Ivan Allen Jr. served as mayor of Atlanta from 1962 to 1970. He is credited with leading the city through an era of significant physical and economic growth and with maintaining calm during the civil rights movement. While other southern cities experienced recurring violence, Atlanta leaders, led in part by Mayor Allen, were able to broker more peaceful paths to integration.
Allen was born in Atlanta on March 15, 1911, the only son of Ivan Allen Sr., the founder of the Ivan Allen Company, an office products company, and Irene Beaumont Allen. After graduating from the local Boys High School, Allen attended the Georgia Institute of Technology from 1929 to 1933, majoring in business administration. After graduation he went to work for his father’s company. He married Louise Richardson, the granddaughter of the influential Atlanta businessman Hugh T. Inman, on January 1, 1936. They had three sons, Ivan III, Inman, and Beaumont.
Serving in the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps during World War II (1941-45), Allen entered the service in 1942 as a second lieutenant and was discharged in 1945 as a major. After the war he served as Governor Ellis Arnall’s executive secretary before becoming the president of the family business in 1946, when his father retired.
Allen was involved in community service long before becoming mayor. He headed Atlanta’s Community Chest drive in 1947. In this role he was the first white man asked to attend the Black division’s kickoff dinner. After he was elected president of the chamber of commerce in 1960, he launched the “Forward Atlanta” campaign to promote the city’s image and attract new business and investment.
Allen ran for mayor in 1961 and defeated Lester Maddox. He took office in 1962 and later that year flew to Paris, France, to help identify the bodies of the Atlantans who perished in the Orly plane crash. Many of these people, members of the Atlanta Art Association, had been personal friends, and he felt that their families would want him there.
Allen served two four-year terms and quickly established himself as a liberal-minded leader over a city that was 40 percent Black but almost fully segregated. On his first day in office, he ordered all “white” and “colored” signs removed from city hall, and he desegregated the building’s cafeteria. He authorized the city’s Black policemen to arrest whites and hired the city’s first Black firefighters. He worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and spearheaded a banquet of Atlanta’s Black and white leaders to honor King after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.
Allen was the only southern elected official to testify before Congress in support of the public accommodations section of U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s proposed civil rights bill. He knew that his testimony, in July 1963, would prove very unpopular among his Georgia constituents. The bill became law the following year as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but even before it passed, many Atlanta restaurants, hotels, and other public facilities had desegregated by mutual agreement between their owners and Mayor Allen.
In 1962 the mayor made one serious blunder in regard to Atlanta’s race relations. Urged by whites in southwest Atlanta, the city constructed a concrete barrier that closed Peyton Road to Black home seekers from nearby Gordon Road. The incident, later known as the Peyton Road affair, drew national attention and caused newspapers around the country to question Atlanta’s motto, “the City Too Busy to Hate.” The “Atlanta wall,” as some newspapers called it, was ruled unconstitutional by the courts and was torn down.
Allen was also responsible for construction of the Atlanta–Fulton County Stadium and for bringing the Braves baseball team to Atlanta. He felt that to be a major city Atlanta needed a major league team. He was able to convince other city leaders, and they built a stadium, as Allen put it, on land they didn’t own, with money they didn’t have, for a team they hadn’t signed. In 1965 he persuaded the Braves to move from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where they enjoyed only lukewarm support. In 1966 they became the Atlanta Braves, with the new Atlanta Stadium as their home base. The mayor was also instrumental in establishing a National Football League team, the Atlanta Falcons, in 1966, and a professional basketball team, the Hawks, in 1968.
In 1966 a riot broke out in Summerhill, a neighborhood south of the stadium, when a white police officer shot a Black resident. Allen went to the site of the riot and climbed on top of a police car with a bullhorn to plead for calm. After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, Allen helped arrange King’s funeral.
During Allen’s tenure as mayor, Atlanta ranked in the top ten in the nation in downtown construction, with more than 55 new buildings (including the $13 million Memorial Arts Center and the $9 million Atlanta Civic Center) and 22,000 new jobs a year. MARTA, the city’s rapid transit system, was proposed and mapped during the Allen years but was voted down. He oversaw the early phases of construction of the Interstate 285 perimeter and the Downtown Connector, in an attempt to manage the vast increase in traffic brought on by the city’s growth.
In 1981 Allen received the Martin Luther King Jr. Nonviolent Peace Prize, presented by Coretta Scott King. He died in Sandy Springs on July 2, 2003, at the age of ninety-two.