November 18, 2016
The city of Savannah did something right this week: It named the Daffin Park tennis courts after former Savannah mayor and tennis player Malcolm Maclean.
Mayor Maclean was the city’s most productive one-term mayor. The lawyer and former U.S. Navy officer rose to prominence during one of the most tense moments in Savannah’s history — the struggle for civil rights in the early 1960s. While rioting, violence and arson marked this era in other cities, Savannah was relatively peaceful, thanks in large part to its local leaders, white and black, who resisted the urge to angrily respond to segregation and injustice.
Instead, leaders like Mr. Maclean and his counterparts in the black community, including W. W. Law and Judge Eugene Gadsden, found common ground and stubbornly embraced non-violent change. And they succeeded.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously declared in 1964 that Savannah was the most desegregated city south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Mayor Maclean and his partners in the black community can claim much of the credit for that evolution.
In fact, to use a tennis analogy, Mr. Maclean and Mr. Law were a marvelous doubles team. Each man played to the other’s strengths to great success. Each would not have succeeded without the other.
But Mr. Maclean paid a political price. Many white voters weren’t happy with their white mayor, who oversaw the desegregation of city restrooms and public libraries. The story goes that he worked behind the scene to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from holding rallies in city-owned Grayson Stadium. Consequently, he lost his re-election bid in 1966, in large part to white backlash. But popularity was never his end game. His goal was to leave the city better off for having served in office. And not just on the issue of race. The Maclean administration did more than wrestle with vast social change. It also was in the vanguard of pushing for a cleaner Savannah River, which at one time was like a vast open sewer. He advocated an unprecedented $11.1 million plan to fight water pollution — huge money back in that time.
Mr. Maclean helped build the law firm that now bears his name — HunterMaclean, the largest Georgia law firm outside of Atlanta. He didn’t have much time for relaxing, outside of his civic and professional life. But one of his favorite pastimes was playing tennis.
He was known on he courts as a scrappy, fearless, smart and crafty player with a deft touch. Indeed, his tennis life in some ways mirrored his public life. Naming the city’s public tennis courts after this fine public servant is a fitting honor for a man who made a lasting and positive contribution to Savannah. Credit the city for serving an ace to recognize a mayor who made the most of his too-short time in public office.
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