I grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and New Orleans was a very interesting city because while it was officially segregated neighborhoods were not segregated, so I lived in a neighborhood where while there were other black families there were no black children, but my brother and me. My daddy was a dentist and he wanted me to be a dentist. I went to Dillard University for a year, then I went to Howard University and finished. But then when I came back and told my father. I didn’t want to be a dentist He was very disappointed and he said, “Well, what are you gonna do?” I said, “I’m thinking about going to Theological Seminary.” And his answer was “Most of the preachers I know are either poor or crooked, and I don’t want you to be either one of those. So if that’s what you want to do, you’re on your own.” I had a job offer in Connecticut, and they sent me to live at the seminary campus and I walked on and got a scholarship. Very fortunate. After finishing, I came back to south Georgia to a little church. A couple of years later, I got involved in voter registration in Thomasville because Maynard Jackson’s grandfather asked me to run a voter registration drive. We went to Albany, Georgia to go to Sears—that was the closest big department store—and coming back, we came around the corner and that was seemed like a hundred people with sheets and pointed heads. I’ve never seen the Klan before. And I said, “Oh Lord. They gonna come after us.” My wife had studied non-violence in school. I hadn’t as yet and so I said to her, “Look if they come to bother us, I’m gonna go talk to them. But I want you to sit in the window with a rifle. And if they try to do something to me, let them know that one of them is gonna get shot too. And she said, “No, I can’t do that.” And I said “Why?”
And she just said, “I can’t point a gun at a human being.” I said, “That’s the Ku Klux Klan!” And she said, “And you supposed to be a preacher.” She said, “If you ever forget that under that sheet is the heart of a child of God, then you need to quit preaching.” She was the one who believed in non-violence. Now what that forced me to do was to realize that guns were not the answer. So I went down to see the mayor and he ran the local hardware store. And I told him about the Klan coming into town and that we had a voter registration drive the next day And he picked up the phone, and he called Flowers Bakery and Sunnyland Packing Company. And he told them that there was a Klan group on the outskirts of town and that they were coming in to Thomasville and they called the sheriff and told the sheriff that the Klan could meet on the courthouse steps, but they should not be allowed to parade through the black community or to harass black citizens at all. And I learned then that the business community in almost every city wants to keep things peaceful. That they are the key to good race relations in most places. Well, I have had some conversations with some of the downtown merchants. Everything is quiet this morning, and that is what we want in our downtown section. We do not want it to be a battleground. I left Thomasville, and I went to New York to work for the National Council of Churches. They were working with young white people across the South who were not ready for integration. After four years of that, Dr. King invited me to come to SCLC to do voter registration and citizenship education with Mrs. Septima Clark and Mrs. Dorothy Cotton. We trained people from Virginia all the way around to Texas trying to teach them to solve problems in their communities without violence and also to teach their neighbors how to pass the voter registration tests and become registered voters. Dr. King’s secretary came in to see me one day, and she said, “Dr. King gets a whole lot of mail. We don’t have time to answer it all, but he likes to give people answers.” She said, “Why don’t you take some of these letters home and you start helping to answer his mail.” And so I—it was a great big cardboard box full of letters—so I spent about a week answering mail at nights. And it gave me a chance to understand what people expected of him, but it also made me think about what his answer should be. I followed with Dr. King from Albany to Birmingham to Savannah, St. Augustine, Selma, New York, Watts, Los Angeles. When Dr. King got killed, the night before he went to Memphis, he had a meeting in New York talking about how do we get the energy from the streets into politics and it was Harry Belafonte and John Conyers, who was the congressman from Detroit, and Richard Hatcher, who was the mayor of Gary, and Dr. King and myself, and we stayed up to almost 1 o’clock in the morning talking about politics and then when I said, “You better get some sleep and you can sleep late tomorrow.” He said, “No, I’m gonna get up and get the six o’clock plane to Memphis.” Because he wanted to be with the sanitation workers in their march. And that was really the last trip before his death. So because we’d been talking about politics, I figured that was the next stage. But I didn’t want to run. I thought my role was to be an organizer and to organize campaigns for other people. But nobody wanted to run. It was Harry Belafonte who said, “Well I guess you’re running for Congress.” I said, “No not me.”
He said nobody else will run. I said, “But I’ve never even mentioned it to my wife.” He said, “She’s got more sense than you do. She’ll know it. You’ve got to run.” And so I ended up running for Congress and that got me into politics. When Jimmy Carter started running for president, he was really a very good guy and one of the smartest people I knew, and I ended up working with him, and then he said, “I need you to go to the United Nations as ambassador.” And I said I’d rather stay in Congress. And he said, “No. I need somebody who was with Martin Luther King to represent the United States and the UN.” So that took care of that. We really did a lot of good things in South Africa and Panama and with Egypt in Israel. When Maynard left, they didn’t want another black mayor. And I didn’t want to be mayor. I had one daughter in law school, one in engineering school, one just starting college. And the mayor salary was $50,000 a year, so I didn’t know how I could be mayor and support my family. But there was a nice little old lady by the name of Miss Suzy Laborde from southeast Atlanta. And she came in a meeting when we were talking about mayor, and she shook us walking stick in my face. And she said, “Look here, boy. When you came here, you wasn’t nothing. We made something out of you. Now that we need you to run for mayor, you ain’t got time for us? We didn’t wasted our time on you.” And she turned and she walked out of the room and she slammed the door so hard she almost broke the windows. I said, “Oh Lord.” I couldn’t say no to her. And so I said, “I don’t know how we’ll live or how we’ll pay tuitions, but I guess I got to run for mayor.” And so that’s how I got to be mayor. Just toward the end of my term as mayor, a fella by the name of Billy Payne from University of Georgia, former football player and a lawyer, came to visit me and said, “What do you think about bringing the Olympics to Atlanta?” I had always been in love with the Olympics because my daddy took me to see the Olympics when I was 4 years old in the movies. And so we started working together and we were able to not only bring the Olympics to Atlanta, it was the Centennial Olympic Games. We were able to get very good business support and 40, 50 some thousand volunteers that worked throughout the Olympic period. And I think we had the best Olympics ever because we had more than 200 countries show up, we raised two and a half billion dollars privately, we paid for everything we needed, and had almost 100 million dollars left over. We were less than a million people before the Olympics, now we’re about six and a half million people. We turned Atlanta into a truly international city.