Three Atlanta restaurants that fed the Civil Rights Movement

The restaurant scene is integral to Atlanta culture. But as important as it is today, it was just as critical in the 1960s. 

The passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 forbade discrimination in public places, including restaurants and hotels. Some of these restaurants opened their doors to both white and black patrons – quite the spectacle at the time – and others served as a refuge and meeting place for Civil Rights leaders.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act and celebrate the leaders who fought to make it happen, do you ever find yourself wondering where they ate? Whether for an early morning meeting or a late night gathering that ran long, certain restaurants worked diligently to aid leaders in their fight and opened their doors to those who needed a rendezvous point, or just a place to have a meal. 

Courtesy Waffle House

Breakfast: Waffle House

Waffle House has long been an ally to the Civil Rights movement. Following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., riots broke out in different cities, and many Atlanta businesses closed their doors out of fear. But not Waffle House. 

“We haven’t ever mistreated anybody, so why should we have to go home?” said former Waffle House CEO Joe Rogers about the decision in a 2004 interview with the AJC

During sit-in protests at whites-only restaurants in 1961, Rogers kept that spirit alive. At that point, he said, no Black person had asked to be seated at a Waffle House. When protesters made their way to the Waffle House at Peachtree and 10th Street in Atlanta, Rogers invited everyone who wished to eat to come inside and sit, white or Black. 

“Our job is to make people feel better because they ate with us,” Rogers said. 

Courtesy Busy Bee Cafe

Lunch: The Busy Bee Café

Founded by Lucy Jackson in 1947, The Busy Bee Café was a frequent meeting place for Civil Rights leaders like Dr. King and John Lewis. The Vine City restaurant serves Southern classics like ham hocks, candied yams and oxtail.

Since its opening, famous names such as OutKast and former President Barack Obama have also frequented the establishment. Tracy Gates, the current owner and head chef, began working at the restaurant when her father took over in 1987.

“The first thing I did was research the history,” she said. “I took it product by product, learning the science behind everything.” 

Gates also added a personal touch to the menu by incorporating family recipes, such as her grandmother’s method of brining chicken overnight. 

“[She] brined it on Saturday nights and would cook it in a cast iron skillet on Sundays when we got out of church,” Gates said. 

In 2022, the restaurant earned the James Beard Classic Award. In 2023, Tracy Gates was inducted into The Georgia Hospitality Hall of Fame, a milestone for Black-owned restaurants in Atlanta. 

James and Robert Paschal opened the original restaurant in 1947 on West Hunter Street. (Courtesy Paschal’s)

Dinner: Paschal’s

Paschal’s is arguably one of the most important restaurants tied to the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta. 

Many of the meetings that shaped the Civil Rights Act were held late into the night  at this very restaurant. The Paschal brothers, James and Robert, would often post bail for protesters who had been arrested, and the restaurant would serve as a meeting place where their families could find them. 

Diners were also drawn to Paschal’s by Robert’s secret fried chicken recipe, candied yams, early peas and collard greens. One of those diners was Dr. King, who became close friends with the Paschal brothers. 

Pictures of Paschal’s famous patrons cover their brick walls. Several images of Martin Luther King Jr., Martin Luther King Sr., and Obama can be found on the upper level of the restaurant, greeting you as you ascend the stairs. On the back wall, you’ll find a textured and framed portrait of Dr. King looking into the distance, a dream forming right within the walls of Paschal’s. 

This story is from a special collaboration between SCAD and Rough Draft Atlanta. To read more stories from SCAD students, visit our SCAD x Rough Draft hub.

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