By Tom Baxter
Fifty years ago this month, Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. became the only elected Southern official to testify for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The decision to “go beyond the niceties of racial harmony” and take a firm stand on the issue of segregation had been a “torturous” one, Allen’s son, Inman Allen, told the Atlanta Rotary Club Monday.
It was “a uniquely courageous and dramatic testimony that many have suggested was a pivotal moment in this country’s journey toward a fully integrated society,” Allen said, speaking to a group which his father once headed and of which his grandfather was a founder.
One month later, Martin Luther King Jr. would give his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, and that November President John F. Kennedy, who had invited Allen to testify on the advice of attorney Morris Abram, would be assassinated. The following year, under President Lyndon Johnson, the legislation, including the public accommodations section for which Allen testified, was passed into law.
Allen had been elected mayor in 1961 as the voice of moderate businessmen alarmed by the segregationist rhetoric of Lester Maddox, whom Allen handily defeated. The late mayor himself would acknowledge afterwards that race had been more a pragmatic business issue than a personal conviction before his decision to testify in favor of a bill that would outlaw the practice of racial separation in stores, restaurants and other public places that was still common across much of the South.
Allen comes across in records of his testimony as very much the impatient businessman, countering the angry jabs of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina with repeated reminders that he wasn’t a lawyer, with all that might imply about the desire to stretch things out.
“We can’t keep on messing around with this issue forever,” he said that day.
“We cannot dodge this issue,” he testified. “We cannot look back over our shoulders or turn the clock back to the 1860s.”
In the next mayoral election, the later Mayor Allen’s testimony would become such a powerful symbol for African-American voters that he took to carrying a green-bound copy of the Congressional Record to political rallies.
“It was as though I was carrying a Bible under my arm,” he wrote later.
But the younger Allen, who brought the greenbound book with him for Monday’s speech, said Monday that most in Atlanta’s black leadership, which was given a preview of what the mayor intended to say, were against him accepting Kennedy’s invitation to come to Washington. They reasoned — with the caution that was about to be tossed into the turbulent winds of the 1960s — that they shouldn’t risk losing Allen as mayor for a bill that might not pass.
While the testimony won favor with African-American voters, it also brought changes for Allen and his family, who remained under police protection for years afterwards. Many of the late mayor’s friends avoided him for months afterwards, and some remained that way, he wrote.
Allen in his speech contrasted the ethics of “social courage” his father espoused with the more recent concept of political correctness, recalling how advisors had to coach the late mayor into saying “negro” rather than “nigra,” as he had been raised.
He cast part of his speech as an imagined phone conversation with his late father. Asking the Atlanta icon what he thought he should say in speech, Allen, channeling his father, said, “Well, don’t tell them I tried to run for governor of the state as a segregationist.”
“It’s alright, Daddy, people change. And you did, and you proved it,” the son replied.
“We can’t keep on messing around with this issue forever.” How those words must echo through the halls of Washington today.