Ivan Allen Jr., a two-term Atlanta mayor and dominant political figure of the 1960s who gained national attention as the only Southern elected official to testify in support of the bill that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, died Wednesday. He was 92.
Allen, a business leader with a gentlemanly way and keen political instincts, died after lapsing into a coma while living in a private health-care facility in Atlanta.
In 1961, Allen defeated segregationist Lester Maddox to become mayor of Atlanta, serving until 1970, a crucial time of desegregation for the South. Coincidentally, Maddox died last week.
Allen’s death also came as the city’s civil rights leaders were still mourning the passing of former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, who died last week after suddenly collapsing in Washington, D.C.
Gary Pomerantz, author of “Where Peachtree Meets Sweet Auburn,” a history of Atlanta told through the families of mayors Allen and Jackson, said Wednesday, “They were men of different eras, of different races, who came from different parts of Atlanta. Both redefined the modern city.”
Pomerantz said respect for Allen was so great that when he showed up in 1966 at a burgeoning riot in an area of Atlanta called Summerhill, the crowd just parted.
“He was there in his fine suit, just fearlessly walked right into it,” Pomerantz said.
He said Allen’s instincts “to do the right thing” were never more apparent than when Allen and his wife drove to the home of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after he was shot in order to drive King’s wife to the airport to be at her husband’s side, a trip that was canceled when he died.
“There was the mayor rushing to her side, holding an umbrella over her head in the rain,” Pomerantz said.
While mayor, Allen worked out a compromise between the white community and black university students who had staged a sit-in after challenging an Atlanta restaurant that would not allow black customers.
Dana White, an Atlanta historian from Emory University, said Allen’s quiet manner helped build coalitions and bridge the gap between blacks and whites.
“He was very self-possessed, a modest man, quiet, gentlemanly, good sense of himself, and a sense of humor,” White said. “Atlanta was fortunate to have him at that point” in history.
Donald Hollowell, an 85-year-old black attorney and icon of the civil rights movement, said Wednesday that Allen was “one of the most intelligent mayors that came through that era.”
“He was a leader,” said Hollowell, who represented Charlayne Hunter-Gault, now a CNN foreign correspondent, in the 1961 lawsuit that desegregated the University of Georgia.
Allen was born on Peachtree Street in Atlanta into a wealthy family. His father owned and operated a furniture store that is still in operation, which is now called Ivan Allen Co.
Sam Massell, who succeeded Allen as mayor, said that despite having a privileged background and friends in country clubs, Allen had the courage to stand up for civil rights. “He changed with the times, and learned to be a successful politician,” Massell said.
Among Allen’s accomplishments as mayor was raising the city’s profile in sports, helping to bring three professional teams to Atlanta: the Braves in baseball, the Falcons in football and the Hawks in basketball.
But also, during his first term as mayor, Atlanta underwent a terrible loss when 106 of its arts and business leaders died in an airplane crash at Orly Field in Paris that killed 132 people.
During Allen’s two terms, Atlanta’s population grew by 31.5% and the city’s skyline matured. At the same time, the city’s image greatly improved, partly as a result of the multimillion-dollar “Forward Atlanta” nationwide media campaign that Allen led to stimulate city growth and boost tourism.
Allen’s friend George Goodwin, a retired Atlanta writer and former public relations executive who worked on Allen’s 1961 campaign, said he got the feeling that Allen didn’t even much like politics but nonetheless “he just devoted his life to public service.”
Allen is survived by his wife, Louise Richardson Allen; two sons, Hugh Inman and Beaumont; seven grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. His son Ivan Allen III died in 1992.