John Wesley Dobbs may not be as well known as the leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but his work decades earlier helped build the city’s Black middle class and laid the groundwork for much that came after him.
Born near Marietta in 1882, Dobbs wasted little time pursuing his own success. After two years at Morehouse College, Dobbs entered the U.S. Railway Mail Service — where he worked for over three decades. In 1932, he was elected grand master of the Prince Hall Masons, earning him the nickname “The Grand.” Dobbs held court from the Masons’ lodge — which still stands proudly on Auburn Avenue today.
During the 1930s and the 1940s, he founded the Georgia Voters League, the Atlanta Civic and Political League, and co-founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League. Throughout his life, Dobbs used his many positions to increase black voter registration.
“When J. W. Dobbs started his registration drives in 1936, less than 600 blacks were registered to vote in Atlanta,” Dobbs’ namesake Atlanta public school reported. “His goal was to register 10,000 people, firmly believing that the power of the ballot was key in overcoming segregation.”
In the following decade, 20,000 voters were registered, and many of the city’s white leaders began calling Dobbs the “Mayor of Sweet Auburn.” In 1948, Dobbs leveraged the growing Black voting block to convince Mayor William B. Hartsfield to integrate Atlanta’s police force.
When the King family moved to Boulevard, just around the corner from his own home, Dobbs became good friends with Martin Luther King, Sr.
“We kids formed a club comprised of the three King children, the two Burney first cousins, and ourselves —the two youngest of the six Dobbs sisters,” Dobbs’ daughter June Dobbs Butts said, as reported by Stanford’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute.
Following Dobbs’ passing in 1961, King gave the invocation at his funeral, in which he praised God “for giving to Atlanta, for giving to Georgia, for giving to the nations, for giving to America, such a noble life.”
And while Dobbs never realized his own dream of running for public office, in the decade after his death, his grandson, Maynard Jackson, Jr. was elected the first Black mayor of Atlanta in 1974.
In 1994, the City of Atlanta changed the name of Houston Street to John Wesley Dobbs Avenue in honor of Dobbs’ 52-year residency in the area.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com