In 1956, when John F. Kennedy wroteProfiles in Courage, he asserted that elected officials have anobligation to “lead, inform, correct and sometimes even ignoreconstituent opinion” if doing so serves the nation’s bestinterest (Kennedy, 15). Seven years later, the truth of these words wasdemonstrated when President Kennedy called upon Ivan Allen, Jr., themayor of Atlanta, to testify in support of the groundbreaking civilrights legislation he was urging Congress to enact. In making thisrequest, President Kennedy set the stage for Mayor Allen to examine hisconscience, defy the opinions of many contemporaries, and take a bravestand against segregation.
The President’s selection ofIvan Allen, Jr. as a witness was a logical choice. Although Allen was agrandson of a Confederate cavalryman and had unsuccessfully run forgovernor of Georgia on a pro-segregation platform in the early 1950s,his civic involvement since then had caused him to re-evaluate hisbeliefs on race relations. In 1961, as President of Atlanta’sChamber of Commerce, Allen helped black leaders and white businessmenreach an agreement to end segregation at downtown lunch counters(Suggs). Later that year, when Allen was elected mayor, he received themajority of black votes. Once in office, he removed the“colored” and “white” register signs from CityHall, gave black policemen the power to arrest whites, appointed thefirst black firemen, and ordered the desegregation of city ballparks andswimming pools. However, his first years in office were not perfect withrespect to race relations. He erected (but later tore down) physicalbarricades between a black neighborhood and a white neighborhood insouthwest Atlanta in an attempt to halt “blockbusting” byblack realtors. But overall, in his efforts to have Atlanta seen by theoutside worlda and by itselfaas “the city too busy to hate,”Allen had done more than any other Southern politician to advance racialequality (Hyatt).
In June 1963, President Kennedy urged Congressto issue a major new law, a civil rights bill that would eliminatediscrimination in restaurants and hotels and other public facilities. In early July, Kennedy contacted Mayor Allen and asked him to testify insupport of the legislation. Allen was proud that the President hadcalled upon him, but he felt that his testimony would not be importantenough to help the bill pass. He also worried that actively supportingthe law would cost him re-election, because many voters in Atlantaopposed the legislation (Pomerantz, 315-318).
However, as theMayor studied the proposed law, he found he wanted to work to supportit. He believed that voluntary desegregation had accomplished as muchas it could, and that direction from the federal government wasnecessary if further steps to racial equality were to take place. Allenmet with black community leaders to discuss his growing desire to speakpublicly in favor of the law. Martin Luther King, Sr. and several otherblack leaders urged him not to testify, telling him he was “toovaluable to sacrifice” by giving testimony that might not benecessary for the law to pass
(Pomerantz, 319). Finally,Allen’s wife put into words the result of all his thinking. Shetold him, “You’ll have a hard time living with yourself therest of your life if you don’t do it....I don’t think youcan be re-elected if you do go, but if you feel its right, then go andaccept the consequences.” (Pomerantz, 318).
On July 26,1963, Ivan Allen, Jr. appeared in Washington to testify in support ofthe Civil Rights Act. Traditionally, United States senators introducedwitnesses from their home state, but because both senators from Georgiaopposed the bill they were absent from the proceedings. (Suggs).Instead, Charles Weltner, a junior congressman from Georgia, introducedAllen. Mayor Allen testified that in Atlanta specific problems had beensolved by the cooperation of people of
both races. He said,though, that further action was necessary, but could not take placewithout federal legislation. He also warned that Congress’sfailure to pass the bill would be seen as endorsing discrimination byprivate businesses (Barry). Finally, he called segregation“slavery’s stepchild” and urged Congress to“make every American free in fact as well as in theory”(Pomerantz, 321).
Most newspapers in Georgia wrote editorialsblasting the legislation and Allen’s testimony in its support. Hereceived many hateful and vicious letters condemning him for endorsingthe bill. Writers called him “Benedict Arnold” and suggestedhe “do the city of Atlanta a favor and jump” from hisexecutive office (Pomerantz, 320-21). However, opinion changed fairlyquickly - by the time the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, one yearafter Allen’s testimony and eight months after PresidentKennedy’s assassination, Atlanta was much more positive about therole the Mayor had played. When Allen ran for re-election later thatyear, he received a majority of votes from both black and whiteresidents of Atlanta (Martin).
Ivan Allen, Jr. was the onlyprominent Southern politician to testify in behalf of the Civil RightsAct (Martin). In doing so, he lost the favor of many friends andconstituents, and he risked his political career. Fortunately, he wasre-elected, and was able to guide Atlanta in its transition to equalrights, putting into practice the principles he had so bravely testifiedto before Congress. As one historian noted after Mayor Allen’sdeath on July 3, 2003, the mayor served as a “human bridge”,carrying many in the South away from discriminatory attitudes andactions and towards a more egalitarian society (Martin).
Tom Barry, “Ivan Allen, Jr.Helped Build, and Heal, Atlanta”, Atlanta Business Chronicle, 11November 2002.
Charles Hyatt, “The Man Too Busy toHate”.
JohnF. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1956)15.
Douglas Martin, “Ivan Allen, Jr., 92, Dies, LedAtlanta as Beacon of Change” NY Times, 3 July 2003, late ed.: A21.
Gary M. Pomerantz, Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn(New York, Lisa Drew/Scribner, 1966).
Suggs, Ernie andTom Bennett, “Ivan Allen, Jr.: Foundation Builder for the NewAtlanta”, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, 7 July2003.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.