Marvin Arrington Sr., former Fulton judge, Atlanta council president, dies at 82

A native Atlantan, Arrington has been a fixture of the city’s politics since the late 1960s.
Atlanta City Hall named its chambers after retired Fulton County Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr.

Credit: Zachary D. Porter

Credit: Zachary D. Porter

Atlanta City Hall named its chambers after retired Fulton County Judge Marvin S. Arrington Sr.

Marvin S. Arrington Sr., a retired Fulton County judge and former Atlanta City Council president, died Wednesday at age 82.

Arrington’s family said in a statement that he died in the morning surrounded by loved ones at his home. A family friend told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the family is not ready to publicly speak at this time.

“Even in this time of mourning, we are grateful for his loving dedication as a committed father and grandfather, and for his example of a lifetime of service,” the family’s statement said. “We thank the community for their prayers and support.”

A native Atlantan, Arrington has been a fixture of the city’s politics since the late 1960s. He graduated from Emory University Law School in 1967 as one of the school’s first Black graduates.

Shortly after graduating, Arrington was elected to the Atlanta Board of Aldermen in 1969 at age 28. He later became an Atlanta councilman after the 1974 city charter amendment changed the board into the city council that governs Atlanta today. Arrington eventually became Atlanta’s city council president in 1980.

In 1989, Arrington joined civil rights attorney Donald Hollowell to form the Arrington and Hollowell law firm. Years later, Arrington unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Atlanta against Bill Campbell during the 1997 election. In 2002, then-Gov. Roy Barnes appointed Arrington to Fulton County Superior Court Judge. He retired from the bench in 2012.

Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson and Council President Marvin Arrington Sr.
(Photo credit: Susan J Ross)

Credit: Susan J Ross

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Credit: Susan J Ross

Atlanta City Hall renamed its council chambers after Arrington in 2019. The city council held a moment of silence in his honor during Wednesday’s meeting in the chamber.

“There will be much written and much said, but we extend our condolences and our thoughts and prayers to his family,” said Atlanta Council President Doug Shipman. “What an extraordinary life that he lived.”

Arrington graduated from Henry McNeal Turner High School in 1959, and went on to Clark College on a football scholarship. He earned his bachelor’s degree in 1963 and went to the Howard University School of Law for a year. Arrington later transferred to Emory University School of Law.

Clark Atlanta University later awarded Arrington with an honorary doctorate, according to the History Makers project. He was also a member of Big Bethel African Methodist Episcopalian Church, the National Bar Association, the American Bar Association, the State Bar of Georgia, the Lawyers Club, the Gate City Bar Association Hall of Fame and Kiwanis International.

Arrington also served as chairman of the Emory Advisory Committee of Black Alumni and sat on the school’s Board of Trustees. During his time on the bench, Arrington advocated for youth mentorship and programs to reform young offenders.

Atlanta mayoral candidate Marvin Arrington held his election night party at the Hilton Hotel during the run-off on Nov. 25, 1997. Arrington lost the mayoral election that night to the incumbent mayor Bill Campbell. (Rich Addicks / AJC Archive at GSU Library AJCNS1997-11-25-01e)

Credit: Rich Addicks

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Credit: Rich Addicks

As an Atlanta alderman, Arrington pushed for “quality of life” ordinances against vagrancy, and his involvement in the Atlanta Zoo resulted in a $25 million plan for upgrades. He also introduced legislation to support federal prohibitions against housing discrimination, appointed the first woman chair of council’s finance committee, and initiated measures to require all city council meetings to be recorded and kept on file by the city clerk.

Arrington’s long tenure on the Atlanta City Council saw him work with every mayor from Sam Massell to Bill Campbell.

”He worked with all of the mayors, but he remained independent. You couldn’t take him for granted,” said former Atlanta Mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. When Young was elected mayor in 1981, Arrington had already been elected City Council President.

”Marvin brought a certain balance to the council. He was able, because of his roots in the community and his relationship with Clark Atlanta University,” Young said, adding that Arrington’s close ties to the city were evident in ventures like the creation and expansion of MARTA. “It would have been much more difficult without his support.”

Councilmembers Andrea Boone, Michael Julian Bond, Byron Amos, and Antonio Lewis also lauded Arrington’s life. Bond, one of the city’s longest running councilmembers, called Arrington’s death a tremendous loss.

“I’m really glad that we took the time to place his name on this chamber because he loved debate,” Bond said. “He liked to hear people express their intellect and exchange ideas.

In 2018, Arrington called for Emory University law professor Paul Zwier’s firing after multiple instances of the white professor’s usage of a racial slur in the classroom. Arrington also made national headlines in 2008 when he ordered white lawyers out of his courtroom so he could speak to Black defendants.

“I didn’t want them to think I was talking down to them; trying to embarrass them or insult them; be derogatory toward them, and I was just saying, ‘Please get yourself together,’” Arrington told WSB-TV at the time.

Adelin Gasana, the writer and director of the new film “Bo Legs: Marvin Arrington, Sr., An Atlanta Story,” said metro Atlanta has lost a giant.

“His life and work is a testament to how much we can give back and take part in building our community. I was fortunate to be asked to document his story on film. It was a rewarding and inspiring journey that I will always cherish. I give my condolences to Marvin Arrington, Jr., Michelle Arrington, and the rest of their family at this time,” Gasana said.

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said in a statement that he cannot think of a single person who loved Atlanta more than Arrington. Calling Arrington a “Grady Baby,” Dickens said the city is grateful Arrington “‘wouldn’t stay in his place.’”

“Judge Arrington has passed and Atlanta has lost a lion,” the mayor’s statement said. “I am honored to call him my Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity brother and I am honored to have known him as one of the exceptional leaders of Atlanta.”

The Rev. Gerald Durley said he sat and prayed with Arrington and his family as recently as Sunday. In his final conversation with Arrington, Durley thanked Arrington because the lawmaker “never sold us out behind closed doors.”

”Marvin was transparent, honest and open. You knew where he stood on every issue,” Durley said. “We always knew that we could trust Marvin. You couldn’t buy him off.”

For Durley, that trust came when they met as college sophomores – Durley at Tennessee State and Arrington at Clark College. Both were based in Chicago in the summer of 1962, working on the railroads, traveling all over the country selling pillows and waiting tables.

”And I whipped him in basketball,” Durley said. “But I learned that Marvin exemplified what Atlanta is becoming today by breaking down the racial, cultural, academic, business and legal barriers. He was one of the real fathers. A rock of this city.”

Fulton Commissioner Marvin Arrington Jr. said his father exemplified the religious gospel of Luke in the Bible that says “to whom much is given, much will be required. He also said he’s happy his father had a chance to watch the film about his life.

“It was just a great opportunity to celebrate his work and his contributions and I’m just glad we not only had the opportunity to do it, but that he had the opportunity to see it and to fly all over the world to attend those screenings and interact with the people in the audiences,” Arrington Jr. said.

Arrington is survived by his son, Fulton Commissioner Marvin Jr.; his daughter Michelle; his ex-wife Marilyn; and several uncles, aunts, siblings, and grandchildren.

In a statement, Arrington’s family said the details about his funeral arrangements will be announced as they are finalized.

AJC reporter Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.