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History of Law in Atlanta

Hamilton Holmes leaves the University of Ga. in Athens, circa 1961, followed by attorney Donald Hollowell and Rev. Sam Williams. Photograph by Katheryn Kolb, courtesy of Donald Hollowell.

Welcome to the 1960s

If racial confrontation simmered in the 1950s, it exploded in the 1960s. In the previous decade, African Americans were bold enough to ask for equality, usually reaping rejection. In the 1960s, they confronted racial injustice in the courts and the streets. The courts ultimately will provide the arena to resolve race issues, but it will be an Atlanta clergyman, not a lawyer, who will be remembered as the most influential man of the era.

On Good Friday 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested in Birmingham as he led a protest march. Local clergymen wrote an open letter decrying the demonstrations. King responded with a long letter that came to be known as the "letter from a Birmingham jail."

In the letter, he laments waiting for justice. "We have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure," he writes. "There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over..."

King writes that one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. Citing St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, he explains that a just law squares with the moral law or the law of God. "Thus it is that I can urge them to disobey segregation ordinances, for they are morally wrong," he writes.

Just a week and a few days short of five years later, King is shot dead. But his words will prove prophetic. "We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom."