Elmo James, 1943-2014, !Presente!


(APN) ATLANTA — Elmo James, Jr.,  a labor organizer, businessman, and husband of State Sen. Donzella James (D-Atlanta), passed away on April 14, 2014, from complications from double pneumonia and renal failure.



It was standing room only at the wake, as friends, family members, and dignitaries, including current and former elected officials, gathered to say goodbye to a quiet man whose influence in Atlanta, south Fulton County, and beyond, was quite extensive.


James was born on July 14, 1943, at Grady Hospital, a second generation Atlantan.  He grew up on Northside Drive and attended Antioch Baptist Church.  He was a good student and a shy child.


elmo3He attended the same elementary and high school as the famous singer Gladys Knight, who sang at his funeral.  She sang her song, “Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me,” and dedicated it to James.

Knight was not the only singer at the funeral.  Donnie Peoples and Jean Carn, friends of Sen. James, also attended and sang.  “That’s like a paradise funeral,” State Rep. “Able” Mable Thomas (D-Atlanta) told APN.

James got a full football and academic scholarship to Morehouse College, where he attended until he took a semester off to help his mother in 1965.  While off for a semester, he got drafted into the military.


James scored perfect on the army intelligence test, and was sent to Germany.

After his service, he returned to Atlanta in 1967, attending Morehouse, and then graduating from Mercer University in Macon, Georgia.  He moved to begin working as an air traffic controller (ATC) at the regional center in Hampton, Georgia.

He scored 99 percent on the ATC test, a score that was almost unheard of.

elmo2“At that time there was a segregationist thing, there were very few Black air traffic controllers.  Elmo was a very smart man.  He was a trailblazer in the air traffic control – it was one of those of jobs where one tip of one percent of African Americans could be an air traffic controller.  He was an elite amongst us,” Joe Beasley, Southeastern Regional Organizer for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition, told Atlanta Progressive News.



Also, after returning from military service, James met Donzella, to whom he would be married for 44 years.



Sen. James tells APN that they actually grew up together.  Sen. James’s Godmother owned a beauty shop, and every other weekend, she and Elmo’s younger sisters, Cynthia and Barbara, would hang out at the beauty shop.  Elmo worked nearby and would come into the beauty shop, but did not think much of Donzella at the time.



Years later, Donzella was working at the post office, when Elmo James came in.  James did not recognize her at first, but they immediately hit it off, marrying only one year later.



The James’s had two children, Kerry and Brian.  In 1994, Kerry was tragically killed in a car accident where a drunk driver was at fault.  This tragedy propelled Sen. James to become a staunch advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  Elmo was buried next to his son, Kerry James.






James also played a critical role in organizing the ATC strike of 1981.



“They were going on strike because every month they worked one week in the morning, one week in the evening, then morning, then evening, then the midnight shift.  It was really awful… most of ‘em were having nervous problems and everything else as a result,” James recalled.



James was a member of the now-defunct PATCO, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization.



Some 67,000 ATCs went strike and President Ronald Reagan shocked the nation and international community by firing every single one of them.  They had to bring in the Air Force to continue ATC operations.



James had helped to organize a Black Caucus of PATCO, and he helped convince some 80 percent of the Black members of PATCO to join the strike, according to Sen. James and Beasley.



“Elmo was happy that he was able to do what he could by the people, stood up for what was right even though he got fired,” Sen. James said.



After the strike, James opened up a liquor store on Boulevard near Freedom Parkway.  He used the proceeds from his successful business to support his wife’s efforts to become a progressive state legislator.






Sen. James, one of the most progressive legislators in the state, could not have been as successful as she has been without the support of her loving husband.



“He said he’d work and pay the bills, and I could go ahead and save the world,” James said.



“Whenever I was running for office, he and my sons would load up the car or the truck, they would go out late at night and put up signs all night even if he had to get up early next morning,” Sen. James recalled.



“He would go to events with me because he didn’t want me to go unescorted, even though he didn’t like politics,” she said.



“Eventually I would have two or three events at the same time.  He would attend events to speak for me.  He knew my view on different issues – he would say, I’ve heard her say this before, but I’ll have her to call you,” she said.



“He babysat for me at all events I needed to go to in DC or other places, when I was working with Mrs. Shirley Chisholm,” the former Congresswoman from New York, she said.



“I was a legislator, made ten thousand dollars a year – it covered dry cleaning and getting back and forth to work.  He always made sure I could go to whatever I needed to go to so I could learn whatever I could,” she said.



“He was always there to debate and discuss – he was my sounding board.  He would say, if you don’t wanna hear the truth, don’t ask.  He would critique me, and give me good advice most of


the time.  He would say, why do you have to sound so belligerent?  You could say it a different way,” she said.



“Elmo was a quiet man.  Even when he used to come to my house–him and Donzella would come over for fundraisers–he was secure enough in himself he didn’t have to draw any attention to himself, he was there to support Donzella,” Beasley said.



“He never said I was an air traffic controller.  If you’ve got it, you don’t have to flaunt it.  People who flaunt stuff, they’re not that secure.  Elmo, he knew who he was and his capabilities, he didn’t need anything to kind of help define him,” Beasley said.



“It was always that everything was wonderful with him and fine with him and he made everybody feel comfortable, but at the same time he had these challenges that were life-threatening challenges.  He never complained or was concerned about himself,” Beasley said.



In the last couple years of his life, James faced significant health challenges that led to various stays in the hospital.  



“Mr. Elmo James was a great man, father, husband and family man.  He was truly an inspiration to all and he will be missed.  Mr. Elmo was a colorful person who would always make you laugh.  He was a man of God and committed his life to doing what was right.  He shared hand in hand with the many humanitarian efforts his wonderful wife for many years… committed herself to.  Mr. Elmo had touched my life in so many ways.  If I wasn’t as fortunate to have such a wonderful biological Dad, Mr. Elmo would be at the top of my list.  My prayers go out to the entire James family whom I worked so closely with over the years as former Campaign Manager and Chief of Staff,” Leroy White wrote in a text message sent to APN.



“Essentially, Elmo was really the calm of the storm.  He made being in that campaign a pleasure.  As long as I’ve known Elmo, I’ve never remembered him raising his voice about anything, he always knew what to say,” Kip Carr, who worked for Sen. James’s 1998 reelection campaign, told APN.

“Elmo was a very kind guy, and patient,” Rep. Thomas said, recalling that when she won her first election, James came through with two cases of champagne.


“Back then, when you won something, you had champagne.  I remember telling Donzella I wanted champagne, and she said, don’t worry about it, Elmo will get you some champagne.  I told her the day of the eleciton.  I didn’t give ’em any advance notice.  Donzella called; she said, come by this location – Elmo had two cases of champagne,” Thomas said.



James is survived by his wife, Sen. James; a son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Renee James; a granddaughter from his late son, Kerri Kurtz James; a sister, Barbara James Turner; a brother and sister-in-law, Ronald and Jeanette James; a brother, Thomas James; and a host of cousins, nieces, and nephews.



The wake on Friday evening, April 18, at Willie Watkins Funeral Home, and the funeral was held on Saturday, April 19, at Mt. Ephraim Baptist Church.  Rev. Dr. R.L. White, Elmo’s second cousin, presided.




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