The packed 18th floor conference hall in the Dinkler Plaza Hotel in Atlanta City plunged into stunned silence. Every business leader from Atlanta city present there did not bat an eyelid. Meanwhile, the man who caused this deafening silence with his crisp speech, calmly took his seat.
It was October 1964. Martin Luther King had just been awarded the Nobel Peace prize. At 35 years, he was then the youngest to win it. And his home town of Atlanta wanted to throw him a party : an inter-racial banquet, with official invitations going to the city’s leaders and titans of industry. The invites were signed by the city’s mayor, religious leaders from all faiths and many other reputed people.
But, Atlanta still had deep racial divisions. King had a great fan following but he also had many enemies. ‘Why should they give a peace prize to a person who promoted law breaking’ was the white community’s refrain. Many invitations that were sent out for the banquet got declined. Influential whites convinced others in the community to abstain.
As the day got closer, Mayor Ivan Allen realised that a no-show on that evening would stain Atlanta’s reputation forever and create racial tensions. As he struggled to find a solution, he called on his best friend: J. Paul Austin.
J.Paul Austin was a powerful, influential business leader in Atlanta. They together called a meeting of city’s business leaders at the Dinkler Plaza Hotel. As the city’s top business leaders filled up the room to the brim, J. Paul Austin got up to speak:
‘It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.”
That’s all he said.
The stunned silence broke up with everyone quietly walking out. Within 2 hours Atlanta decided. Buzz around the event skyrocketed so much that King’s father had trouble getting his own tickets.
The Dinkler Plaza was stuffed with over 1,500 partygoers – white and black.
J.Paul Austin, the Chairman and CEO of Coca-Cola became the Unlikely Hero who ensured that Atlanta threw the greatest ever celebration party for its most favourite son.
J. Paul Austin was an iconic CEO’s of his time. He took over Coca-Cola in 1962 when it had $567 mn in sales and finished in 1985 with $5.9 bn. Not just that, he was one of the most influential CEO’s during his time who was openly sought after by US Presidents to break tough deadlocks. His wiki is amazing reading.