To Sylvester S. Robinson
Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr. (Montgomery Improvement Association)
Date: October 3, 1956
Location: Montgomery, Ala.?
Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Travels
Writing to an Atlanta attorney, King recounts how, en route to a speaking engagement at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, he ‘‘refused to eat under segregated conditions” at the Dobbs House restaurant at the Atlanta airport.1 He told the manager who offered to seat King in a “dingy” segregated section that such practices in interstate transportation had been prohibited by a recent Supreme Court decision. Having missed his only opportunity for a meal that day, King notes that it was a “tragic inconvenience” and “an excellent case for a suit.” On 15 October J. H. Carmichael, president of Capital Airlines, expressed regret about the incident, offering King "genuine apologies for the delay and discomfort.”
King's letter to Robinson was forwarded to C. Clayton Powell, chair of the Atlanta NAACP's legal redress committee, who told King on 22 October that the group had agreed to pursue the case and to obtain counsel to represent King. In his reply to Powell on 30 October King reported that he was “very happy” to know that the NAACP was taking up this “most significant case” and expressed his hope that it would reach the courts “as soon as possible.” 2
Atty. S. S. Robinson
175 Auburn Avenue
Dear Atty. Robinson:
I am just getting to the point where I can set forth the information regarding the suit that I am interested in filing. I am not sure whether the suit will be toward the Dobbs House, which is the restaurant in the Atlanta Airport, or on Capitol Air Lines, which is the air lines that I used from Atlanta to Hampton, Virginia.
I left Montgomery, Alabama Thursday morning, September 27, via Eastern Air Lines en route to Hampton, Virginia. In Atlanta I changed from Eastern to Capitol Air Lines. Just as we were about to take off we discovered that we had generator trouble which necessitated our deplaning and going back in the ,waiting room. It was revealed that we would have to stay there three hours in order to give the mechanics time to install a new generator. Ordinarily, we would have eaten lunch on the plane, but since we were three hours late Capitol Air Lines issued a slip to all of the passengers on this plane giving them permission to purchase lunch in the Dobbs House. I was the only Negro passenger on the plane. Naturally I followed all of the other passengers into the Dobbs House. After getting in the Dobbs House I was taken to the back and offered a seat behind a dingy compartment which totally set me off from other passengers. I immediately refused, stating that I would rather go a week without eating before eating under such conditions. I immediately asked for the manager. I was introduced to the manager and we talked the matter over. His only answer was that it was a city ordinance and a state law that the races be segregated in restaurants, and under those conditions I could not be served in the main dining room. I talked with him about the fact that I was an interstate passenger. I also referred to the fact that segregation had been completely eliminated in diners on the train. None of this moved him enough to serve me. It ended up that I refused to eat under segregated conditions. It was not until 10:30 Thursday evening, after I had spoken at Hampton Institute, that I was able to eat. After getting on the plane I discovered that there was no food there. I had left home very early without eating breakfast. By the flight being three hours late, I had to go directly from the airport to the platform to speak. It was that night after speaking that I had my first meal for the day. As you can see this was a tragic inconvenience. I think it is an excellent case for a suit.
Now I am sure that there is a question of witnesses. I talked with several of the waiters. All of them happened to have been colored. They gave me the impression that they would willingly serve as witnesses if a case came up. I don’t have all of the names but you can contact the following two waiters and they will be very happy to refer you to the others who were present at the time: Mr. Claude Marshall, Dobbs House Number 2, The Atlanta Municipal Airport, Atlanta, Georgia. The head waiter who carried me to the back compartment to be served was Mr. Harry Wofford. He can be contacted at the same address. The white woman who served as hostess was very congenial. She stated outright that the whole thing had been embarrassing to her all along and that she hoped that it could be straightened out. It might be possible to get her to voluntarily serve as a witness. Her name is Mrs. Hilma Medlin. She would be ideal. She also can be contacted by calling or writing the Dobbs House. I am sure that these persons can be subpoenaed if they refuse to volunteer. I know the manager should be subpoenaed.
I believe these are the basic facts in the situation. If there are other points that need to be clarified please feel free to call me collect. I hope this suit can be filed immediately. I think your suggestion of having the NAACP take the case is a very fine one. Please let me hear from you concerning this whole matter.
M. L. King, Jr.,
1.Sylvester S. Robinson was a Howard Law School graduate with an office on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue. A member of Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Atlanta NAACP’s executive committee, he handled the incorporation of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1958.
2.In 1959 King was again refused service at Dobbs House and indicated to an Atlanta attorney his willingness to give an affidavit regarding both incidents (King to Donald L. Hollowell, 31 August 1959, MLKP-MBU: Box 28). On 5 January 1960, before King had pursued his case, a federal district judge ruled against the restaurant and the city in Coke v. City of Atlanta et al., a case involving a black Birmingham resident who was denied service at the restaurant. After this ruling King’s father and several companions, returning to Atlanta from National Baptist Convention meetings in Arkansas, obtained service at Dobbs House, providing one of the first tests of the court decision (Donald L. Hollowell, interview with King Papers Project staff, 12 January 1995).
Source: MLKP-MBU, Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968, Boston University, Boston, Mass.