Hartsfield Airport Name Change Stirs Racial Debate

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The world's busiest passenger airport has run into some political turbulence as the city of Atlanta debates whether the facility should undergo a name change.

Family and friends of the late Maynard Jackson (search), Atlanta's first black mayor, are pushing the city council to rename Hartsfield Airport (search) in his honor.

"This honor is not just for Maynard alone," Jackson's widow, Valerie Jackson, told Fox News.

Jackson, who died in June at age 65, served as mayor from 1973 to 1981 and again from 1991 until 1995. Born to a family actively engaged in expanding voting rights, Jackson was thought to be an effective and sometimes combative proponent for getting black workers employed in white businesses. He is also credited with expanding the airport, though in his third term the airport was the root of a bribery scandal that marred his tenure.

Opponents of the name change say the problem is not Jackson's demanding relationship with local business owners, but that the airport is already named after another former Atlanta mayor, William Hartsfield (search), a white man who is credited with establishing the city's first airport in the 1920s.

Supporters of the name change argue that Jackson oversaw construction of the terminal in the 1970s and fought to give minority contractors and workers a significant slice of the pie.

Georgia radio host and political commentator Martha Zoller (search) said she's surprised at the level of emotion the debate has reached.

"It injects race into a situation where there really doesn't need to be race in this situation. It's not about the white Mayor Hartsfield and the black Mayor Maynard Jackson," Zoller said.

"I want the city of Atlanta to say to the world every day that we're a city of inclusion. We believe in inclusion. And I think the best way to do that is through a medium called the airport," said Aaron Turpeau (search), a former campaign manager for Jackson, who added that discussions about his former boss cannot avoid the issue of race.

For others, however, the issue isn't race, but history.

"It's not like in the Soviet Union where once someone is gone that you eliminate their historical contributions. And I think to eliminate his name from Hartsfield Airport would be wrong and ahistorical," said state Rep. Bob Holmes (search), a Democrat.

A 17-member, bi-racial advisory panel will present its recommendations to the Atlanta City Council on Friday. Compromise proposals have been offered, including naming City Hall, a major downtown park or the airport's international terminal in Jackson's honor.

But the former mayor's supporters insist anything less than "Jackson Airport" will be an insult.

Fox News' Jonathan Serrie contributed to this report.