Atlanta enjoys a celebrated role in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s, which connects that rich legacy with more contemporary struggles for justice and equality. That’s why it is reverently called the “Cradle of the Civil Rights Movement.”
It’s where civil rights icons such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Congressman John Lewis, Rev. C.T. Vivian, Ralph David Abernathy and Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, among others, have lived and launched their civil rights activism throughout the South and the nation.
They mostly focused on the evils of bigotry, racism and integration, while Rev. Joseph E. Boone became a renowned civil rights legend because of his career-long crusade for civil and economic rights. He was about the money. He was about providing opportunities and equity for the poor, his family and friends fondly recount.
“You didn’t see him marching,” recalls his wife Alethea Boone. “His thing was getting economic power for us as a people. It’s wonderful to march, but once you get where you can sit at the table, you have to pay for it. His thing was you’ve got to have the money.”
Michael Langford is a revered Atlanta civil and human rights activist who is president of the United Youth Adult Conference. Rev. Boone, who passed July 15, 2006, was his mentor.
“Rev. Joe Boone was indeed a special kind of guy,” Langford opines. “He was one of those critical figures responsible for opening some doors that had been closed to Black folks for a long time.”
“I met Rev Boone one day at the SCLC headquarters on Auburn Avenue, and Rev. Hosea Williams told me “this is the picketing preacher in Atlanta,” says longtime Southern Christian Leadership Conference [SCLC] insider and former Georgia State legislator, Tyrone Brooks.
“I remember my father getting information on local businesses engaged in racial discrimination,” Atlanta Councilwoman Andrea Boone reminisces. “He would grab picket signs for me and my sister and we would leave the house on a mission. We picketed those places with the fervor of true crusaders. My father fought tirelessly to help African Americans get jobs and promotions. He never gave up.”
Rev. Boone’s unique expertise was negotiating and fighting for fair wages and jobs for African American blue-collar workers and professionals, much like this reporter. In 1978, before my successful job interview for a news reporter position with an Atlanta TV station, Boone, and others, were picketing outside as I arrived. He was there in his capacity as co-chairperson of Atlanta Against Unfairness in Broadcasting. I got the job as a result of him.
Those strategic picketing skills, pastoral persuasiveness, and engaging persona is why his friend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., named Rev. Boone the Chief Negotiator for Operation Breadbasket, the economic arm of SCLC. There, the Rush Memorial Church pastor, was responsible for coordinating with over 200 other ministers in establishing a network of Breadbasket branches in over 30 cities dedicated to improving the economic conditions of black communities across America.
“Rev Boone was the person in Atlanta that helped launch [Operation Breadbasket] and really got it off the ground,” says Brooks.
“It was through that organization that Joe and the other ministers came into focus that if we can’t reach a settlement by negotiating, then we’d put the next thing to you. We’d have to picket,” recalls the accomplished and atypical high school French teacher Rev. Boone married.
Alethea Boone continues, “That said to us - the citizens out here-once you see that picket line you don’t cross it. You don’t buy there. It was one of the keys to our gaining economic power. I like to [talk] about Operation Breadbasket and how so important it is that we recycle that dollar into our community and support our own.”
Eldrin Bell was a tough-nosed Atlanta beat cop in the black community during Rev. Boone’s heyday. He joined the APD in 1961 and later became a charismatic, controversial, and later, cherished choice for Atlanta police chief in 1990 by Mayor Maynard Jackson, before winning election as neighboring Clayton County’s first black commission chairman in 2004. Chief Bell claims he walked and talked often with Rev Boone, while he was picketing a business, a politician or black community problem. Boone was ubiquitous, he says, but never clashed with the police.
“My memories about Joe is that he was probably the first minister to openly display resistance at the way black people were being treated as they dealt with the entrepreneurs, the store owners, work place companies and manufacturers in the area,” Bell remembers. “Joe Boone, as a minister, was the local forerunner of demonstrations against what he called the maltreatment of black customers in the 60’s. And, I would say prior to Martin Luther King. The kind of protests he took on primarily were in neighborhoods and places where African Americans worked. He wasn’t taking on lunchroom protests downtown at Rich’s Department store, he was taking on neighborhood discrimination.”
Boone did staunchly support the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, the Atlanta University Center student movement led by Lonnie King and Julian Bond, that conducted civil disobedience and demonstrations which eventually produced agreements desegregating 70 lunch counters, theaters and golf courses in Atlanta.
That may not have happened without Boone and his Rush Memorial Church.
According to Mrs. Boone, some members of the congregation were “very unhappy because he opened the church for the Atlanta Student Movement”, when they were forced to leave the Atlanta University Center campus.
“Lonnie (King) was very distraught because they had nowhere else to go, so Joe invited them to stay at Rush Memorial (near the Clark Atlanta University campus) for five years,” says Mrs. Boone. “We didn’t charge them anything, and of course, some of the members left.”
Michael Langford says Rev. Boone “had raw courage” and his work was the quintessential example of [nonviolent] direct action.
“Joe Boone would challenge the downtown power structure,” Langford recalls. “I remember his involvement when Mayor Maynard Jackson fired the garbage workers, and him being one of those who negotiated on behalf of them, to his strong work at Mead Packing, which I thought was one of the most successful victories for union workers. He was just a consistent warrior all his life. He was just a great friend to blue collar workers and poor people in general. He was more than a civil rights leader; he was a businessman. He never ran away from a fight, especially if it led to an opportunity to improve the plight of poor people.”
That’s why, much like other Atlanta civil rights luminaries, there is a major street named after him that slices through the heart of the black community. In 2008, Joseph E. Boone Boulevard was dedicated. In January 27th, 2020, Rev. Boone’s legendary status was underscored with a rare event. That’s when a mural was dedicated in his honor.
“It is impossible to recall the America and the Atlanta that existed for Black Americans before Joe Boone,” the program brochure reads.
Former Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell concurs with that sentiment. “Joe Boone deserves the accolades, he deserves the murals, he deserves having a street named after him because he is one of the people who helped craft the country, and certainly the city of Atlanta, that we enjoy today,” he says.
Councilwoman Boone says her upbringing and her father’s teachings were rare and rewarding. “We shared a unique bond as children of civil rights activists,” she reveals. “We all grew to understand the weight of their calling and the role that we played in supporting that calling.
“These beautiful memories laid the foundation for my future,” she continues. “My father taught us not to be afraid of anything or anyone. That life lesson reminds me of why I’m here.”
When asked how she would describe her father, Jolaunda Boone-Campbell says: “I would say a civil rights sacrificer. What I would like people to know about my father is that he contributed his life to others, as well as, to serve others.
“My father was a wonderful person,” she adds “but my father would not have been the man that he was if it were not for my mother. She was the wind beneath his wings.”
While Rev. Boone may not have been as nationally known or have the high media profile of some other popular civil rights icons, his wife Alethea believes her husband amassed a meaningful and lasting legacy.
“He didn’t get all the stardom or big-name recognition, but I’m not sure he wanted it,” opines the Selma, Alabama native. “He was just happy doing what he was doing. Many times in the moment, you are not recognized. As history looks back on its pages, I feel he will truly be appreciated”
Mrs. Boone continues: “I think his work in helping to desegregate places in Atlanta and, opening the doors of opportunities for economic viability would be one of his lasting legacies. He felt that, if a man had a job, that would then give him self-esteem. He would feel better about himself, so he could feel better about his family and make worthwhile contributions to society.”