Thurgood Marshall celebrated his 56th birthday on July 2, 1964. That same day, Congress passed The Civil Rights Act outlawing discrimination in places of public accommodation. Several days later, the action of two business owners in Atlanta, Georgia – one of whom would later become Governor – sparked a controversy that would make legal history.
Lester Maddox was the owner of The Pickrick Restaurant near the campus of Georgia Tech. When three Atlanta ministers – George Willis, Jr., Woodrow T. Lewis, and Alfred Dunn – tried to enter the establishment to test their rights under the newly passed law, Maddox and his son chased the men brandishing pistols and the handle of a pick ax. The men filed a lawsuit and the two lawyers handling the case were William H. Alexander from Atlanta and Constance Baker Motley with the NAACP.
Around the same time, Moreton Rolleston, owner of The Heart of Atlanta Motel filed his own lawsuit seeking to have the Civil Rights Act declared unconstitutional. Both cases – The Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. The United States and Willis v. The Pickrick Restaurant – were argued in federal court and by July 22nd, each business had been ordered to integrate. Maddox later decided to close his business instead of complying with the court ruling. Rolleston appealed the decision to the United States Supreme Court, which held oral argument on October 5th. Two months later on December 14th, the Supreme Court upheld the Civil Rights Act effectively prohibiting segregation.
Georgia Tech purchased the site of the former Pickrick restaurant in 1965 turning it into overflow parking for its campus police and today the school uses it for green space. The Hilton now occupies the site on 255 Courtland Street where the Heart of Atlanta motel once stood.
*Be sure to listen to episode 9 to learn more about Constance Baker Motley. Her son, Joel Motley, III, will be our guest and will share his reflections about this phenomenal legal figure.