

“Atlanta continues to set cultural trends throughout all spaces no matter what neighborhood you live in, and we celebrate the diversity of all areas. Being transparent and actively listening allows me to take time to clearly understand what is needed from all citizens and address the needs of everyone. It is equally important to provide spaces where their concerns can be heard. I have hosted a series of town halls since my days as an Atlanta city councilmember. I find those are the best ways to face needs head-on and connect with all constituents.”

Words by A.R. Shaw

Photos by DeWayne Rogers

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