Posted by Debby and Hubert Yoder, ATLANTA GA -- The historic Paschal’s Restaurant and Motor Hotel, where much of the civil rights movement was launched, stands in ruins. Across the street shines a brand new Wal-Mart. Parts of the neighborhood are undergoing renovation with new condos and strip malls, while Paschal's sits abandoned and decaying. The irony is so blatant that the Washington Post did an article about the condition of this civil rights legacy last summer.
Paschal’s Restaurant was opened by two brothers in 1947. They grew up in the post-slavery period of sharecropping in Thomson, GA, picking cotton from dawn to dusk yet barely scraping by. Their aspirations for a better life led them to Atlanta where they opened a small chicken shack near Clark College (Now Clark Atlanta University). The popularity of the shack enabled them to move into a full-service restaurant across the street and later the siblings added a hotel and lounge. Their business was thriving. The lounge attracted top-notch jazz musicians and students from the local Historically Black colleges visited the restaurant daily and introduced the place to visiting family and friends. In these segregated times, Blacks had few options for upscale dining and entertainment and Paschal’s delighted in providing the best of both.
When the modern day civil rights movement began to take shape, Paschal’s was at the forefront. The student groups met for meals and strategizing and a young Martin Luther King Jr. approached the brothers about a regular spot for his team to convene. They embraced the opportunity and set aside a meeting room where the team planned the 1963 March on Washington and the subsequent marches on Selma, Alabama. The passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was celebrated at Paschal’s and the Poor People’s Campaign was organized there in the months before King’s murder. The movement continued without King and Paschal’s remained the place for crafting the future. Andrew Young, John Lewis, Jesse Jackson, Rev. Joseph Lowery, and Maynard Jackson all met regularly to plan demonstrations, political campaigns and celebrate each step forward. As Blacks gained political power, Paschal’s became known as “Little City Hall.”
The restaurant itself has relocated to the gentrifying Castleberry Hill neighborhood, while the original building became the Paschal Center and part of Clark Atlanta University (CAU). CAU operated the restaurant as a dining hall and the hotel as a dorm but shut down both due to the costs associated with maintaining the aging buildings. So now the building sit boarded up and left to rot. The symbolism has taken its toll on the surrounding neighborhood. Entire streets of homes, businesses and churches are boarded and unoccupied; many have been damaged by fire. Homeless and unemployed people wander the streets and squat in the abandoned buildings. There are reports of rampant drug and alcohol abuse. In the midst of this, students attend the nearby John F. Kennedy elementary school, which, by comparison, has been reasonably well maintained, perhaps because of its link to a white man. The message is subtle, but clear.
Contrast this with the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee where the site of King’s murder has become the National Civil Rights Museum. The museum opened in 1991 and has welcomed more than three million visitors since. It provides a tribute to the past as well as educational opportunities for the future. Started by a small group of preservation-conscious individuals, it has become part of the National Parks system and continues to expand. Like the King Center in Atlanta, also part of the National Park system, it provides a living, breathing link to a not-so-distant and very important past.
If the city of Atlanta can consider sinking money into a new football stadium to draw tourists to the area, shouldn’t it also invest in restoring Paschal's and its surrounding neighborhood, which may have even greater tourist potential? Tax revenues are collected from the hotel and motel industry to fund development, historic preservation and create additional destination appeal. Paschal's is ready for such an investment. Coretta Scott King was once quoted as saying, “Paschal’s is as important a historical site for the American Civil Rights Movement as Boston’s Faneuil Hall is to the American Revolution.” We need to act before we lose our history to strip malls and Wal-Marts.
Debby Yoder is a Contributor to Social Shutter as well as a student at Georgia State University majoring in Sociology. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hubert Yoder is Debby's father and retired after working in information systems at McDonnell Douglas, EDS, and IBM. Photography is now his work and hobby. He can be contacted at email@example.com.