The final day of Atlanta’s 84-day Olympic torch relay, from the Varsity to Auburn Avenue

Coretta Scott King carries the Olympic torch Friday, July 19, 1996 prior to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia (Cox staff photo/Greg Lovett) 07/19/96
Caption
Coretta Scott King carries the Olympic torch Friday, July 19, 1996 prior to the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia (Cox staff photo/Greg Lovett) 07/19/96

Credit: GREG LOVETT

Credit: GREG LOVETT

The highlight of the day came when Coretta Scott King carried the flame in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel, passing off to her son, Dexter

This article was published July 20, 1996, capturing the final day of the Atlanta Olympic torch relay a day earlier. With reporting by Jim Auchmutey, Bette Harrison, Christy Oglesby, Reagan Walker, Sherrell Evans and Maureen Downey

The Olympic torch ended its run to the Opening Ceremony with a day full of mental postcards that should fill the Atlanta scrapbook for years to come.

On the last leg of the relay’s 84-day cross-continental journey, the torch visited all the in-town tourist spots: Centennial Olympic Park, the Varsity, the Fox, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. tomb, Underground Atlanta, the State Capitol.

It was an itinerary an Atlantan would put together to show off the city to a visiting friend, which is exactly what the torch felt like on the second day of its visit in the Olympic city.

The relay was running almost three hours behind schedule as it turned onto Peachtree Street for its trip through downtown’s deepest canyon.

Spectators leaned out office windows and over hotel balconies as the caravan made its way through a narrow path below.

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The relay finally reached City Hall, with former Mayor Maynard Jackson walking the flame deliberately to the base of the steps. Representatives of Atlanta’s neighborhoods then handed it up to Mayor Bill Campbell, who lit the caldron where it would remain on display until beginning its last journey to Opening Ceremony.

Jackson asked everyone to hold hands and pray for a safe Olympics. Campbell asked for a moment of silence for the families and victims of TWA flight 800. Andrew Young asked them to marvel. The former mayor read the standard torch welcoming speech, down to the climax, “Behold the flame!”

Jessica Burke, a 14-year-old student at Mays High School, did just that, joining the throng that pressed against the steps to get a closer look. “That’s not just a fire,” she said.

Olympic torch relay poster from Atlanta July 19 1996
Caption
A collectible poster from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution distributed with newspapers on July 19, 1996, the final day of the Olympic torch relay. The relay ended with the start of the Opening Ceremonies that night.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

The highlight of the day came just after 2 p.m., when Coretta Scott King carried the flame in front of Martin Luther King Jr. Chapel, passing off to her son, Dexter.

“I thought of Dr. King and his March on Washington that I could have gone to, but I didn’t, so I didn’t want to miss this,” said Shirley Anderson, 54, of Chicago, who flew to town to see the event.

“It was really worth it to see Coretta marching for us,” she said.

LaWanda Fulwood, 19, a sophomore at Clark Atlanta University, said she also wanted to see Coretta Scott King.

“She’s a part of history too,” she said. “History carrying history.”

The crowd was packed with alumni of colleges in the Atlanta University Center, many of whom said seeing the torch at the historically black learning center gave it special meaning.

Torch runner travels under the Morris Brown College bridge, the same bridge that the coffin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled under in 1968 as the torch finally made it's way into Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. (AJC staff photo/John Spink) 07/19/96
Caption
Torch runner travels under the Morris Brown College bridge, the same bridge that the coffin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. traveled under in 1968 as the torch finally made it's way into Atlanta, Georgia during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. (AJC staff photo/John Spink) 07/19/96

Credit: JOHN SPINK

Credit: JOHN SPINK

The relay then traveled to Centennial Olympic Park, where crowds waited in the searing sun. It finally arrived at 3 p.m., about 2 hours and 45 minutes behind schedule.

Alex Weber, 17, of Corpus Christi, Texas, and Aaron Payne of Rohnert Park, Calif., attempted to enliven the crowd and attract the attention of TV crews. The pair ran in and out of the thick seam of people, asking folks to join them in singing the Beatles tune, “Give Peace a Chance.”

They did get on TV, but they weren’t as successful with their glee club. “All we are saying,” muttered Mike Ferrel of Miami, “is give us a break.”

Remaining cheerful despite the heat was contractor Ed Grant of Ellijay. He was in the midst of a marathon dose of Olympics, going from Centennial Olympic Park to Opening Ceremony.

“We came to the park because we thought, what better place to see the torch than the last leg,” Grant said.

Lisa Garcia-Arrese of Austell spent her 35th birthday chasing the torch through Atlanta. Her 4-year-old son, Richie, asked, “Are all these people here for your party, Mom?”

The torch relay’s final 24 hours began late Thursday in northwest Atlanta, where two people who will figure large in these Games carried the flame. Track star Michael Johnson took the flame on Mount Paran Road, smiling and waving as he set a less-than-world-record pace. He handed the torch to NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol, who shared the jog with his wife and their two sons, all of them holding hands.

Then it was on to Buckhead for what may have been the wildest scene in the entire relay. When the torch reached the bar district after midnight, a young, sweaty multitude pressed in on the caravan and brought it to a complete stop. Former Mayor Sam Massell, the torchbearer on the segment, never broke a trot.

In its delirium, the crowd sprayed beer on each other and started slapping the sides of relay vehicles. Some civilians linked hands and formed a line in an effort to push spectators back. “I came up here to get drunk,” one young man yelled to the media van. “Now I’ve been deputized.”

Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson carries the torch up Washington Street on its way to City Hall on Friday, July 19, for a final ceremony before heading to the Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games later in the evening.(Cox Staff Photo/Greg Lovett) 7/96
Caption
Former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson carries the torch up Washington Street on its way to City Hall on Friday, July 19, for a final ceremony before heading to the Olympic stadium for the Opening Ceremonies for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games later in the evening.(Cox Staff Photo/Greg Lovett) 7/96

Credit: COX NEWS SERVICE

Credit: COX NEWS SERVICE

The size and enthusiasm of the crowd were almost scary to some. “I just want to get this thing finished safely,” said a visibly nervous Hilary Hanson, the relay director.

The pandemonium didn’t let up until a mile south of Buckhead. It was replayed in smaller and tamer versions into the wee hours, as the flame entered Piedmont Park, where Prince Albert of Monaco ran it, and other in- town neighborhoods.

At 3 a.m., Virginia-Highland was a roaring, rowdy sea of people as kids in Spiderman pajamas sat atop their parents’ shoulders and adults chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

Little Five Points had a hearty welcome for runner Jill Underwood, and a lively number of locals cheered on Sharon and Billy Campbell, the mayor’s wife and son, as they ran together along Hurt Street.

By the time torchbearers made their way to east Atlanta, now three hours behind schedule, the early birds had risen.

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In College Park, members of the World War I Ladies Auxiliary arrived at 5:30 a.m. to hand out American flags on Main Street in front of City Hall. Within 15 minutes, they had distributed 100 flags.

Barbara Hutcherson, 64, and her husband, Otis, were among the spectators.

“I think it’s great - something to bring the people of the world together in one accord,” she said. “It should be like this all the time.”

Gwen Reeves stayed up all night, seeing the torch pass through Piedmont Park and then again near Hapeville about 8:30 a.m. “We were so excited we just couldn’t get to sleep,” she said.

Though the early morning crowds were lighter than those Thursday night, they were nonetheless enthusiastic. They cheered local heros Sadie Williams and the Rev. Patrick Bishop as they carried the torch through College Park, and then they cheered former Olypmic swimming gold medalist Mark Spitz.

Norma Grubbs, who grew up in College Park but now lives in Austell, brought her two daughters to see the torch travel through her hometown.

“I almost couldn’t flash the camera, it was so beautiful,” she said of the torch. “I was crying and screaming at the same time. It was just too beautiful.”

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