King's Nobel Left Atlanta Ambivalent
[Editor's Note: This year the Journal-Constitution is examining the evolution of civil rights in the South over the past six decades. This week's story is one part of that series. Perhaps this excerpt will pique further exploration by specialists or general readers .]
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was half-asleep in a hospital bed when he found out he'd won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Exhausted by a heavy speaking schedule and suffering from a respiratory infection, he had been admitted to St. Joseph's Infirmary --- then in downtown Atlanta --- for several days of rest. On the morning of Oct. 14, 1964, the phone rang and Coretta Scott King gave the good news to her groggy husband. A few minutes later, he dialed her back with a question.
"Did you just call me? Or was I dreaming?"
On Friday, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced in Oslo, Norway. A similar announcement 40 years ago left Atlantans awkwardly divided. Some folks celebrated and offered prayers of thanks. Others grumbled and wondered what the world was coming to.
The ambivalence reflected the times --- just months after segregation in public places was outlawed --- and provided a freeze-frame image of a city in transition.
At 35, King became the youngest recipient of the peace prize. But the coming weeks were to be anything but peaceful for him as the FBI stepped up its clandestine campaign to discredit him by using salacious information about his personal life.
Atlanta's reputation hung in the balance, too. People weren't exactly snapping up tickets for a banquet to honor Georgia's first Nobel winner. Was"the city too busy to hate" going to turn its back on a native who had become an internationally known disciple of nonviolence?
In the end, the banquet was a success, a gilded evening that marked Atlanta's first truly integrated public gathering of consequence and cemented its stature as a progressive outpost in a region haunted by old prejudices.
"Atlanta came of age that night," says former Mayor Sam Massell, who was there as president of the Board of Aldermen, the forerunner of today's City Council.
How it happened is a telling story of modern Atlanta, a city that did the honorable thing even if some of its motivations were not entirely honorable.
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