Everybody who was anybody in Atlanta knew JO Wyatt – as a friend when needed; a friend to big folks and little folks alike; and as a friend across the aisles. And anybody who could do just that has to be written up in a history book.
Most known for his long-standing career in public service in the field of equal opportunity, and for his time spent on the Fulton County Commission and other committees and commissions throughout the South, James Odis Wyatt, Jr., affectionately known as “JO” Wyatt, was appreciated and loved for playing his tenor saxophone in addition to the service he rendered to his fellow man and woman. He was a genuine friend of the community in which he lived and served. “His saxophone case was his brief case,” says his sister, Judge Thelma Wyatt Moore. As one of Atlanta’s visible leaders in all walks of life, he was a history maker just doing what he did – a man with a horn of plenty to serve the people.
James Odis Wyatt has distinguished himself in multiple careers throughout the Southern region. He attended Talladega College for a short time before he moved to Atlanta and graduated from Morehouse College. However, it was at Talladega where he started his first band. The long arms of JO’s father, Dr, J. O. Wyatt, Sr, reached out and re-directed the future of his son toward a more traditional profession. JO’s career started at the International Association of Machinists where he negotiated labor agreements. He later joined the national staff of the AFL-CIO continuing in the arena of labor relations. His dedication to community service representing his people lead him to his mentor, the Honorable Donald L Hollowell, who appointed Wyatt as a Deputy District Director of the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. With the EEOC, he managed offices located in Miami, Birmingham, Charlotte, and Atlanta. He moved up to became the Deputy Regional Director of EEOC with eight southern states under his direction.
While working at EEOC, he pursued a legal education and was awarded a degree from Emory University School of Law. He did not stop with his personal pursuit of education, he reached out to his younger brother, Morris Lucius Wyatt II, and insisted that he study at Atlanta’s Clark College. It was JO who also encouraged and pursued his sister, Thelma Laverne Wyatt (Moore), to attend Emory Law. Thelma and JO were among the first Black students to attend Emory’s law school, following Judge Clarence Cooper and Judge Marvin Arrington.
In 1974, J. O. Wyatt was elected to the Fulton County Commission, and was elected by his peers to the leadership position of Vice Chair of this Commission. Serving in this capacity, he sponsored the first Fulton County Equal Opportunity Contract Compliance legislation. JO seemed to relish this job, and his role as an elected official just reinforced him to give more of himself to making life better for neighborhoods and those who needed his help.
Discovering that the life of a politician was too restrictive, he left the field of politics, but remained in service as a consultant to many governmental agencies, where he became a prominent community activist in metropolitan Atlanta. He rendered service in the area of mediation/arbitration and equal employment consultation on EEO and labor relations practices.
Wyatt took a turn to real estate, and he became a real estate broker and land use consultant for re-zonings, special use permits, and public works projects. He served as vice chair of the City of Atlanta Urban Design Commission making decisions regarding historic preservations, the placement of parks, and the placement of public art, in addition to construction, renovation, and demolition in historic neighborhoods. He served as the vice chair of the DeKalb County Housing Authority and later as it’s acting executive director.
Selected from thousands of applicants, Wyatt was a member of the inaugural class of “Community Builders Fellows” with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. J.O. had a humongous smile on his face when he talked about going to complete this program at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He did it – and came back to the “hood” with vim and vigor to do more.
Not often does one get to live out their passion, but J. O. Wyatt did. He stepped away from his “corporate world” identity and became the Entertainment Director at Claude’s Jazz Club in Peachtree Center, and a jazz promoter and performer at many local and national events including the Congressional Black Caucus. His love for music drew him into an entrepreneurial career; and he fulfilled his dream when he opened Just Jazz, a night club in Buckhead. Just Jazz booked established local entertainers and national entertainment such as the Count Basie Band, Billye Paul, Freddy Hubbard, Lionel Hampton, and others. Everybody who was anybody showed up at JO’s Club; and it became the place to meet and greet politicians, professionals, community activists, and the musicians who just wanted to sit in and gig for a session.
The honors and awards that have been bestowed on J. O. Wyatt over the years are too many to mention. These tributes include awards from the Afro-American Patrolman’s League, the AFL-CIO, American Civil Liberties Union, Gate City Bar Association, Butler Street YMCA, Concerned Black Clergy, Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, S.C.L.C, National Urban League, NAACP, Association of Black County Officials, United Auto Workers, Emory University Law School, and others.
As I look back on the life of my friend, JO, I remember the good days and some not-so-good days. JO introduced me to one of my best friends whom he called Brownie (Marilyn Johnson). She and I hit it off instantly and shared office space for several years, bringing me even closer to my buddy, JO. But he truly touched my heart when he showed up at my door after the passing of my then husband, Mayor Maynard Jackson, Jr., with a box of donuts and couple of six-packs of Coca-Cola. He said, as I opened the door, “I have come to help you and your “wake” through these tough times.”
Wyatt passed away on January 12, 2017. His homegoing was dubbed “JO’s Jazz Journey” by Reverend Shanan Jones, at Ebenezer Church, who delivered a beautiful and appropriate message to the man with the horn who was a history maker.