An award for all mankind, a dinner for one—the Atlanta Nobel Prize party for MLK, given by the city’s image-conscious white leadership

By Sheffield Hale

On October 14, 1964, the Nobel Committee announced that thirty-five-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Atlanta was stunned by the news, though in different ways. The African American community was overjoyed. White reaction was mixed; while some welcomed the recognition, others reacted negatively, though mostly in private. On October 15, Ralph McGill, publisher of the Atlanta Constitution, wrote an editorial piece in the paper stating that, “the award of it to this American honors all Americans, for theirs was the spirit he moved.” That same day, the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s oldest African American paper, proudly announced, “Nobel Award Honors Mankind, King Avows.” Atlanta mayor Ivan Allen Jr. also confirmed in a public statement that he had “extended personal congratulations” to Dr. King.

Others outside the city were not as kind. Birmingham’s Commissioner of Public Safety, the notorious Eugene “Bull” Connor, claimed that the Nobel Committee was “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in selecting Dr. King. St. Augustine police chief Virgil Stuart called King’s accomplishment “one of the biggest jokes of the year.” In addition, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover doubled his efforts to stain Dr. King’s reputation after he learned of the award.

On December 10, King accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. Meanwhile, a small group of Atlantans, black and white, gathered to determine how the city could honor his achievement. It was proposed that a public dinner reception be held in his honor, and an organizing committee was formed, comprised of Ralph McGill, Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, Morehouse president Benjamin E. Mays, and Archbishop Paul Hallinan.

Significantly, the committee sought to simultaneously acknowledge Dr. King’s accomplishment while uniting Atlanta’s segregated black and white communities through what would be an unprecedented interracial event. The committee scheduled the banquet for January 27, 1965.

In need of community support to ensure an appropriately biracial audience for the dinner, one of their first actions was to contact Mayor Ivan Allen Jr., believing he had the political clout to turn out the white establishment. Mayor Allen agreed to help and began contacting potential sponsors. On December 16, the committee sent out sponsorship invitations.

Despite the committee’s appeal, only a handful of white leaders responded.

Mayor Allen understood the influence of former Coca-Cola president Robert W. Woodruff over the white business elite. Looking for Woodruff’s support for the banquet, Allen privately visited the Coca-Cola patriarch at his Ichauway Plantation and obtained an endorsement for the dinner from him and from Coca-Cola’s current president, Paul Austin.

After Mayor Allen and Austin returned from the Ichauway meeting, Austin arranged a private conference at the Piedmont Driving Club. There, he urged other white businessmen to join Coca-Cola in sponsoring the banquet, stating:

“It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”

By the end of the meeting, the group agreed to promote sponsorships of the banquet.

Mayor Allen, though aware the banquet had garnered the support of white business leaders, was skeptical that any would actually attend the dinner, saying, “Most of you will be out of town or sick, and you’ll send someone to represent you. Don’t let it worry you, though. The mayor will be there.”

The once-private tension quickly became public in an article published by the New York Times on December 29, 1964. The paper declared “Tribute to Dr. King Disputed in Atlanta” and brought national attention to the mixed reaction of Atlanta’s white business community. A senior executive of an unnamed bank was described as attempting to undermine the event. The article, which tested the public reputation of Atlanta’s progressive business leadership, had the net effect of boosting ticket sales. By January 20, the banquet committee announced they had sold all available tickets to the event.

On January 27, 1965, the day of the Nobel reception dinner at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel on Forsyth Street (now a parking lot), there was a sense of apprehension among guests. Before the event, rumors circulated that KKK members planned to station themselves within the crowd outside the hotel—though the tip proved to be false. Ultimately, the only incident reported was a small verbal outburst from Charlie Lebedin, owner of Leb’s Restaurant, who had fought restaurant integration.

Dr. King, who had been delayed by the Atlanta Police Department to ensure his safety, arrived late to his banquet. When the Nobel winner reached his seat, he leaned over to apologize to Mayor Allen for his tardiness. The following exchange, recalled by Mayor Allen, captures a bit of Dr. King’s famous sense of humor:

Dr. King, with a smile on his face, “I forgot what time we were on.”

Curious, Allen asked, “How’s that?”

Dr. King replied, “Eastern Standard Time, CST, or CPT?”

“CPT?” Allen wondered aloud.

“Colored People’s Time,” Dr. King explained. “It always takes us longer to get where we’re going.”

The New York Times wrote that the ballroom, with its 1,500 guests, was “jammed far beyond comfortable capacity with Atlantans.” The banquet’s program included speeches by committee members, Dr. King, and other prominent Atlantans; performances by the Morehouse Glee Club; and the presentation of an engraved crystal Steuben bowl to Dr. King. The event concluded with an impromptu sing-a-long of “We Shall Overcome.”

In the following days, the Atlanta Daily World hailed “King’s Tribute Brings Praise to Atlanta.” Time magazine found it “remarkable” that Atlanta could host such a successful dinner, though they admitted that “on the subject of race relations, Atlanta has long been one of the South’s most enlightened cities.”

On February 3, 1965, Mayor Allen sent a letter to Robert Woodruff. In it, he attached a Philadelphia Inquirer news clipping that spoke highly of Atlanta and praised the banquet that had “paid a deserved tribute to their good judgment and to their city.”

Allen’s message, headed “Dear Boss,” exclaimed, “This is a right sound editorial and is a reflection of the type of comment that I think we received over most of the country.”

Atlanta had once again negotiated through controversy to build on its carefully tended image as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

This article appeared in an earlier form as part of “Jamil’s Georgia” on the SaportaReport.

Sheffield Hale is the president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center, and a former Georgia Humanities board member.