How King, Coca-Cola helped erode segregation in Atlanta

MLK and Jacob Rothschild

Fifty years ago this month Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence.

King, an Atlanta native who had been actively working against segregation in the South for at least a decade when he was recognized with the honor, initiated a fundamental change in his home city’s business, religious and racial cultures when blacks and whites came together for the first time to share a meal in public to recognize the new Nobel laureate, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Not surprisingly given the climate of the era, the change didn’t come easily.

King was Atlanta’s best-known figure in 1964 and the first Georgian to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but the question of how a segregated city would celebrate the accomplishments of a black man wasn’t an easy one to work out, according to the publication.

“ … the races didn’t mix, and King was still black. The immediate question became, how do you honor the man who was now the city’s most recognizable figure?”

Initially, there was talk in the black community about perhaps having a dinner at Paschal’s, where Civil Rights leaders had often met to discuss strategy. However, it was recognized that King should be received by the entire city, not just a segment.

Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, along with Catholic Archbishop Paul Hallinan, Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill and Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., formed a core group of organizers who set their sights on having a huge banquet at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel downtown, so that King might be honored by a gamut of Atlanta residents, according to the Journal-Constitution.

However, even after the dinner had been announced and a date set, no one bought tickets. Atlanta’s business community wasn’t buying into the idea.

Some were segregationists, some were worried about their bottom line, some were unhappy with King for getting involved in labor disputes and there is also evidence that the FBI was doing its best to sully King’s name by spreading threats and lies.

In mid-December, shortly after King had flown to Norway to receive his Nobel Prize, banquet organizers sent a letter to Robert W. Woodruff, the head of Atlanta-based mega-corporation Coca-Cola, asking him to lend his voice and name to their efforts, according to the publication.

They got no response.

“So they sent another letter on Dec. 29, which was the same day an article came out in the paper about the obstacles they were having putting on this dinner,” according to the Journal-Constitution. “Woodruff probably saw that headline and was concerned that this would be an embarrassment to the city and Coke.”

A short time later Allen, Atlanta’s mayor, and J. Paul Austin, Coke’s president, gathered the business elite at the Piedmont Driving Club. Allen warned them he would be taking notes on who did not attend the dinner.

To emphasize the importance Coke was placing on the banquet, Austin added the following:

“It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all have to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”

Two hours later, every ticket was sold.

A little more than a month later, on the evening of Jan. 27, 1965, approximately 1,500 people packed the ballroom of the Dinkler Plaza Hotel to honor King. The event was covered by the world’s press.

“It was a great and delicate moment,” said Samuel DuBois Cook, a 1948 Morehouse classmate of King’s, who attended the dinner. “Because of the race issue, it could have been very explosive. … It was a turning point, without question.”

Considering the con jobs most corporations try to sell the public today regarding diversity, one has to admit that Coca-Cola stood up and made its voice heard at a time when it would have been very easy for the corporation to keep its head down and remain quiet.

Atlanta may not have been a racial paradise by any means, but it avoided a good bit of the ugliness seen in place such as BirminghamSelma and Detroit. Clear thinkers like Rothschild, Allen, McGill, Austin and others, in addition to King, deserve credit.

(Top: Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild at the 1965 banquet in Atlanta honoring King for Nobel Peace Prize. Photo credit: Southern Spaces.)

3 thoughts on “How King, Coca-Cola helped erode segregation in Atlanta

  1. This is a powerful and interesting post. I did not know this about the Coca Cola company, nor the Nobel Peace prize winner (MLK, Jr.) not being acknowledged… wow! You uncover things from history that are so exciting and wonderful, too!

  2. So interesting – and initially, Austin was sticking his neck out – it could’ve all backfired horribly. I shall drink my diet Coke in a different light from now on 😊

    • Indeed – it was refreshing to read about a corporate leader who actually took a real stand when it came to race relations, rather than jumping on the bandwagon long after the heavy lifting had been done.

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