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Atlanta Civil Rights Legends

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends are visible all around the city. It's not surprising, since Atlanta has a long and storied history as the cradle of the U.S. Civil Rights movement.  You can hardly go anywhere in the city without finding an historical marker or a street named after one of our famous Civil Rights warriors.

Martin Luther King Jr. sculptureAn iconic sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr.

On this page, I’ll give you a brief rundown on who's who in Atlanta Civil Rights History. Here are 10 people I think are the most influential figures in the Atlanta Civil Rights history. This is by no means exhaustive – in fact there are dozens and dozens of people who had a profound impact on Atlanta and U.S. Civil Rights.

Atlanta’s Most Famous Residents

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Of course, Atlanta’s most famous son and indisputably the most consequential Civil Rights figure is Martin Luther King, Jr. There is so much to say and learn about him you should visit my dedicated page here and also make time to visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Site. As the central figure in the Civil Rights movement, MLK was close friends with and influenced many other Civil Rights leaders.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - John Lewis (1940-2020)

My personal hero has always been John Lewis. He was brutally beaten for leading a march in Selma, Alabama, which ultimately led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As Atlanta’s (and mine) Congressman for more than three decades, he was our moral compass and a genuinely good man. (True story, I once literally ran into him in a grocery store as he was doing his own shopping. He could not have been sweeter.)

John Lewis' MuralThe memorial for John Lewis after his passing in 2020.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - C.T. Vivian (1924-2020)

The Rev. C.T. Vivian was an influential minister and close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s – who called Vivian “the greatest preacher to ever live.” He was active in Civil Rights in Tennessee and moved to Atlanta in the 1970s to further his work, eventually founding a leadership institute to foster more leaders in the city. He died on the same day as his friend, John Lewis.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Rev. Joseph E. Lowry (1921-2020)

The Rev. Joseph E. Lowry founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with Martin Luther King, Jr. and participated in most of the major activities in the Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s. He was called the “Dean of the Civil Rights Movement” and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 by President Barack Obama.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Andrew Young (1932 - )

Andrew Young (full name Andrew Jackson Young) also was an early leader in the Civil Rights movement and executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a close  confidante of Martin Luther King, Jr. He later went into politics, a U.S. Congressman and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and later as Atlanta’s Mayor. He’s a prolific author and still active in the Atlanta community.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Maynard Jackson (1938-2003)

Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. was elected as the first Black Mayor of Atlanta in 1973 – the first Black Mayor of any major Southern city. He served a total of three terms, making him the second longest-serving mayor in the city. He was born into activism and politics – his grandfather was John Wesley Dobbs who successfully overturned Georgia’s White primary. He entered politics in 1968 at age 30 when he ran for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent – a staunch segregationist. He lost – but won Atlanta handily – and proceeded to rise through the ranks of the city.

His tenure was marked with efforts to improve race relations in the city, modernize the airport and greatly expand minority business at the airport. Today, Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport – the world’s busiest – pays homage to both Jackson and Mayor William B. Hartsfield (the longest serving mayor and, although white, an important figure in the city’s reputation as a tolerant, progressive place.)

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Ralph David Abernathy (1926-1990)

Ralph David Abernathy was one of the core leaders of the Civil Rights Movement and close friend and mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was one of the key figures behind the Montgomery Bus Boycott (of Rosa Parks fame). He co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and became its leader after MLK’s assassination. He later fell out of favor with the Civil Rights establishment due to his autobiography of his life with MLK, where Mays revealed some less-than-savory personal stories about MLK.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Benjamin E. Mays (1894-1984)

Benjamin E. Mays is widely regarded as intellectual founder of the American Civil Rights Movement. He taught and mentored influential activists including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Maynard Jackson. He stressed the importance of nonviolence and civil resistance espoused by Mahatma Gandi – the hallmark of later Civil Rights protests. He then influenced untold numbers in his three-decade tenure as president of Atlanta’s Morehouse College, one of the most prestigious historically black colleges in the country. Here is where he met King, Mays’ “spiritual son.” Mays gave the benediction after King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and delivered King’s eulogy after his assassination. He advised numerous U.S. presidents, from Kennedy to Carter. Later he led Atlanta’s Board of Education during the city’s schools desegregation.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)

Of course, Coretta Scott King is known as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife. But she was an activist in her own right. After his assassination in 1967, Coretta became more active and also became prominent in the women’s movement. She also founded the King Center in Atlanta and worked to make MLK’s birthday a national holiday. She later worked for LGBT rights and to abolish apartheid and worked with presidents Kennedy and Johnson on Civil Rights legislation.

Atlanta Civil Rights Legends - Hank Aaron (1934 - 2021) 

Baseball Hall of Famer Hank Aaron is one of the most beloved sports figures in Atlanta if not the world. But he wasn’t always. When the Braves moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee in 1966, Aaron was already a star, having risen through the Negro Leagues and having played for the Braves for almost a decade. In the 1960s, Black players were not very welcome in the South – this was less than 20 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

Hank Aaron's muralHank Aaron's mural near the original Fulton County Stadium

He immediately made an impact in Atlanta, reaching milestones and breaking records – passing Mickey Mantle’s home run records and Stan Musial’s total bases. But in 1973, Aaron approached the ultimate record – breaking Babe Ruth’s total number of 714 home runs. The hate mail got worse and more frequent, including violent threats. Aaron didn’t break the record that year – he was one run short – and feared he wouldn’t live another season to try again. Even local journalists covering “the chase” received vile threats. 

But at a decade removed from the worst racial tension in the country, something changed. More people supported him than didn’t. The U.S. Postal Service gave him an award for mail received. Charles Schulz created a Peanuts strip about him. And on April 8, 1974, at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, Aaron hit number 715, breaking the most hallowed record in Major League Baseball. After all the vitriol and the threats, the unanimous feeling was pride and jubilation with everyone from fans to the opposing team celebrating. The record stood for decades (and was broken by drug-scandal- ridden players) and the marker of the homerun is memorialized in the parking lot of the long- demolished stadium.

To be sure, this isn’t meant to be the definitive list of Atlanta Civil Rights icons. There are numerous other figures and you can definitely read about other people and stories. These include:

  • Hamilton Holmes
  • Donald Lee Hollowell
  • Hosea Williams
  • Jesse Hill Jr.
  • John Wesley Dobbs
  • Joseph E. Boone
  • William Holmes Borders
  • Xernona Clayton

You can tour these names and more at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site.

Here are some resources for additional reading, too. As you make your way around Atlanta, note some of the streets and bridges – chances are they are named for many of these people. 

Black Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement

The 100 Black Men Of Atlanta

These streets in Atlanta are named for civil rights leaders

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