Arriving in the mid-1990s, my first place of residence in Atlanta had no sunlight coming through the front windows.
The rear windows allowed a picturesque view of the late John Portman’s stylized downtown skyline, almost exactly the one popularized in postcards and on TV shows. But by the time the sun’s light creeped through those windows, after work, it was already setting in the west behind those hulking skyscrapers.
For the first year of my life in Atlanta, the imposing multi-story structure across the street shadowed my humble, 60-year-old studio apartment, the factory’s broad windows and former entrances solidly boarded. One fading word on that building gave a hint of its past glories: “Scripto”. The world-famous writing pen and butane lighter company was an Atlanta institution, with nearly a thousand workers at this plant for over four decades before moving to the OTP ‘burbs in 1977.
Not long after the factory and office buildings were shuttered, the daylight was about the best thing anyone could hope for while living in that area. Here was the makeup of the block around this defunct building: a probably-unlicensed taxi company; a five-dollar barber shop; maybe the Northern Hemisphere’s last speakeasy; a tire repair company and storage lot; a pool hall; and a “dance” club, where there was more standing around and posturing than legit dancing.
Surrounding this block: weathered, poorly-managed apartments; trap houses whose tales would soon make rappers famous; and Fulton County’s drug and alcohol treatment center, a package store within view of its front windows.
The area around the Scripto building slept during the day, but the streets and their inhabitants came “alive” at night, especially on Friday and Saturday nights in the ‘80s and ‘90s. If, by, “alive,” you could count beat-heavy music bumping from cars, and ladies-of-the-evening, a few of them actual ladies, negotiating with suspiciously slow passers-by through their car windows.
Bitter, boisterous, bullet-riddled arguments over lost wagers and bargained wages, were de rigeur on weekends under the moonlight. This scene wasn’t all that unfamiliar, I suppose fortunately, to Atlanta’s newest arrival from Philadelphia. Still, my one place of solace lied just two blocks south, at a tomb, surrounded by a reflecting pool, containing the remains of Atlanta’s, and America’s, most prominent civil and human rights advocate, situated between the church he and his father once led, and his birth home.
This area was not always this way. It would not be for much longer.
In December 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Oslo, Norway, accepting the Nobel Prize for Peace. The day after flying home from Scandinavia, the Nobel Laureate joined members of his Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, marching in the Sweet Auburn streets with striking workers from the nearby Scripto Pen Company plant, demanding equal pay for both its skilled and nonskilled laborers.
The year of ’64 was a pretty big one in the City Too Busy To Hate. Just days before King marched with the Scripto picketers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the owner of a hotel just across the freeway from the plant. In a landmark case, the Court found that the Commerce Clause of the Constitution allowed Congress to compel private businesses like his to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted earlier that summer. Many downtown businesses, notably Rich’s Department Store, were already taking the hint by then, thanks to student sit-in protests like the one in 1960 at Rich’s, where King was arrested.
Atlanta’s public schools, like the all-black high school right down the street from Scripto that was celebrating multi-sport star and recent graduate Walt Frazier, were in their third year of wrangling over the federally-mandated demands to desegregate in earnest.
Atlanta civic leaders, led by mayor Ivan Allen, were also pushing to become a major-league sports town in the early 1960s, but America’s pro sports associations were dealing with the stark realities of newly integrated teams needing to travel, lodge, and eat together.
To facilitate the relocation of baseball star Hank Aaron’s Milwaukee Braves to The South, the city turned to a pair of local Jewish immigrant brothers turned hotel magnates, who constructed the Americana Motor Hotel downtown. Its opening years were marked by Klan demonstrations, and the resistant racists setting a fire in one hotel owner’s driveway, a scene similar to the cross-burning in King’s lawn a couple years before.
But Dr. King and civil rights leaders, unintimidated, convened meetings and stayed at the Americana, even before it officially opened in 1962. The hotel deliberately featured no water fountains, since the city’s ordinance still required those amenities to remain segregated.
By the spring of 1964, construction of Atlanta Stadium was underway, and the hospitality at the Americana would help convince MLB to move the Braves south. It wouldn’t be much longer before a pro basketball team from St. Louis would come east.
In January of 1964, King was named Time’s Man of the Year. That same month, a collection of NBA All-Stars, including St. Louis Hawks draftees Bill Russell and Wayne Embry, threatened to strike and not participate in the game, if owners continued not to recognize the players’ union and its demands for worker accommodations like pensions. Facing the prospect of national embarrassment as minutes ticked by on their first nationally-televised event, the struggling league’s owners and commissioner relented.
King may very well have been inspired by the bold 1964 NBA players’ boycott, as by the year’s end, he was touting the need for civil rights to expand its scope beyond public accommodations to issues of collective bargaining with local governments and private industry. In a TV interview discussing the Scripto strike that December, King declared: “We have decided that now is the time to identify our movement very closely with labor,” adding, “There will be many more to follow.”
The Scripto strike and the national boycott of its products, promoted by King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, proved successful within a matter of weeks. All employees were granted Christmas bonuses and wage increases, and Scripto’s CEO and other business leaders begrudgingly attended the city’s formal celebration of their newest Nobel Laureate. But the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement, under King, into matters of labor, industry and, soon, war-making, unnerved people across the sociopolitical spectrum.
An array of “Stay In Yo Lane”-style warnings from Malcolm X to J. Edgar Hoover flooded into King, some cautions more threatening than others. Hoover’s malicious missive to King, masqueraded under the guise of an angry Black citizen, was typed shortly after King was announced as a Nobel Prize winner, yet King returned from Oslo to support the picketers anyway. An AP photographer who followed MLK during that time, and snapped a picture of him with the Scripto strikers, was forewarned by her mother. “Honey, be careful. I’m afraid, someday, someone’s going to try to kill that man.”
The mother’s concerns proved prescient. Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis, 50 years ago this April, while in town convening with striking sanitation workers.
Near coincidentally, just a month later, Atlanta developer Thomas Cousins and former Georgia governor Carl Sanders announced the St. Louis Hawks would come to play in King’s grieving city in the fall of 1968. Until a new arena could be built, the Hawks would hoop it up at a coliseum at Georgia Tech, the Deep South’s first higher-education institution to peacefully integrate without a court order.
The wild-west-meets-dirty-south nature of the neighborhood I moved to in 1995 would change drastically within a few years, thanks to an oft-tempestuous but eventually productive relationship between divergent King Family members and the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) to expand the King National Historic Site from Auburn Avenue to Freedom Parkway.
The Scripto factory and surrounding buildings were cleared by the time of the Olympic Games, and the roughneck street became the tranquil parking entryway for the historic site, with its new museum, Gandhi statue, civil rights walk of fame, and Ebenezer church building.
The King Center eventually became the nation’s most-visited site under NPS management. Signing a bill by Congressman John Lewis, the former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leader, the President formally designated the memorial site an upgraded National Historical Park, the first in the state of Georgia, just days ago.
What’s in the area now? The Freedom Parkway trail connecting downtown with east-side neighborhoods and the Carter Presidential Library. Gentrified (yet integrated) apartment and condo towers, including one replacing my old building, with fountains, porches, salons, a popular local drip-coffee shop, and far superior downtown vistas. While the surrounding area continues to have its share of struggles, the only drugs publicly sold these days now come from behind a CVS counter.
Our Hawks are fortunate to play in an American city with such a rich history of advancing, however arduously, the principles of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all. As Atlanta’s foremost citizen, Dr. King serves as not just an annual inspiration, but a daily one, that we should not feel shackled to the accomplishments and setbacks of the past, to the shortcomings of our present-day, or to the constraining expectations of others around us.
A lot of things had to go right, and a lot of tugging in the direction of justice had to happen, before a kid would take the risk of reversing his once-enslaved family’s century-long migration north of the Mason-Dixon line, much less become a supporter and long-winded thread-writer for a local team where fans can, today, come together from all corners of life to cheer. While sleep was often a chore as a new resident, I was fortunate to be able to rest nightly within a stone’s throw of where Dr. King, and later his equally-advocating wife, Coretta, are laid to rest for eternity.
The depth of our NBA team’s recent, deliberate downturn in on-court success pales, by comparison, to the unjust hills and valleys our citizens around the globe strive to overcome. Hawks fans might not get to enjoy victory today at The Highlight Factory, as Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in SA, NBATV everywhere else) pay his disciple Mike Budenholzer a visit. The wins for the home team will continue to be few and far between for the foreseeable future.
But we know things around here were not always this way. And they won’t be, not for much longer.
Sunnier days, dreamier nights, and grander victories, will eventually come if Hawks players, fans, staff and owners think smartly, endeavor patiently, and celebrate our advance toward the NBA mountaintop, together. How long? Not long!
Happy MLK Day! And Let’s Go Hawks!