How Atlanta's mayor turned her famous father's arrest into a passion for criminal justice reform

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for Yahoo News)

ATLANTA — For decades, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms kept the story of her famous father, soul singer Major Lance, to herself. But after launching her political campaign in 2017, she decided the time was right to open up about his drug arrest and incarceration, when she was just 8 years old. That decision, while personally painful, helped spark a transformation that has led her to become one of the nation’s leading criminal justice reformers.

“I never talked about it,” Bottoms, now 49, told Yahoo News at her City Hall office, in her most in-depth interview about the personal impact of her father’s arrest. “There was a lot of shame. Maybe once or twice I talked about it publicly and once or twice privately.”

With mass incarceration disproportionately affecting the African-American community, once Bottoms did go public about her father’s arrest, she quickly realized that she wasn’t alone.

“A lot of times, especially when we’re elected officials, we feel the need to dial back who we really are and what our experiences are,” Bottoms said. “It wasn’t just my story; it’s our story — it’s a lot of people’s story.”

The son of Mississippi sharecroppers, born in 1939, Major Lance fled the Jim Crow South with his parents for Chicago in 1950, during what has come to be known as the Great Migration. As a result of federal redlining policies that kept African-Americans out of white neighborhoods, his family had few housing options and moved into the infamous Cabrini-Green projects. By the time he attended Wells High School, Lance had become known for his skill at basketball and boxing and had begun to dream of a singing career like his hero, Jackie Wilson. At Wells, he met up-and-coming singer-musician Jerry Butler and songwriter Curtis Mayfield and formed a partnership with Mayfield that would help land him a deal with Okeh Records.

For a time, it looked as though Lance was destined for major fame. Two of his Mayfield-written songs, “Monkey Time” and “Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um,” rose to the top 10 on both R&B and pop charts. During a 1964 appearance on “American Bandstand,” Dick Clark told the shy singer, “You’ve got it, there’s no doubt about it.” A year later, Paul McCartney of the Beatles was photographed stepping off a plane following a U.S. tour proudly displaying the cover of one of Lance’s albums.

With the civil rights movement gaining steam, Lance relocated from Chicago to Atlanta 1965, where he met Bottoms’s mother at the Royal Peacock R&B nightclub, just blocks from the Auburn Avenue home where Martin Luther King Jr. was born and raised. The couple wed and had three children, of whom Bottoms was the youngest. Lance continued to release records, but none duplicated his early success. Still, in 1972, he landed a two-year headlining slot on England’s Northern Soul circuit, where he drew rave reviews playing alongside musicians like Reggie Dwight, later known as Elton John.

Major Lance in 1973. (Photo: Michael Putland/Getty Images)

After returning with his wife and kids to Atlanta, Lance continued to perform across the South, even as his record sales waned. He embraced his role as a stay-at-home dad, Bottoms said, preparing dinner each night for his kids while his wife returned to work. Unbeknownst to his family, however, he had also begun making money on the side, dealing drugs, which led to what Bottoms calls the “worst day” of her life.

“As I was walking to the door, they were bringing my dad out with his hands behind his back, and I just remember him telling me it was going to be OK,” Bottoms said. “There were just men all over our house, and they had torn everything apart. My toys were in a cardboard box, and they had torn that up.”

The police ordered Bottoms and her siblings to sit on the living room couch as they continued to ransack the apartment, the mayor said, warning them not to tell anyone about the raid.

“We sat there for hours and cried and eventually my sister and brother got up, but I was afraid to move because they’d told us we’d be in trouble if we did,” Bottoms said, her eyes glassing over with tears. “That day was the death of our family. My parents divorced while my dad was in prison. We were never a family unit again.”

Sentenced to 10 years, Lance ended up serving four years behind bars, moved from one Georgia prison to another.

“I chuckle about this now, but wherever he was is where I would say he was living,” Bottoms said. “Oh, yeah, my dad’s living in Columbus now, or Jackson, or Eatonton. You talk about the shame of my 8-year-old mind.”

Following his release from prison, health problems curtailed Lance’s ability to perform and, in 1994, he died of heart failure at the age of 55. By then, Bottoms had learned to omit his arrest from the retelling of his life. But while it continued to weigh upon her, she made sure it never slowed her own ambition. After graduating from Frederick Douglass High School, she received a BA from Florida A&M University, then, the same year her father died, she earned a JD from Georgia State University College of Law before going on to positions as a prosecutor and a judge.

In 2009, by which time her father’s arrest had faded from local memory, Bottoms entered politics, winning a seat on Atlanta’s city council, where a chance meeting would eventually bring his troubled history back into focus.

‘Those dark days’

In a brick office building bordered by Atlanta’s rundown Greyhound bus station and the Magic City strip club, Xochitil Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, spoke to Yahoo News about the transformative personal bond forged between Mayor Bottoms and activist Marilynn Winn.

Xochitil Bervera, director of the Racial Justice Action Center, at the nonprofit's office in downtown Atlanta. (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for Yahoo News)

“In terms of getting her to tell her story, I really see Marylin, and the way she tells her story without shame, as what’s made that possible for the mayor to move to a place where she can talk about it and make policy about it,” Bervera said as a MARTA train passed by the window along a section of elevated track.

Winn and Bervera first approached Bottoms in 2014 to lobby the reluctant councilwoman to support a “ban the box” legislation that would forbid city agencies from inquiring about an applicant’s arrest history.

“We weren’t always in lockstep,” Bervera said of Bottoms, but she and Winn sensed an ally in the young politician. “She came and asked about criminal justice reform. She said to us, ‘I want to know more. Teach me more.’”

No one taught Bottoms more than Winn, the founder of Women on the Rise, a nonprofit that has successfully pushed a platform of criminal justice reform informed by Winn’s own time in prison. Raised in Atlanta’s Buttermilk Bottom “ghetto,” as Winn called it, she learned from her grandmother how to shoplift for food when she was just 5.

“Every Friday we’d meet my grandfather at the store and I’d say, ‘Can I have this, can I have that?’ and my grandmother would say stuff like, ‘Eat it before you get to the counter or hide it,” Winn, 69, told Yahoo News at her East Point office — a converted two-story home with a creaky front porch. “It got to be where I stopped asking because I knew what she was going to say. It became a way of life for me.”

After run-ins with the juvenile justice system and her first adult conviction for theft, Winn also soon learned that having a criminal record greatly diminished her chances of finding a job.

“I got out of prison and I thought that I could have a life and work at the post office like my friends, but it didn’t happen for me because I had a prison record,” Winn said. “I got 18 different jobs, but I was terminated when they found out about my record, and that threw me back into a life of crime and I started to go back to shoplifting, which landed me back in prison.”

Her prospects dim, she turned to drugs and became addicted to crack. Seemingly locked in a cycle of poverty, substance abuse and incarceration, Winn turned around when a judge recognized that her problems didn’t stem from an unwillingness to work. Rather than put her back in prison, he sent her to a drug treatment center that had a program that helped her find a part-time job without requiring her to hide the truth about her lengthy arrest record.

Women on the Rise founder Marilynn Winn. (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for Yahoo News)

As detailed in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 acclaimed book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” Southern cities like Atlanta enacted a slew of ordinances in Reconstruction’s wake that codified racial segregation. Minor offenses like traffic infractions, panhandling and loitering frequently resulted in prison time for African-Americans while white offenders more often walked free. In the 1960s, King himself ended up in jail for violating such ordinances as he pushed for desegregation. For many African-Americans, convictions not only kept them from finding work, they also exacted an emotional toll, by branding them as criminals.

“We’ve got this thing about shame and guilt,” Winn said. “We don’t know how to express ourselves. Years ago, I wouldn’t sit here and talk about my story because I’d be afraid of what you’d think of me.”

Having secured the votes to pass the “ban the box” measure that made Atlanta the first Southern city to do away with a requirement for job applicants to disclose prior criminal convictions, Winn and Bervera next set their sights on an even more ambitious goal, closing the Atlanta City Detention Center. Winn herself had been incarcerated in the hulking 17-story, 471,000-square-foot jail on Peachtree Street, and she had come to view the building as a symbol of a system that puts a priority on locking people up. For Bervera, ACDC, as it is known, is simply a remnant of the city’s racist past.

“In 1996 the jail was built specifically for the Olympics, to hide the homeless people from the people coming to visit. It has been how this city has policed and jailed for decades,” Bervera said.

Department of Corrections Chief Patrick Labat denies that ACDC was intended to help keep poor people out of public view.

“I would contend that those people arrested were done on officers’ discretion and would still be arrested,” he said. “The question is where would they go.”

When Bottoms became mayor, she made the case that jail shouldn’t be the default destination for people charged with petty offenses. One of her first acts was to eliminate the cash bail requirement for those accused of violating any of dozens of city ordinances, which meant freeing hundreds of arrestees each day who otherwise would have been sent to ACDC. Further depleting its population, she ended Atlanta’s partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a response to the administration’s family separation policy.

“When I began asking questions about which detainees we would be receiving, I just couldn’t receive assurances that we weren’t going to be complicit, and that’s when I signed the executive order to end the relationship,” Bottoms said.

Labat gives the mayor credit for “thinking outside the box” and helping lower ACDC’s inmate population from roughly 800 prisoners per night to a low of 67 in August, leaving its cell blocks, exercise yards and hallways largely empty.

Cell block at the Atlanta City Detention Center. (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for Yahoo News)

“What we’ve had to do is really change the way we do business,” Labat said. “So while our average daily population has dropped, people are still being arrested, but a number of those charges do not require an individual staying in jail.”

Bervera applauds the mayor for adopting a “starve the beast” approach to ACDC, which the city council voted last year to shutter. Yet ACDC — which Bottoms has proposed converting into a drug-treatment and job-training center — is still ringed by bail bond businesses, including “Free at Last,” whose flippant name merges one of King’s most memorable quotes with the grim reality that many African-Americans in his hometown are still only dreaming about equality. Before long, Bervera said hopefully, the bondsmen too would be forced to close up shop.

“What Mayor Bottoms did with that was to bring the jail population down to a number that even the conservatives on public safety and criminal justice could say, ‘How could we be paying $32 million a year to house 100 people a night?’” Bervera said.

Of course, not everyone in Atlanta is happy about Bottoms’s vision of transforming ACDC from a jail into a place that helps people from ever ending up in one. At a February town hall meeting with residents of the mostly white and affluent Buckhead neighborhood, when she brought up her plan for the building, she faced an angry backlash.

“I was booed when I talked about repurposing our city jail and creating this equity center,” Bottoms said. “The beauty of it was, for all of the boos that I received, I got messages from people saying, ‘I was embarrassed that my neighbors booed you, and I support and respect what you’re doing.’ Sometimes the loudest voices in the room aren’t reflective of what the majority of people want.”

She has a point. Even President Trump, who boasts about his hard-line approach to justice, signed the First Step Act, reducing mandatory minimum prison sentences and leading to the release of thousands of nonviolent inmates. Major Lance could have been among them.

‘Conveniently tucked away’

Back when she first met Bottoms, Winn couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d met her before. “I kept looking at her eyes and her smile,” Winn said. “I knew I recognized her.”

Even before Bottoms began speaking publicly about father, Winn had already recognized her resemblance to Lance, whom she had met in the late ’70s, during “those dark days” of drug addiction.

“He was selling drugs, and we both were using,” Winn said. “I was in his circle.”

One day, when the two women spoke following an event, she decided to bring it up.

“When I talked to her about knowing her father and remembering instances that happened, she turned instantly into a little girl,” Winn said. “She didn’t want to talk about it, and she didn’t think nobody knew.”

That reaction made Winn reticent to reveal one more secret — that Lance had once sold her cocaine. “She still don’t know,” Winn confided. “Or maybe she does. We never had that conversation.”

While Bottoms said she still has parts of her past that she has “conveniently tucked away,” she doesn’t regret opening up about what happened to her father.

“When I began running for mayor, what struck me was that I was misunderstood and I felt as if I had to be a lot more exposed for people to understand that when I talked about the sense of community that I wanted to help restore in this city and this notion of justice and creating this beloved community was more than something I just said,” Bottoms recalled. “People needed to know what it meant to me. The only way that they would know that is if I was more open about my story and my family’s story. Even those who knew that my father had gone to prison, I don’t think they realized the impact that it had on my family.”

Framed album cover in the office of Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms. (Photo: Lynsey Weatherspoon for Yahoo News)

A framed picture of the cover of “Major Lance’s Greatest Hits” hangs in the mayor’s office, and while she is clearly still pained by the memories of her father’s arrest, she now understands his crime as part of a larger problem whose roots stretch back to an era intent on keeping African-Americans from equality.

“My dad never tried to act as if he was not wrong or blame anyone else,” Bottoms said. “I do believe had there been alternative sentencing and had there been other options and had there been a drug court and had there been something else on the other side other than sentencing a man who’d never had so much as a traffic ticket to 10 years in prison, then I think the lives of his children and everyone else around him would have been different.”

Like her father, Bottoms is a self-described introvert who has chosen a career that puts her on a very public stage. Her reckoning with her dad’s past, however, has given her the confidence to voice ideas that have made her a national leader on criminal justice reform.

“There’s this generational curse, in some ways, with the African-American community and I think that part of that deals with addiction and how we work through our challenges. As I said, I’d never talked about my dad’s incarceration, because it’s not what we did in our household. For so many of us in the African-American community, we’re not very far removed from these very real challenges,” Bottoms said. “For a lot of us who may be professionals, we are the exceptions in our families. For every person who is successful, on the other side there may be 10 family members who haven’t gotten to that place yet. I would imagine that white America might not realize how common that is in the African-American community.”

Perhaps just as important as finding her public voice, Bottoms has learned to speak about her dad with pride again.

“I think he thought he was doing the right thing because he was trying to provide for us. People do what they need to do in order to survive,” Bottoms said, adding, “He was a great dad to me, but he was human, and that’s what addiction does. It makes you do things that you wouldn’t otherwise do.”

A staff member reminds her of her schedule and Bottoms glances at her Apple Watch. Asked if she knows the extent of Winn’s relationship with her father, she smiles.

“Maybe I’ll read about it in your piece,” she says after a pause. “I know that there’s a story there.”

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