In 1965, a coalition of Atlanta’s political, religious and cultural leaders organized a banquet to honor a native son, the city’s first Nobel Prize winner. The integrated affair was not without controversy, but civic pride and a sense of decency prevailed. You won’t find a better illustration of why Atlanta is not Birmingham, and vice-versa.
A LIFE magazine reporter was among the invited guests.
Some 1,500 persons gathered, Negro and white, banker and yardman, society matron and maid, gathered in an Atlanta hotel to honor both Dr. King, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the cause for which he won it: the non-violent revolution of the Negro. They sat together and ate together and if there was any discomfort, none showed it. …
The dinner was flawless and ended in an extraordinary scene: southern whites joined in the singing of the hymn of the Negro movement, We Shall Overcome. It suggested an emotional acceptance heretofore unknown in the South.
Tears stood in Dr. King’s eyes. “This is a very significant evening,” he said, “for me and for the South,” and he added, “I am tempted to stay here in a more serene life, but I must return to the valley” … of anger and prejudice. A few days later he was back in his valley leading a voter registration campaign at Selma, Ala. where, of 15,000 Negroes, only 335 are on the voting rolls. The official resistance lacked the onetime Alabama savagery of cattle prods and police dogs. But it was still effective. By late last week, no Negroes had been registered to vote and nearly 2,000 had been arrested in the demonstrations. Among them was King. He lay on a hard bunk in jail reading the Bible and, perhaps, reflecting on his dinner of a few nights before.