Famous Civil Rights
Leaders in Atlanta

Atlanta’s Indelible Mark on Civil Rights in America

As the epicenter of the American civil rights movement, Atlanta made history in its streets, homes, restaurants, schools and businesses. Here is a look at a pivotal group of Atlanta’s changemakers and their impact on the history of the city and the nation.

The King Family

Martin Luther King Jr.
Visionary

“Love is the key to the solution of the problems of the world.” –MLK’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the undisputed leader of the American civil rights movement. His vision of racial equality provided a road map for the future of race relations. Born on Atlanta’s famed Auburn Avenue during segregation, Dr. King refused to accept that race relations could not improve, that his Black brothers and sisters couldn’t have a hand in creating a more equitable society. His adherence to Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, his persuasive manner, his persistence and his eloquence were the hallmarks of his success. 

Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Martin Luther King Jr. Day was established as a holiday in cities and states throughout the United States beginning in 1971. In 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation making it a federal holiday. Countless streets in the United States were renamed for him. The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 2011. 

Where to Visit: Visit Dr. King’s birth home and historic Ebenezer Baptist Church at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. Take the King Historic District Tour with Unexpected Atlanta Tours. At Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights, see a replica of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated.

Coretta Scott King
Fulfilling the Promise 

“Hate is too great a burden to bear. It injures the hater more than it injures the hated.” –Coretta Scott King 


Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been married only 15 years when she became a widow after Dr. King’s 1968 assassination in Memphis, Tenn. Left with four children to rear on her own, Mrs. King knew that more was required of her. She realized that she must carry on the work she and her husband had begun. To that end, Coretta Scott King founded the King Center in Atlanta and worked to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. The first African American to lie in state in the Georgia State Capitol, she is interred next to her husband at the King Center. 

Where to Visit: Visit the King Center, part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park. Let Civil Rights Tours Atlanta take you to the places where history was made. 

Bernice Albertine King
Upholding the Legacy

“Love is not a weak, spineless emotion; it is a powerful moral force on the side of justice.” –Bernice King 

Bernice King is the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. She was 5 when her father was assassinated. In her adolescence, she delivered the eulogies at both her mother’s and her sister Yolanda’s funerals. Today she is CEO of the King Center where she focuses on her father’s nonviolent ideas. 

Where to Visit: Learn about Nonviolence 365 at the King Center. Take an ATL-Cruzers Electric Car and Segway Tour to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park.

The Inner Circle

Ralph David Abernathy Sr.
Mentor and confidante 

“Not only are voteless people a hopeless people. A non-producing people are hopeless also.” –Ralph David Abernathy

Where there was Dr. King, there was also Ralph David Abernathy, the close aide who held Dr. King in his arms as he lay dying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 

 The two men, both ministers, worked together to create the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization that led to the Montgomery bus boycott, which began when a tired Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man. Her refusal and the subsequent boycott ultimately led to the integration of the Montgomery bus system. Dr. King rose to national prominence during the year-long act of civil disobedience. Not long after the boycott ended, Dr. King and Abernathy founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. Abernathy became president following Dr. King’s assassination. 

Where to Visit: The SCLC headquarters is located on Atlanta’s historic Auburn Avenue. 

John Lewis
Good Trouble 

“We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jails over and over again. And then you holler, ‘Be patient.’ How long can we be patient?” –John Lewis


John Lewis, whose name is forever associated with his penchant for getting into what he called “good trouble,” served as the U.S. congressman for Georgia’s 5th congressional district (Atlanta) from 1987 until his death in 2020.

Lewis worked tirelessly for civil rights, participating as a Freedom Rider, leading the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., which left him with a fractured skull after state troopers and sheriff’s deputies launched a violent attack on the marchers. He helped organize the 1963 March on Washington and became the event’s youngest speaker.   

Where to Visit: Just visit Atlanta, otherwise known as Georgia’s 5th Congressional District, which Lewis represented for three decades. Watch a panorama of the March on Washington at Atlanta’s National Center for Civil and Human Rights. See the beloved John Lewis mural at 219 Auburn Ave. NE.

Joseph Lowery
The Dean 

“We’ve got nearly 50 million people in America with no health insurance. That’s a weapon of mass destruction.” –Joseph Lowery

Joseph Lowery worked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the pursuit of a nonviolent path to social justice. Along with Dr. King, Ralph David Abernathy and others, Lowery helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, in 1957. A long-time pastor of Atlanta’s Cascade United Methodist Church, Lowery was known as the dean of the civil rights movement.

Where to Visit: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference is located on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue. 

Herman Russell
Behind the Scenes

“As a millionaire builder before the civil rights movement took hold… he quietly helped finance the civil rights crusade, putting up a bond for protesters and providing the funds that kept King’s dream alive.” –“Building Atlanta” by Herman J. Russell with Bob Andelman

Herman Russell was the first African American member (and later president) of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. His H. J. Russell & Company is one of the largest minority-owned real estate and construction businesses in the United States.

Civil rights leaders including Dr. King, Andrew Young and Ralph David Abernathy often gathered in Russell’s home to relax and discuss issues of the day. No social movement can survive for long without funds, and Russell often provided much-needed financing for the civil rights movement.   

Where to Visit: Find the Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs on Fair Street in Atlanta. 

C.T. Vivian
Champion of Nonviolence

“In no way would we allow nonviolence to be destroyed by violence.” –C.T. Vivian

More on the fringes of Dr. King’s inner circle than inside it, C.T. Vivian was nonetheless a close ally of Dr. King in his role as national director of affiliates for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and strategist for every SCLC organization. A firm and vocal believer in nonviolence and a veteran of protests with the battle scars to prove it, Vivian was a warrior in the civil rights movement.

Where to Visit: The C.T. Vivian Leadership Institute in Atlanta trains grass-roots leaders. Vivian founded Basic Diversity with offices in Atlanta and based in Fayetteville, Ga., a diversity and inclusion consultancy.

Hosea Williams
Bull in a China Closet

“Unbossed and unbought.” –Hosea Williams’s description of himself

Hosea Williams was a civil rights leader, activist, ordained minister, businessman, philanthropist, scientist and politician. As a member of Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle, Williams was often called to organize events and rally people into action. Dr. King referred to Williams as his “bull in a china closet” and his “Castro.” Williams may be best remembered as founding president of Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless, one of the largest social services organizations in North America.

Where to Visit: Volunteers are welcome at Hosea Helps, a nonprofit organization. Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless provides 60,000 chronically homeless of Atlanta and surrounding counties with four Festivals of Service — Thanksgiving, Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and Easter. During holiday events, Hosea Feed the Hungry supplies medical assistance, legal aid, clothing and toiletry items, hot showers, barber and beautician services and transportation services,  hot showers, a barber and beautician area, children’s’ corner, clothing distribution, home delivery of food to shut-ins, inspirational speakers and Christian teaching, gospel singing and other services.

Andrew Young Jr.
Close Friend 

“On the soft bed of luxury many kingdoms have expired.” –Andrew Young

Andrew Young and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had a pillow fight at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis shortly before Dr. King was assassinated. The two friends and a few others in Dr. King’s inner circle were joking around just before heading out to dinner. Young said as recently as 2020 that he doubts a day goes by without him thinking of Dr. King or quoting him or remembering something he did. Young’s accomplishments are many — U.S. Congressman from Georgia, mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. He is a familiar face around Atlanta, and he seems, always, happy to talk about his friend, Dr. King.

Where to Visit: See Andrew Young’s statue at the corner of Andrew Young International Boulevard and Spring Street in downtown Atlanta. 

Atlanta Student Movement

Julian Bond
In the Public Eye

“The humanity of all Americans is diminished when any group is denied rights granted to others.” –Julian Bond

Julian Bond’s work in the civil rights movement began when he was a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he was among those who formed the influential Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which in 1960 chose Atlanta as its headquarters. For five years, Bond was communications director, a role he used to focus media attention on civil rights issues in the South. He served four terms in the Georgia House of Representatives, six terms in the Georgia State Senate and was chair of the NAACP for 11 years.

Where to Visit: Visit Morehouse College, part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium.

Joseph E. Boone
Tenacious

“My dad was a great father because he taught me how to love. He taught me not to judge. He taught me to stand up and speak out for what is right. He taught me not to look down, but to look up.” –Andrea Boone, daughter of Joseph E. Boone

Joseph E. Boone was at the helm of multiple facets of the civil rights movement. One of his many notable acts was to mobilize students of Atlanta University Center to conduct civil disobedience and demonstrations. Ultimately these actions resulted in the desegregation of 70 lunch counters, theaters and golf courses in Atlanta. He didn’t stop there. Boone helped desegregate Atlanta Public Schools, was the lead negotiator for Operation Bread Basket, the economic arm of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and, at the behest of Coretta Scott King, coordinated the initial phase of the Poor People’s Campaign.

Where to Visit: Visit Atlanta University Center and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.


Lonnie C. King Jr.
Champion of Voting Rights 

“In the long run, the greatest triumph I think was really the Voting Rights Act.” –Lonnie King in an interview with Bob Short

Lonnie King (no relation to Dr. King) launched the Atlanta Student Movement along with Joseph Pierce, Julian Bond and others. His work protesting and urging a boycott of businesses in downtown Atlanta ultimately led to the desegregation of the city’s stores and restaurants. 

Along with other students at the six universities comprising Atlanta University Center, King encouraged development of the Appeal for Human Rights, written by Roslyn Pope of Spelman College. 

The crux of the appeal, which was published in the Atlanta Journal & Constitution, the New York Times and the Congressional Record is summarized thus:  

“Every normal being wants to walk the earth with dignity and abhors any and all proscriptions placed upon him because of race or color. In essence, this is the meaning of the sit-down protests that are sweeping this nation today.

“We do not intend to wait placidly for those which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time. Today’s youth will not sit by submissively, while being denied all of the rights, privileges and joys of life. We want to state clearly and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate in a nation professing democracy and among people professing democracy, and among people professing Christianity, the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is living today in Atlanta, Georgia — supposedly one the most progressive cities in the South.”

Where to Visit: Go to the corner of James P. Brawley Drive and Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard to see the historical marker placed by the Georgia Historical Society and the Georgia Department of Economic Development. The marker describes the beginnings of the movement, which occurred at the former site of Yates & Milton Drug Store (presently the Student Center on the campus of Clark Atlanta University).

Dr. Roslyn Pope
Undaunted

“We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time.”

The call to action, “An Appeal for Human Rights,” was authored by activist, academic and Spelman College student Roslyn Pope in 1960. Founding the Committee On Appeal for Human Rights and igniting the Atlanta Student Movement, Pope collaborated with Lonnie King Jr., Julian Bond, Herschelle Sullivan Chanellor, Marian Wright (Edelman), Charlie Black and other students to create a road map for boycotts and sit-ins. They denounced the racist laws that controlled education, jobs, housing, voting and law enforcement. Pope demanded a future where fair treatment and equality were practiced not just in word, but in deed for civil rights as human rights. A college professor for many years, Roslyn Pope received an Honorary Doctor of Human Letters from Spelman College in 2013.

Where to Visit: Visit Spelman College at Atlanta University Center and the historical marker at the corner of James P. Brawley Drive and Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard.

Before the Civil Rights Movement

William Holmes Borders
Changemaker

“I am somebody. I may be poor, I may be on welfare, I may be in jail, but I am somebody…” –William Holmes Borders

As pastor of Atlanta’s Wheat Street Baptist Church, William Holmes Borders created a credit union for church members and a day care center for working parents who were church members. He gained a reputation as an orator and a voice for change. Borders was among those who ultimately convinced Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield to hire Black police officers and he was instrumental in desegregating public transportation in Atlanta.

Where to Visit: Visit the Wheat Street Baptist Church.

John Wesley Dobbs
Unofficial “mayor” of Auburn Avenue

“Bucks, ballots and books” are the key to African American freedom. –John Wesley Dobbs

Before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there was John Wesley Dobbs, early proponent of voting rights for Blacks who set a goal of registering 10,000 Blacks to vote, a bold move at the time. His relationship with Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield led to the first Black police officers in Atlanta and the addition of street lights on Auburn Avenue. In 1994, Atlanta’s Houston Street became John Wesley Dobbs Avenue thanks to Dobbs’ grandson, Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.

Where to Visit: Visit Ralph Helmick’s silicon and bronze sculpture, “Through His Eyes,” at John Wesley Dobbs Plaza at Fort Street and Auburn Avenue.

Alonzo Herndon
Pioneer

My aim has been for several years to try to get as many of our people together to cooperate in business and along other lines.”  –Alonzo Herndon

Alonzo Herndon became one of the first African American millionaires in the United States. He owned and operated three large and elegant barber shops that served prominent white men in Atlanta. In 1905 he founded Atlanta Life Insurance Co. to serve Atlanta’s African American community. As president, he built the business to become one of the country’s most well-known and successful African American companies. It still operates today.

Where to Visit: Visit the Herndon Home Museum at 587 University Place NW. 

Jesse Hill Jr.
Going Mainstream

“Where can people live and work together in a biracial setting? You look around and somehow Atlanta captures the crown.” –Jesse Hill

Jesse Hill was president of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. from 1973 until 1992. In 1978, Hill became president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, the first Black to hold that position.

“I was a student at Lincoln University in Jefferson city, Mo., when I first became aware of Mr. (Alonzo) Herndon. After a while, most inquiring Blacks learn something about Atlanta. The city is a beacon of progress to Black America. But the real attraction to me was Mr. Herndon,” Hill said in an interview for “150,” a business history of Atlanta. 

Where to Visit: Take a walk on Auburn Avenue, the center of African American life in Atlanta before desegregation. The original headquarters of Atlanta Life Insurance Co. was located on Auburn Avenue.  

Benjamin Mays
The Teacher 

“He who starts behind in the great race of life must forever remain behind or run faster than the man in front.” –Benjamin E. Mays

Benjamin E. Mays was a Baptist minister credited with laying the intellectual foundations of the civil rights movement. Mays taught and mentored leaders including Martin Luther King Jr, Julian Bond and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson. His work focused on notions of nonviolence and civil resistance and was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. He served for nearly 30 years as the sixth president of Morehouse College, part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium. Mays has been called the intellectual conscience of the civil rights movement.

Where to Visit: Visit Morehouse College

Carrying the Torch

Xernona Clayton Brady
Shining a Light

“We’ve got to keep fueling the fire with the burning desire to do better.” –Xernona Clayton Brady

Xernona Clayton Brady spent her career as a broadcasting executive at Turner Broadcasting System. She was the first African American from the South to host a daily prime time talk show. She created the Trumpet Foundation, which shines a light on African American contributions and accomplishments, and she was instrumental in developing Atlanta’s International Civil Rights Walk of Fame.

Where to Visit: Atlanta’s Baker Street Northwest, between Piedmont Avenue Northwest and Centennial Olympic Park Drive, was renamed Xernona Clayton Way. International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park

Feeding the Soul Then and Now

Evelyn Jones Frazier
Genteel Fighter

“And Mrs. Frazier was very strong in her belief that African Americans not be treated second class, but have everything first class available to them. I never saw her do anything other than first class.” –The Rev Regina Fletcher, quoted in the Atlanta Journal Constitution 

Frazier’s Café Society at 880 West Hunter St. served much more than good food. The restaurant, launched as the Evelyn Jones Café in 1936 by Evelyn Jones and her sister, became a gathering place during the civil rights movement for members of the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and leaders including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Dr. Benjamin Mays and Thurgood Marshall. The name became Frazier’s Café Society following the marriage of Evelyn Jones to Luther Frazier, who joined her in the business.

It was an elegant white-tablecloth restaurant where blacks could experience fine dining, and it was one of the few restaurants in Atlanta where both black and white leaders were welcome to dine together.. 

Where to Visit: A Georgia Historical Marker at 880 Martin Luther King Blvd. denotes the significance of the restaurant.

Lucy Jackson
Her tradition lives on 

“The South on a Plate.” –From the Busy Bee Cafe’s website

The Busy Bee Cafe was opened by Lucy Jackson in 1947. Owned today by Tracy Gates, the restaurant is still known for its crispy fried chicken and all the famous people who have eaten there. Andrew Young has been quoted as saying that he and Dr. King often started their days at either the Busy Bee or Paschal’s. 

Where to Visit: Grab a meal at Busy Bee Cafe, 810 Martin Luther King Drive SW. Learn how food impacted the civil rights movement by taking a tour with Unexpected Atlanta Tours & Stories.

 

James and Robert Paschal
Fried chicken and a side of justice

“Taste Atlanta’s rich history of soul food.” –Paschal’s Restaurant website

Paschal’s Restaurant holds a special place in Atlanta civil rights history because it was THE place for black and white leaders of the city to get together over meals to discuss the events of the day and go about the business of peacefully desegregating Atlanta. Paschal’s was known for posting bonds for arrested protestors. The restaurant would serve complimentary meals and extend hours to provide a central location where parents and friends could greet their loved ones after release from jail.

Where to Visit: Enjoy a meal at Paschal’s, 180 Northside Drive in Atlanta. Top it off with Paschal’s award-winning peach cobbler. 

Breaking Barriers in Music and Sports

Hank Aaron
The Hammer

“The pitcher has only got a ball. I’ve got a bat. So the percentage in weapons is in my favor and I let the fellow with the ball do the fretting.” –Hank Aaron

The Milwaukee Braves became the Atlanta Braves in 1966, and that brought Hank Aaron to town. 

When the Braves returned to Atlanta for the April 8, 1974, home opener, the biggest crowd in the history of Atlanta Stadium showed up. That’s because Hank Aaron was about to pass Babe Ruth’s home run record. He did just that in the fourth inning when he hit No. 715 over the left-field fence. 

Aaron endured hate mail, threats and isolation as he chased Babe Ruth’s record. After his playing days were over he ultimately became a senior vice president with the Braves organization.

Where to Visit: Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves and visit the Hank Aaron statue in Monument Garden.  

  

Gladys Knight
Empress of Soul

“Soul is just that inner spirit. I use that inner spirit for whatever it is I do.” –Gladys Knight

Atlanta native Gladys Knight returned home in February 2019 to sing the national anthem at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium during the Super Bowl. A seven-time Grammy Award winner, her “Midnight Train to Georgia” shines a light on her hometown and the state of Georgia. Responding to criticism for her decision to perform at the Super Bowl rather than boycott the game in support of players taking a knee during the anthem in a protest against racial injustice, Knight said she wanted to use her performance to give the anthem back to the struggle for justice.

Where to Visit: Visit Centennial Olympic Park and hum “Georgia On My Mind,” which Gladys Knight sang at the Opening Ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.

Continuing the Legacy

Shirley Franklin
58th mayor of Atlanta, Atlanta’s First Female Mayor  

“In this competitive global market, it will take courage to become the kind of person who values commitment equally with compensation. Who seeks pragmatic fair solutions to issues. And who offers ideas that benefit others and not just prosperity.” –Shirley Franklin

Franklin was the city’s first female mayor and the first black woman elected mayor of a major Southern city. 

Where to Visit: Take a walk on the Atlanta BeltLine, a development championed by Franklin. 

Maynard Jackson Jr.
52nd and 54th mayor of Atlanta, Atlanta’s First Black Mayor

“I am still amazed today at how much we influenced America with lighting the candle here in Atlanta on affirmative action.” –Maynard Jackson

In 1973, Maynard Jackson was elected the first black mayor not only of Atlanta but also of any major city in the South. He served two terms. 

Maynard Jackson was notable for his leadership on public works projects, most especially the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal at the Atlanta airport and for increases in minority business participation in Atlanta. Following his death, William B. Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport was renamed Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Where to Visit: Visit Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on a flight in or flight out. Also visit Centennial Olympic Park. Jackson was instrumental in bringing the 1996 Olympic Games to Atlanta. Pay your respects at his gravesite in Oakland Cemetery