As mayor of Atlanta, William B. Hartsfield helped negotiate desegregation of the city’s businesses. When Martin Luther King and others were arrested during a demonstration in 1960, Hartsfield personally saw to it that the charges were dropped. King expressed his appreciation for Hartsfield’s leadership over the years in a 1965 letter, where he told the former mayor, “I will never forget the great role you played” in the city’s civil rights successes (King, 15 March 1965).
Hartsfield was born in Atlanta on 1 March 1890. He studied business and law and was admitted to the Georgia Bar Association in 1917. He joined the Atlanta City Council in 1923, and went on to serve in the State Legislature a decade later. In 1937, he was elected mayor of Atlanta and served until his retirement in 1961. In recognition of his unprecedented 23 terms, he was given the title Mayor Emeritus of Atlanta.
Within the segregationist leadership of the South, Hartsfield was a moderate on civil rights issues. Martin Luther King, Sr., even campaigned for Hartsfield in 1953, winning the mayor’s appreciation. When 80 students, along with King, Jr., were arrested for participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and restaurants on 19 October 1960, Hartsfield intervened. He brokered a truce by calling several dozen black leaders and student representatives to meet at City Hall. Afterward, Hartsfield announced that demonstrations would be halted for 30 days in exchange for the release of jailed students. King stayed in jail to face a hearing on whether his arrest violated his probation for a previous traffic offense. He remained in custody until 27 October, when a phone call from Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to the judge in charge of the case prompted his release on bail. Although Hartsfield’s later negotiations among the local parties broke down and the demonstrations were renewed, the Chamber of Commerce and African American leaders eventually signed an agreement in early 1961.
After King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, the city of Atlanta struggled with how to welcome him home without causing strife among the still divided population. Mayor Emeritus Hartsfield agreed to sponsor a dinner honoring King. When Hartsfield passed away in 1971, the city of Atlanta renamed the airport in his honor.