How Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize challenged Atlanta’s tolerance

Saturday, Oct. 14 marks the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. getting the Nobel Peace Prize. Last August a judge cleared a path for the King Estate to sell the namesake’s Nobel Prize and a Bible that was used by President Barack Obama during his second inauguration. This story, about how Atlanta came together to honor King in 1964, originally ran in 2014 on what was then the 50th anniversary.

On the morning of Oct. 14, 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. was out of it.

He had just returned to Atlanta from a grueling speaking tour, and his appearance was so alarming that his wife, Coretta Scott King, took him to St. Joseph’s Infirmary. In admitting him, the doctor lectured King about eating fried foods, told him that he was exhausted, overweight and suffering from both a severe virus and high blood pressure. The doctor gave him sleeping pills.

So when Coretta called his room that Wednesday morning to tell him he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, King would later say, he thought he was dreaming.

“I am not even sure that we were aware that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize,” said Ambassador Andrew Young, one of King’s closest confidants. “So it was a shock. When Coretta called he said ‘alright’ and hung up the phone. Then he called her back and asked, ‘Did you just call me?’ She said, ‘Yes, you won the Nobel Peace Prize.’”

King would be the first Georgian, second African-American and, at the time, the youngest person — at 35 — to win the peace prize.

In 1964, at age 35, King became the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He donated the $54,000 prize money -- about $400,000 today -- to the ongoing civil rights movement.

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The honor wasn’t just a watershed for King and the civil rights movement but also for Atlanta. It set off a series of events that some say fundamentally changed the city’s business, religious and racial cultures by bringing blacks and whites together for the first time to share a meal in public.

That simple act, holding a multi-racial banquet in the new Nobel laureate’s honor, tested the will and even the nerves of those determined to make Atlanta a more just and inclusive place.

“It was a defining moment in the history of the city, and it should go down in the city’s documented memory,” said Janice R. Blumberg, the widow of Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, who was instrumental in organizing the event.

Atlanta’s best-known citizen

Since at least 1955, when he orchestrated the Montgomery Bus Boycott, King had danced on an ever-widening national and international stage. Atlanta, meanwhile, was not exempt from civil unrest but looked progressive compared to Birmingham, Montgomery, Jackson, New Orleans and even Albany.

“King lived here. The SCLC was headquartered here. The NAACP had a regional office here,” said former Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell. “In Atlanta they were our citizens, and that made a huge difference.”

But the races didn’t mix, and King was still black. The immediate question became, how do you honor the man who was now the city’s most recognizable figure?

In December, while King and his entourage traveled to Norway for the Nobel ceremony, a group of Atlantans debated that question.

There was talk in the black community about perhaps having a dinner at Paschal’s, “But it was important that he be received by the entire city,” Young said.

Rothschild, the influential rabbi of The Temple, which had been bombed six years earlier by white supremacists, was one of several people who decided to act on that notion.

“He clearly saw that not only was it the right thing to do, but the only thing to do,” Blumberg said. “He was determined that Atlanta would do the right thing. He saw that it would be good for Atlanta to be seen as the progressive city we always thought we were.”

African American integration leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right, winner of the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, receives a glass bowl inscribed to him as a “citizen of Atlanta, with respect and admiration,” from Rabbi Jacob Rothschild of the Temple Synagogue in Atlanta on Jan. 27, 1965. (AP Photo)

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Rothschild, along with Catholic Archbishop Paul Hallinan, Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays, Atlanta Constitution editor Ralph McGill and Mayor Ivan Allen, formed a core group of organizers who set their sights on having a huge banquet at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel downtown.

Two years earlier the Dinkler had refused to honor the reservation of the first African-American Nobel Peace Prize winner, Ralph Bunche.

Massell, who was president of the Atlanta City Council at the time, recalled it as an “an apprehensive, anxious period.”

Nobody’s buying

Even after the dinner had been announced and a date set, nobody was buying tickets. Atlanta’s powerful business community had refused go along with the idea of the dinner.

“Some of them may have still been segregationists,” Blumberg said. “But things were changing and some of them couldn’t see it. They were business men and trying to judge what was going to happen to their businesses. They would say, ‘It is not good for business. Not yet. Don’t go too fast.’”

In addition, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution editor David Beasley said, some members of the business community were “personally opposed to King and the civil rights community in general.”

King’s reputation with them did not get any better after he got involved in a local labor dispute at the Scripto Pen Company. “They just seemed to be angry about the Scripto strike and asked why was he getting involved in a local management dispute,” Beasley said.

Martin Luther King, Jr. listens to Morehouse College President Benjamin E. Mays speak at the Nobel Peace Prize recognition dinner, National Conference of Christians and Jews,Dinkler Plaza Hotel, Atlanta, Georgia, January 27, 1965. LBSCB12-120iii, Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers Photographic Collection, 1920-1976. Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

Credit: Lane Brothers Commercial Photogr

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Credit: Lane Brothers Commercial Photogr

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Young believes that the FBI, which had intensified attacks on King after he won the peace prize, “was poisoning the Atlanta community with calls, threats and lies about him,” even as he was being celebrated abroad.

On Dec. 16, six days after King had received the Nobel Prize, the banquet organizers sent a letter to Coca-Cola baron Robert W. Woodruff, asking him to lend his voice and name to their efforts.

“The silence was deafening,” said Beasley, the author of “Inside Coca-Cola: “A CEO’s Life Story of Building the World’s Most Popular Brand.”

“So they sent another letter on Dec. 29, which was the same day an article came out in the paper about the obstacles they were having putting on this dinner. Woodruff probably saw that headline and was concerned that this would be an embarrassment to the city and Coke.”

Does Atlanta need Coke?

Mayor Allen and J. Paul Austin, chairman of Coca-Cola, gathered the business elite at the Piedmont Driving Club. Allen warned then he would be taking notes on who did not attend the dinner. But Austin delivered the crushing blow.

According to Young’s written account, Austin said: “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all have to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”

Two hours later, every ticket was sold.

On the night of Jan. 27, 1965, about 1,500 people packed the Dinkler’s chandeliered ballroom to receive King. The event was covered by the world’s press.

"It was a great and delicate moment," said Samuel DuBois Cook, a 1948 Morehouse classmate of King's, who attended the dinner. "Because of the race issue, it could have been very explosive. … It was a turning point, without question."

Outside, a few segregationists picketed. Inside, the dinner went off without a hitch. The organizing committee presented King with an engraved Steuben Bowl that Blumberg had designed and ordered.

“It was one of the most exciting nights of my life,” she said. “It was joyous.”

The evening ended with the crowd singing, “We Shall Overcome.”

“It was a good evening that could make all of us proud,” Massell said. “But they should have been proud of the award that was received by Atlantan. Not proud that they had a dinner to honor him.”