Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn

Excerpt: Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn


In the summer of 1960 , John Wesley Dobbs took the train to Boston where he was scheduled to deliver a speech about Crispus Attucks, the freed slave who was the first to fall in the American Revolution.

Maynard Jackson, Jr., his twenty-two-year-old grandson, visited his hotel room on the eve of the speech to ask him to co-sign a loan for a two-door Chevrolet Bel-Air. He told his grandfather he needed the car for his work as an encyclopedia salesman for P.F. Collier in the company’s district office in Boston. He said he expected to earn more than $20,000 a year.

"Look," Dobbs said, finally, "I’m going to sign this for you but not because I believe you can earn that much money – because I don’t believe you’ll earn that much – but because I believe you can sell somebody on the idea that you can earn that much money."

The grandson inquired about his speech. "Are you going to use ‘Will?’" a reference to the Ella Wheeler Wilcox poem.

Sitting on the edge of the bed in his hotel room, the old man seemed surprised. "And what do you know about that?" John Wesley Dobbs asked.

"You told me it was your favorite poem and told me to learn it."

"Well," Dobbs said, "did you?"

"Yes, sir. I did."

"Say it for me."

"You mean right here? In this hotel room?"

"Right here. This is as good a place as any."

"Maynard Jackson felt his body tighten.

In a moment, his hands moved in sweeping motions and his words carried force. "Gifts count for nothing; will alone is great / All things give way before it, soon or late." This was a rite of passage for a Dobbs, any Dobbs, but particularly this one. Maynard Jr. was the closest thing John Wesley Dobbs had to a son. He wanted the boy to know how to transform words into an arsenal, to learn which words needed to be caressed and which crushed. "What obstacle can stay the mighty force / Of the sea-seeking river in its course."

The next day, August 16, 1960, Dobbs, a fiery orator and Grand Master of Georgia’s Prince Hall Negro Masons known as "The Grand," delivered his address about Attucks and heroism. It was the final impassioned public speech of his life.

"[Attucks] made the down payment on Liberty and Freedom for all members of his racial group who were to live after him in the United States of America," the Grand said. "Crispus Attucks made the down payment for you and me, when he died in Boston, March 5, 1770, with a stick in his hand."

Dobbs spoke of blacks’ devotion to America and to democracy. The current struggle for civil rights represented the continuation of a historic battle. "Our Negro college students, often assisted by white fellow students, are walking picket lines, and staging ‘sit-in’ demonstrations for the recognition of these rights, today," he said. "Again, a moral issue is at stake! Our college students will not be willing to wait another hundred years, like their fathers did. They are protesting to High Heaven, and in God’s name, for Justice – right now – if not sooner! They know that the world rises on protest."

Passing businessmen, white and black, hearing the emotion in Dobbs’s voice, gathered in Boston Common. Soon, the crown numbered in the hundreds. The Grand’s speech was so powerful, Maynard Jackson recalls, applause at the close was sustained.

But one moment during this address, so small as to be undetected by anyone but a Dobbs, signaled a larger, more frightening prospect to the grandson.

John Wesley Dobbs had referred to his notes. It was the first time Maynard Jackson had ever seen him do it. The realization settled in: "Grandpa was beginning to lose some of his powers."

The voice on the telephone was old and heavy. It was the voice of a weary old general still longing to fight. "When you get ready to march at Rich’s tomorrow," John Wesley Dobbs told the Rev. Otis Moss, Jr., "let me know."

As the civil rights movement in Atlanta gained momentum, the Grand lost his own. His mind retained its clarity and sharpness, but pain crippled his shoulders, hands and knees. He spent days on the couch at 540, too stiff to move. Sometimes, his grandsons Bill Clement, Jr. and Bobby Jordan, both students at Morehouse, lifted him from the sofa for a conversation. The Grand had good days when the cortisone injections restored the old fires and bad days when he seemed nearly inanimate except for the groaning. "It was depressing for us," Bill Clement, Jr., recalls, "and traumatic for him."

The Grand’s views had changed since 1956 when he believed that Atlanta need not duplicate the bus boycott in Montgomery. He believed Atlanta a superior and more reasonable place than any other in the South. But now, four years later, the younger generation, and especially M.L. King, Jr., had convinced him that direct action was needed to break through the intransigence of white Atlanta.

The South had become a lead actor on the American stage. It stood alone in a spotlight, forced to justify its social customs. In Atlanta, white leaders struggled to maintain the appearance of racial moderation, but black college students made that increasingly difficult.

John Wesley Dobbs made his final public stand in Atlanta by marching in support of students in front of Rich’s on October 19, 1960, as part of the same protest for which the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was jailed, then sent to Reidsville. One month earlier Dobbs had returned his charge card and closed out his account, paying $159.88. In a letter to Rich’s officials, he said his family had spent more than $3,700 at the store in 1959 and 1960 and that "my Conscience and Self-Respect will no longer allow me to support a business that shows so much unfairness to its Colored Patrons." He noted that dialogue between Rich’s and black leaders, including one conference in which he and Daddy King met Richard Rich, had produced no results. The store’s discriminatory policy, Dobbs wrote, would subject esteemed blacks such as Dr. Ralph Bunche of the United Nations and his own daughter, opera star Mattiwilda Dobbs, to Jim Crow humiliation if they so much as ordered a sandwich at Rich’s lunch counter. "You are caught on the wrong side of a MORAL ISSUE," he wrote. "Already cities like St. Louis, Mo., Louisville, Ky., Nashville, Tenn., Durham, N.C. and Tampa, Fla., have done something about this condition. You continue to do NOTHING about it."

As Dobbs stood outside Rich’s in the autumn chill, Reverend Moss watched with awe. The young pastor of the Providence Baptist Church in south Atlanta had heard the Grand speak years earlier in the Morehouse Chapel. That discourse ranged from the glory of the ballot to the fiery destruction caused by John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. Once, in a visit to 540 Houston Street, Moss heard the old man speak in admiration about New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., an occasional visitor in the Dobbs house. "He preached the gospel on Sunday and walked the picket lines on Monday," the Grand said. Moss accepted that description as a blueprint for his own career.

In his final hour of protest in Atlanta, the Grand wore a fine three-piece suit and a gray trench coat. His wing-tipped shoes shone and his Dobbs-brand hat set low on his head. An oversized sign was draped from his shoulders. "Wear Old Clothes With New Dignity," it read. "Don’t Buy Here." He stood straight-backed and his countenance held supreme resolve. To those who knew him well, he looked unmistakably old. The flesh on his face sagged from his high cheekbones and somehow made his Indian features stand out. He walked with a group of elder black leaders, including realtor John Calhoun and ministers such as Sam Williams, Daddy King and William Holmes Borders As chairman of the Adult-Student Liaison, Borders had called for the old guard to demonstrate at Rich’s after learning that dozens of black students and M.L. King, Jr., had been arrested. Like the students, the adults protested at Rich’s in shifts, some arriving as others departed.

Dobbs’s first steps were slow and small. A few of his fellow protesters expressed concern about his stamina. But as he turned from the south end of Rich’s and marched around the block his strength surged. He walked faster and longer than anyone had expected. "He walked that day just like he did the first time I had ever seen him," Moss recalls. Across the street, members of the Ku Klux Klan in their white robes shouted threats and obscenities. The Grand seemed not to hear them.

"How do you feel?"Calhoun asked him, after he had marched for some time.

"I feel good," the Grand said, "on the inside. This is one of the best experiences of my life."

The Grand demonstrated in front of Rich’s for nearly two hours. Organizers of the demonstration finally told him to stop. He smiled. "If you think so, I will," he said. His old brown eyes sparkled. "But I could go on."

Thirty years later Maynard Jackson, Jr., saw, for the first time, a photograph of his grandfather as he marched in front of Rich’s. "Look at that jaw set. He would’ve walked through hell – bare feet, if he had to!" Tears streamed down Maynard Jackson’s cheek. "What a man!" he said.

* * * * *


Near dusk on April 4, 1968, as rain fell on the Allenmeadow in Atlanta, swelling the banks of Nancy Creek, Ivan and Louise Allen saw the news bulletin flash on their bedroom television: "Martin Luther King, Jr. shot in Memphis."

The mayor rose from his chair in disbelief. "First Kennedy," he said, "now King."

A sketchy first report said King was in Memphis to lend aid to striking sanitation workers. He had been standing on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel when a single shot rang out. A bullet struck him in the shoulder or neck. The severity of his injury was unknown.

As the mayor paced in his bedroom, decrying the senselessness of violence, he said to his wife, "I must go to Mrs. King."

First he made a phone call to her. Only minutes before Coretta King had received a panicked call from Jesse Jackson, one of her husband’s aides. From Memphis, Jackson had said, "Coretta, Doc just got shot. I would advise you to take the next thing smoking."

The mayor asked if she had heard the news. Coretta King said she had and wanted to get on the 8:25 P.M. Eastern Air Lines flight to Memphis. The plane would leave in an hour.

"I’m coming over myself," he said, "and I’ll try to get there before you leave. I’ll send an officer to go with you." He phoned ahead to the Atlanta police department and asked that a patrol car be dispatched to the King home in Vine City.

"What are you going to do?" Louise asked.

"I’m going to Mrs. King," he said.

"I’ll get a coat. I’m going with you," she said. For years, Louise had been her family’s strong emotional foundation. She had raised three sons while her husband pursued his business and political objectives. A newspaper story years later would liken her to a "tall ship on a fine day" and the image was appropriate; with her wealth and lifestyle, she had a ladylike grandeur. She revealed her inner thoughts to few people. She was a hard person to get to know; even her daughter-in-law called her "Mrs. Allen." Some of her friends described her as a "steel magnolia," southern grace masking a harder edge; one friend suggested, "You may think the mayor is strong but Louise is even stronger." Accompanying her husband to Coretta King’s seemed only proper to Louise: "A lot of times a woman can do better with another woman. It was perfectly natural on my part." Initially, Ivan Jr. was reluctant to bring her with him, fearing an outbreak of violence. Louise had made up her mind. She was going.

In the rain, the Allens sped down Northside Drive, toward the King home. As he drove into the darkness of the Vine City slum, the mayor thought about the thirty-nine-year-old preacher. He has seen King mostly in times of stress, but he had begun to grasp the depth of the man, his humor and his sincerity. In 1965, he had attended a dinner for King in New York City, an affair sponsored by the American Jewish Committee. Before nearly two thousand guests, King had expressed his gratitude for the testimonial, then said, “But adding to the honor is the fact that I have been accompanied here by the mayor of Atlanta, Georgia: my good and close friend, Ivan Allen, Jr.” His kind words had surprised the mayor. The applause that night for Ivan Jr. was loud and sustained. Finally, someone tapped him on the shoulder and told him to stand. That night Ivan Allen, Jr., learned what King undoubtedly already had known – that there was a world, and a viewpoint, beyond that of Atlanta.

On another occasion, the tenth-anniversary dinner of the SCLC at the new Hyatt Regency Hotel on Peachtree Street in August 1967, King had arrived late. He explained that he was caught between different time zones: “Central Time, Eastern Standard Time and CPT.” The mayor, sitting with Ralph and Mary Lynn McGill, feel into King’s trap. “CPT?” he asked. “Colored People’s Time. We’re always late,” King said, before breaking into a disarming laughter.

Ivan Jr. also recalled his discussions with King in his office on the first floor of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge on Auburn Avenue, Dobbs’s building. The mayor and King had spoken freely about race, as it affected the nation and Atlanta. After one such talk, King had driven the mayor back to City Hall and handed him an autographed copy of his book Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community. He had signed it: “To my good friend, Ivan Allen Jr., for whom I have great respect and admiration. Martin.”

Ivan and Louise arrived at the red-brick King home at 234 Sunset Avenue, next door to the four-unit apartment house built nearly two decades earlier by the Rev. Maynard Jackson, Sr. Coretta King was being escorted to a police car. The mayor joined her, though she sat in the back seat. When Capt. George Royal suddenly appeared in another police car, the mayor moved in with him so he could radio ahead to hold Mrs. King’s plane. The convoy began for the airport, with Louise Allen and Billye Williams, wife of the Rev. Sam Williams, trailing behind in the Allen family Chevrolet.

Ivan Jr. knew he needed to show the black community that he understood and was responding with all due speed and sympathy. He knew the media monitored police radio and hoped they would spread the word of his response to the black districts where the despair over the shooting was beginning to deepen. As far as Ivan Jr. knew, Martin Luther King, Jr. was still alive, but the mayor feared that the deep-seated fury in Atlanta’s black ghettos was about to be unleashed. Crime in Atlanta was rising, and a record 142 murders had been committed the previous year. During the summer of 1967 riots in America’s black ghettos had seemed to mirror the Vietnam War. Cleveland, Washington, Louisville, Omaha and Montgomery erupted. Twenty-six were left dead on the streets of Newark, forty-three in Detroit. Stokley Carmichael had fomented a rock-and-bottle throwing disturbance in Atlanta’s Dixie Hills section in June after a black policeman had shot and wounded a black youth. Ivan Jr. testified later that summer before a Senate committee that Congress no longer could delay funding to cities trying to cope with the black migration from rural areas. In a speech at Harvard on July 10, 1967, Ivan, Jr. also had made the point that Carmichael was jeopardizing the civil rights movement. Lyndon Johnson had responded by forming a commission, led by Illinois governor Otto Kerner, to study the root causes of black unrest in America. Known as the Kerner Commission, its report in March 1968 suggested that America was fast becoming two nations, one black and the other white, separate and unequal. “What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the commission reported. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

The convoy arrived at the Atlanta airport and the mayor handed $200 to Capt. Morris Redding. “Morris, for God’s sake, get two tickets for Memphis,” he said. With Coretta King, he rushed through the Eastern Air Lines terminal toward the gate, where the 8:25 for Memphis was being held. A few newsmen accompanied them.

“It is such a senseless thing,” the mayor told her. “When will people ever learn?” Suddenly a page for Coretta King sounded over the public address system. Dora McDonald, secretary to King, rushed over to the group, her expression grave. “Come on!” she said, grabbing Mrs. King’s arm. “We need a room where we can sit down.” They went into the outer area of the ladies rest room.

An Eastern Air Lines official told Ivan Jr. that someone was trying to reach him by telephone. At a nearby phone, he listened to a voice, identified as an Eastern Air Lines official in Memphis, say, “I’ve been asked to inform you that Dr. King is dead.” The mayor’s response was deliberate. “I want you to go back and reaffirm your statement and be positive that this is right.”

The voice had not a particle of doubt. “Mayor Allen, I have been instructed to affirm and reaffirm to you that Dr. King is dead. We’re trying to furnish you the information as quickly as possible.”

The mayor put down the phone and, when he turned, Louise knew at once what had happened.

Together, the Allens walked to the ladies rest room. When the door opened, they saw Coretta King and Dora McDonald embracing, and quietly weeping. Mrs. King had not been told officially. That duty fell to the mayor. He performed it formally, with the words he had just heard: “Mrs. King, I have to inform you that Dr. King is dead.” Coretta King could not restrain her tears. Seeking to be helpful, Louise instinctively reached for a paper towel and handed it to her. The mayor snatched the paper towel then gave her the silk handkerchief from his breast pocket.

“Mrs. King,” the mayor said, “is it your wish to go to Memphis?”

“I should go back home and see about the children,” she said. “And then decide about going to Memphis.”

The mayor escorted her through the terminal, back to the car. Television cameras captured their grim expressions. Rain was falling across Atlanta. The mayor held an umbrella over Coretta King. Together, they drove back to the King home, along with her sister-in-law, Christine King Farris, and Christine’s husband, Isaac. They drove in silence.

At the King home, policemen and family friends were waiting. In the confusion, seven-year-old Dexter King asked, “Mommy, when is Daddy coming home?” Coretta King spoke with her children privately and then retired to her bedroom.

By the time President Johnson called the King home that night, riots had erupted in dozens of American cities. According to the police reports received by the mayor, Atlanta remained mostly quiet, with only a few flare-ups.

Later, Lyndon Johnson appeared on television to urge Americans to search their hearts. “I ask every citizen to reject the blind violence that has struck Dr. King, who lived by nonviolence,” the president said. Ivan Jr. watched the address from the living room of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.