Millionaire entrepreneur A. G. Gaston acted as an intermediary between white moderates and civil rights leaders in Birmingham, Alabama, during the 1960s. Although he favored nonconfrontational methods of civil rights reform, Gaston expressed his support for the “guiding principals and commitment” of Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (Gaston and Shores, 30 September 1963).
Gaston was born on 4 July 1892, in Demopolis, Alabama. He graduated from the Tuggle Institute in Birmingham and, in 1923, started the Booker T. Washington Insurance Co. with $500. Building on the insurance company, Gaston developed a business empire estimated at more than $30 million, which included the Smith and Gaston Funeral Home, the Gaston Motel, and the Citizens Federal Savings and Loan. While they were in Birmingham Gaston provided Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders with rooms at the Gaston Motel, the city’s only first-class accommodation that accepted blacks.
As a successful and prominent businessman, Gaston chose to walk a line of careful moderation in an attempt to balance his loyalty to the black community with his commitment to the business community. He initially opposed King’s 1963 push for protest during the Birmingham Campaign, preferring to give newly elected Mayor Albert Boutwell a chance to follow through with his promised changes. Once the demonstrations were met with violence by segregationists, Gaston gave King his vote of confidence and bailed him out of jail in April 1963. In retaliation for Gaston’s support of the campaign, militant segregationists bombed his motel and his home later that year. Following the deaths of four African American girls in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, Gaston joined King in a meeting with president John F. Kennedy to urge a federal response to the bombing. The meeting resulted in the appointment of federal mediators who would negotiate between the white and black communities in Birmingham. Gaston continued to be an active member of the Birmingham business community until his death from stroke complications on 19 January 1996 at the age of 103.