Below are the brief bios of the most influential Civil Rights activists and prosperous African-Americans who have and continue to shape Atlanta.
Jefferson Franklin Long (1836-1901)
His heart pounding, Jefferson Franklin Long recites the Congressional Oath of Office on January 9, 1871. As Georgia's first African-American congressman, he will hold his office in the House of Representatives for 23 years. During his time as a slave, Long taught himself to read and write by setting copy for a Macon newspaper. By the end of the Civil War, he had distinguished himself among society, as a proprietor and public speaker, becoming a key member of the Republican Party in 1867.
Alonzo Herndon (1858-1927)
Rising from enslavement to stake his claim in the financial world, barber Alonzo Herndon opens Atlanta Life Insurance Company in 1905. Thanks to his entrepreneurial talents, Herndon was Atlanta's wealthiest African-American by the late 1920s. In 1922, the company's capital stock reached $100,000, giving it legal reserve status an achievement shared only by four other black establishments at the time. Taking inspiration from Booker T. Washington, he collaborated with other Southern insurance companies, helping to solidify the link between mutual aid and capitalism.
Joseph E. Lowery (1924-present)
Beginning an unprecedented 30-year tenure, the Methodist minister Joseph E. Lowery is named president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1977. Lowery's political activism extends far beyond the Civil Rights Movement. Not only was he a key figure in desegregating the nation, he also campaigned for AIDS education, affirmative action, workers' rights and black voter registration. Proceeding his SCLC presidency, Lowery championed the building of 240 low-income housing units and served as a MARTA board member for over 20 years. Responsible for gathering fundamental funds for the 1996 Olympics, Lowery's presence is felt throughout the city. He also co-chaired Nelson Mandela's 1990 visit to Atlanta, and was instrumental in changing the state flag design. Joseph Lowery has gathered numerous accolades, including the NAACP National Lifetime Achievement Award as well as being named Atlanta's Citizen of the Year twice. His alma mater of Clark Atlanta University established the Joseph E. Lowery Institute for Justice and Human Rights in his honor.
Hosea Williams (1926-2000)
Leading what would become Georgia's largest civil rights demonstration, Hosea Williams and 20,000 marchers descended on Forsyth County to confront the Ku Klux Klan in January of 1987. A close friend of Dr. Martin Luther King and a poignant activist, Williams was arrested over 125 times. His astounding ability to mobilize protesters is also seen in the organization of the Bloody Sunday March from Selma, Alabama to the state capital of Montgomery, Alabama. Prior to his activist career, Hosea Williams served in an all-black unit of General Patton's Third Army during WWII, earning a Purple Heart. He also earned a Bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Morris Brown College, and a Master's degree from Clark Atlanta University. In the later years of his life, Williams founded the Hosea Feed The Hungry foundation in 1971, and the Sweet Auburn Heritage Festival in efforts to revitalize the district in 1984.
Ralph David Abernathy (1926-1990)
Immediately proceeding the death of his dear friend Dr. Martin Luther King, Ralph David Abernathy becomes president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in April of 1968. Having served as MLK's confidant and chief partner during the Civil Rights movement, Abernathy helped organize the Montgomery Bus Boycott, as well as the establishment of the SCLC, and led the Poor People's Campaign March on Washington, D.C. Though his 10-year tenure as SCLC president was marked with internal tension, the profound effects of Abernathy's activism are evident. After becoming an ordained Baptist minister in 1948, he earned his Master's degree in sociology in 1951 from Clark Atlanta University.
Coretta Scott King (1927-2006)
Honoring her lifetime of civil rights activism, Coretta Scott King becomes the first woman and first African-American to have a gravesite on the Georgia State Capitol rotunda. The wife of Martin Luther King, Jr., Coretta was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. Although she stayed behind the scenes for most of her husband's activist career, after his death she took up King's legendary efforts for nonviolent protest, becoming an icon of strength. It is through her efforts that so much of MLK's efforts survive today. She is responsible for the collecting and preservation of the reverend's papers, as well as the establishment of The King Center for Nonviolent Social Change. She is buried beside her husband in an enlarged tomb in the center of the reflecting pool at the King Center.
Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)
Born on January 15, 1929 as Michael King, he would become one of the nation's leading Civil Rights activists. Son of the devout Ebenezer Baptist Church preacher, Michael's father (Michael Luther King, Sr.) changes both his and his son's name to honor the German religious reformist, Martin Luther. With family, church and education at the core of his convictions, MLK, Jr. graduated an ordained minister from Morehouse College in 1948. Pursuing his Ph.D. in Boston, King meets his future wife, Coretta Scott. After initial hesitation, King joined the Civil Rights Movement, educating black activists and white pacifists in nonviolent protest tactics. Surrounded by fear, loathing and constant FBI surveillance, King remained dedicated to his cause. Under his influence, organizations sprang up over the Deep South, practicing nonviolent direct action such as sit-ins, freedom rides and boycotts. The pinnacle of King's career came between 1963 and 1965 when the March on Washington, his "I Have A Dream" speech, and Nobel Peace Prize resulted in 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed segregation. On April 4, 1968 Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, TN. At the loss of her husband, Coretta Scott King became another pivotal activist, helping solidify the King legacy.
Andrew Jackson Young, Jr. (1932-present)
On November 7, 1972 Andrew Jackson Young, Jr. became one of the first black Southerners elected to Congress in the 20th century. Elected to represent the 5th District of Atlanta in the House of Representatives, the pastor and close friend of Martin Luther King, Jr. championed causes for the poor and working-class Americans. A lifelong civil rights activist, Young worked closely with Georgia president Jimmy Carter to transform U.S. foreign policy, focusing on human rights and economic development in third-world countries. He served three terms in Congress before returning to Atlanta, where he was elected mayor from 1981-1989.
Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr. (1938-2003)
In 1973, at age 35, Maynard Holbrook Jackson, Jr. was inaugurated as the first black mayor of a Southern metropolis. The prodigious attorney and political activist also served as the city's first African-American Vice Mayor in 1969. Using affirmative action, Jackson made strides in all facets of city business. Transforming the police department, he helped promote African-American officers into higher ranks. After acquiring an abandoned downtown building, Jackson ended a two-week standoff with the city's indigent citizens by transforming it into 3,500 housing units for the poor. He also worked to repair the rift between the city's political officials and the white business community. The largest achievement of his tenure came with the construction of the massive new airport terminal using a large minority work force. Maynard Jackson, Jr. suffered a fatal heart attack on June 23, 2003. He was interred at Oakland Cemetery after his memorial service at the Atlanta Civic Center, which drew more than 5,000 mourners.
John Lewis (1940-present)
Elected president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1963, John Lewis became the face of the idealistic generation of students. He held this position for three years, during which time he suffered enormous amounts of physical brutality as punishment for his civil rights endeavors. During his presidency, he helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Summer as well as the Bloody Sunday March on Montgomery from Selma, Alabama. Lewis was close with Martin Luther King, Jr. and spoke at the March on Washington For Jobs and Freedom, during which MLK gave his famous "I Have a Dream" speech. Later, John Lewis moved into the political arena and has represented Atlanta and the 5th Congressional District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives since 1987.
Julian Bond (1940-present)
Dedicated to reporting all aspects of the Civil Rights Movement, Julian Bond becomes editor for the first edition of the Atlanta Inquirer. An activist from his college years on, Bond helped organize Morehouse College's Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, which helped desegregate Atlanta's parks, diners and theatres. After serving as Communications Director of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Bond was elected to the House of Representatives in 1967 and the Senate in 1974. This began his unprecedented 20 year tenure, at the end of which he became Georgia's most-elected black man. He earned a Bachelor's degree in English from Morehouse College and has since received 21 honorary degrees. Bond is a highly-acclaimed writer, and is now a professor at the University of Virginia.
Hamilton Holmes (1941-1995)
In January of 1961, Hamilton Holmes became the first African-American man to enroll at the University of Georgia (UGA). A distinguished student and athlete, Holmes graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1963. Later that year he became the first black man to attend the Emory University School of Medicine. After serving as an army major in Germany during WWII, Hamilton Holmes returned to Atlanta to become Chief of Orthopedics at the Veterans Administration hospital. After opening a private practice, he was named Medical Director of Grady Memorial Hospital and assistant dean of Emory University. In 1983 Holmes became the first black man to be inducted to UGA's Board of Trustees. In 1992, three years before his death, he helped create a scholarship for African-American students wishing to attend the University of Georgia.
Shirley Clarke Franklin (1945-present)
Shirley Clarke Franklin becomes the first African American female mayor of a major Southern city on November 4, 2001. A member of the Democratic Party, Atlanta's 58th mayor worked as the Commissioner of Cultural Affairs under mayor Maynard Jackson, and as Chief Administrative Officer and City Manager under Andrew Young. Within her first seven years, Franklin has implemented one of the country's strongest ethics reformations. She is lauded for her "green" efforts improving the city's sewer system and making the city have one of the highest percentages of LEED-Certified skyscrapers in the nation. Her human rights initiatives have also garnered attention. After commissioning the "Blueprint to End Homelessness in Atlanta in 10 Years", the flagship project 24/7 Gateway Center opened in 2005 and serves over 500 indigent citizens daily. Also included in this initiative, the "Mayor's Youth Plan" which has awarded over 1,700 Atlanta public school graduates with financial and technological aid. Shirley Franklin is a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Commission, and in October 2005, was named one of the "Best Leaders of 2005" by U.S. News and World Report. She was also awarded the 2005 Profile in Courage award by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation for her unprecedented success in solving Atlanta's budget deficit.
Leah Ward Sears (1955-present)
Leah Ward Sears was elected chief justice of the Georgia Supreme Court on June 28, 2005. A member of the Democratic Party, Sears is the first African-American woman to sit on the state's Supreme Court. Appointed in 1992 by then-Governor Zell Miller, she became, at age 36, the youngest justice and first woman to serve the Supreme Court. Notable opinions include Sear's affirmation to overturn a state sodomy law and denouncement of the electrical chair as a human execution form. She is the founder of the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys, as well as the Columbus, GA branch of the Battered Women's Project. Leah Ward Sears left the Supreme Court in June of 2009, and has now joined the Atlanta law firm of Schiff Hardin.
Kenny Leon (1956-present)
In 1990, beginning what would be an unprecedented 11-year tenure, Kenny Leon becomes the first African-American Artistic Director of the Alliance Theatre Company. Leon sought not only to diversify the productions, but also the cast, staff and audience. He increased African-American attendance from less than 5% in 1990 to 25% by 2003. Raising the theatre's national and international profile, the Alliance was awarded extensive funding under his leadership. As the Southeast's largest regional theatre, the Alliance has an annual attendance of over 250,000. In celebration of their 30th anniversary, Leon directed the world premiere of Elaborate Lives: The Legend of Aida, an Elton John and Tim Rice musical. It moved to Broadway in the Spring of 2000, under the name Aida, where it won 4 Tonys. He resigned his position in 2001, and cofounded his own company True Colors Theatre in 2003. Kenny Leon is a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and mentors for the Theatre Development Fund's Open Doors program.
Tyler Perry (1969-present)
Becoming the first black producer to own a major television and film studio, Tyler Perry opened his 200,000 square foot studios in 2008. As of 2009, his films have grossed over $400 million worldwide. Earning around $75 million in 2008, Perry is just short of Hollywood's five highest paid men. A renown actor, director and producer, he is also an acclaimed screenwriter and author. In 2006, Perry's first book Don't Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings: Madea's Unhibited Commentaries on Love and Life shot to the top of the New York Times' nonfiction bestseller list and remained for eight weeks. In 2009 alone, Perry has received five awards, including a NAACP Image Award for "Outstanding Comedy Series." This film screen mogul hasn't forgotten his roots. Highly involved with local and national charities, Tyler Perry built a 20-home community for Hurricane Katrina survivors in his hometown of New Orleans, Louisianna.
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Tour the MLK National Historic Site by GPS and enjoy history at your own pace.
Vicki L. Crawford, director of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection, discusses the annual observances of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday and Black History Month