Civil Rights Cities: Atlanta, Georgia

February 15, 2011
by findingDulcinea Staff
Atlanta has always been an economic force. Essential to the South during the Civil War, it was the first city targeted during the Union’s “total war.” The birthplace of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and its first leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Atlanta was at the forefront of the civil rights movement. In 1973, Atlanta was the first city to elect a black mayor. Now, it continues to be a hotspot for both tourism and commerce.

From the Civil War to the Fight for Equality

Union General Ulysses Grant determined that the only way to beat the South was to systematically destroy its land and economic resources; Atlanta was the first city sacked. Major General William T. Sherman’s campaign, called “Sherman’s March,” was instrumental in the Union victory. The University of Georgia has a firsthand account of Atlanta’s demolition.

The Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education has a comprehensive history of the Atlanta civil rights movement. Broken up by time period and theme, the site chronicles phases and developments in Atlanta’s struggle, beginning in the 1940s, when African Americans realized that the right to vote could not alone guarantee civil rights.

Following the Montgomery bus boycott, civil rights leaders met in Atlanta on Jan. 10, 1957, to form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and organize further protests all over the South. Dr. Martin Luther King became the SCLC’s first president.

Protests in the city of Atlanta were primarily organized at the Atlanta University Center, a consortium of four black universities. The AUC’s important role in the movement began in 1960 with organized protests and sit-ins.

Once famous protest was at Rich’s, Atlanta’s most prominent department store. Protesters gathered for a sit-in at Magnolia, the store’s restaurant, because, according to leader Julian Bond, if Rich’s desegregated, Atlanta’s other stores would follow suit.

Many protestors, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., were arrested at that sit-in. King first went to Fulton Country Jail, and then was sent to Reidsville State Prison for an earlier probation violation. Read the chapter from King’s autobiography that recounts both his jail time and the effect it had on his connection with future president John F. Kennedy.

Sweet Auburn

Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, or Sweet Auburn, birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. and home to most of the city’s well-off African Americans, was also a hotspot for political activity. Today, the area has been named a historic district, and is home to the King Center, a museum and memorial set up by Coretta Scott King to honor her late husband.

The King Center has thrust Auburn Avenue back into the spotlight, and The New York Times travel section highlights its recent revival. To a young Martin Luther King, the affluent street would have been “a reminder of both high aspiration and incomprehensible restriction.” The powerful historical implications can be felt when you visit King’s preserved childhood home, or browse through the Times's Auburn Avenue Slideshow.

Social and Economic Progress

Long after King’s assassination, Atlanta made history again by electing America’s first black Mayor, Maynard H. Jackson. Soon after, in 1974, Time magazine can report that two American cities now have their first black mayors. Immediately following Jackson’s election, the people of Detroit voted Coleman Alexander Young into office.

Even European countries took note of Maynard Jackson’s long and robust career in politics and law. His life and work is celebrated in his [London] Times Online obituary. Although his abrasive nature made it impossible for him to find work as a lawyer after two terms as Mayor, he ran again after a requisite hiatus and won again. According to the article, “his deep tenor voice, charismatic personality and blunt style—there was nothing of the diplomat or mediator about him—had stood him in good stead.”

Today, Atlanta is a robust and bustling center of commerce and tourism. Atlanta’s official tourism site shares “50 Fun Things To Do in Atlanta,” activities that both draw on its rich history and exemplify its budding future. For example, the New World of Coca-Cola is a theme park devoted to celebrating the past and present of the popular soft drink. (Polar bears included.)

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