Coca Cola CEO pulls Atlanta's business elite together in 1964 to - CBS46 News

Coca Cola CEO pulls Atlanta's business elite together in 1964 to honor Dr. King

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Source: WGCL Source: WGCL

The city too busy to hate, Atlanta, is home to major corporations like Home Depot, Delta Airlines, UPS, and Coca Cola to name just a few.

It's hard to believe the city's rich history of inclusion and integration was in jeopardy in 1964. Today's skyline might look very different if it weren't for executives at the Coca Cola Company.

"Unfortunately, the city didn't pull together. There were business interests that did not want to honor Dr. King," said Coca Cola archivist Ted Ryan.

Social conservatives refusal to honor Atlanta's native son, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at an integrated dinner celebrating his Nobel Peace Prize did not sit well with Coca Cola CEO J. Paul Austin. 

"Paul Austin had been the Coca Cola CEO in South Africa and had seen apartheid first hand and when he came back to the United States and later became president of the company. He wasn't gonna let Atlanta or the south or the Coca Cola Company let something like segregation stand," said Ryan.

Mayor Ivan Allen admitting openly tickets were not selling and it would be an embarrassment to Atlanta if people didn't come together to honor Dr. King. 

"Robert Woodruff, the long time president at the Coca Cola Company had a hunting plantation in south Georgia. Mayor Allen and Paul Austin traveled to see him. Robert Woodruff let it be known he wanted to support Dr. King and support the dinner and the efforts should move forward," said Ryan.

What happened next may surprise you. Leaders of the Coca Cola Company threw down the gauntlet saying Coca Cola could not stay in a city that's not going to honor a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

"Paul Austin pulled together Atlanta's business elite in a meeting and essentially told them the city of Atlanta needs Coca Cola more than Coca Cola needs Atlanta and the Atlanta business leaders would have to decide if they were gonna honor Dr. King as Coca Cola wanted it to happen or if coke should look for other options," said Ryan. "Sixteen hundred tickets were sold in two days."

Days later Dr. King sent this note of gratitude to J. Paul Austin for a hometown welcome and honor that without the Coca Cola Company would not have been in the history books.

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