Celebrating Black History: Henry Dodson, an Atlanta Civil Rights Pioneer

Photo courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center

From 1975 to 1979, Henry Dodson served as the first African-American county commissioner for Fulton County, Georgia. Photo courtesy of the Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center.

By LANCE CRANMER                                                          lcranmer@nationalchurchresidences.org

ATLANTA – To list the highlights of Henry Dodson’s accomplishments is to chart a graph of the Civil Rights movement in the south in the volatile 1950s and 60s.

A small business owner, a civic leader, a Deacon in Atlanta’s legendary Ebenezer Baptist Church, Dodson cannot point to a single moment in his storied life that was more important than another.

“That’s a hard question to answer,” he said. “I was always ambitious enough to want more and to be involved. I couldn’t say there was one particular thing, I don’t believe. Just being born the way I was born was the important thing. I was able to do things that I couldn’t do now.”

Dodson was born on April 6, 1932 to Henry, Sr., and Christine Dodson, the first African-American gas station owners in the history of Atlanta.

When Dodson was only seven years old his father passed away, leaving a young widow with three children.

“We lived near Ebenezer Baptist Church. We grew up in Ebenezer, basically,” Dodson said.

The church’s leader at the time was Martin Luther King, Sr., the father of future Civil Rights pioneer the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Before my father died, he asked Rev. King for help with his three kids. He wanted us to be looked after a little bit,” Dodson said. “Rev. King became my Godfather, I guess you’d call it.”

Following his father’s death, Dodson and his younger brother were eventually sent to live with their grandparents on their farm in Chickamauga, near the Tennessee border.

At the age of 20, after several years of working on the farm, Dodson moved to Chattanooga to become a photography apprentice. Before long, he owned his own photography business with the slogan, “If there’s beauty, we take it. If there’s none, we make it.”

“I don’t know if it made me famous, but I made a living at it,” Dodson said with a laugh.

In the early 1950s, Dodson left Chattanooga and returned to his hometown of Atlanta, where he briefly worked in the Fulton County Bag and Cotton Mills before reopening his photography and printing business.

“I started off taking pictures on the side. But soon I was making more money on the side than I was at my job, so I quit my job and opened up my studio on 100th Street in Atlanta,” Dodson said. “That’s when I started hanging around people who wanted to be in politics in Atlanta.”

And again, he became a fixture in the Ebenezer Baptist Church, becoming a Deacon.

“I was around Rev. King every day,” Dodson said. “When Rev. King made the motion to bring his son back from Alabama to become our co-pastor, most of the men in the church were scared that our church was going to get bombed by the Ku Klux Klan. But I seconded the motion to bring him back.”

Dodson said that the more time he spent with the black religious and political leaders of the time, the more he strived to be like them.

“When I went into business, I hung around Morehouse College,” he said. “The people who hung out there talked a lot about being men. I always picked up nuggets there that I could use in life. I just had this inspiration about what I was trying to do.”

The moment that brought him his first major recognition in the community came when he got a call from Jet Magazine, a weekly publication founded in 1951 and marketed toward black readers, for a photography assignment.

Jet Magazine called me to take a woman’s picture. And they gave me name credit,” he said. “Everybody in my community wanted to be in Jet. That got me in all the cliques. When they saw my name in Jet Magazine, I could say, ‘I’m a Jet photographer, come on in! I can take your picture, but I can’t guarantee you’ll get in Jet.’”

CAREER IN POLITICS

Having established himself as an influential member of the black community in Atlanta, in 1967 at the age of 35, Dodson launched a grass roots campaign to become an Alderman – a position the equivalent of today’s city council – in Atlanta.

“We’re talking about the 60s. Black people wanted to be in a position of power,” he said. “But you only had blacks wanting you in office.”

Dodson’s campaign was a success and in 1969 he became an Atlanta Alderman. At the time, being an Alderman meant that you had complete control over one aspect of city government. Dodson was chosen as Chairman of the Board of Fire Masters for the City.

“Back in that day, if you were chairman of a committee, you were the boss of a department,” he said. “I was head of the fire department.”

With that responsibility came a whole new set of challenges.

“With the fire department and the police department, that’s where the Ku Klux Klan made their living. Probably some of my men were, at least at one time, involved with the KKK,” Dodson said. “They hated me when I was first appointed chairman. I had firemen come in and protest. But after about three months, they began to like me.”

As to how he won them over: “If I knew that…?” Dodson said, trailing off into laughter.

When he lost his re-election bid in 1973, Dodson turned his attention to county government. Two years later, Dodson, along with J.O. Wyatt, became the first black men in history elected as Fulton County Commissioners.

“You had absolute power in county government,” he said.

The first thing Dodson set out to do was to get more African-Americans jobs in the county.

“Only three blacks worked in the county courthouse,” he said. “All the departments had to be integrated to the point where blacks had a chance to have jobs there.”

Dodson earned the reputation of being a full-time commissioner who was present in his office every day and worked hard to serve his constituents.

He served one term with the county and left politics in 1979, returning to his career as a photographer and printer.

Dodson, who has five children, 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, has lived for the last 10 years at National Church Residences Trinity Towers in Atlanta. He said that many of his neighbors are probably unaware of his lengthy career serving the people of Atlanta.

“Some know about me and some don’t.  Most the people here are 60 or above and they’ve lived their own lives,” he said. “Some mostly live in the past. But back in the day, we wanted to move Atlanta forward.”

Nearly four years ago, Fulton County let Dodson know that plenty of people still remember the work that he did.

“On my 80th birthday party, the county decided to give me a proclamation for working in county government. Then the city heard about it, and they duplicated it. And then the state heard, and they duplicated it,” Dodson said. “Usually you don’t get that until after you’re dead and gone.”

The most impressive thing about the honor, Dodson joked, was that every member of Atlanta City Council signed the proclamation to honor him.

“All of them signed it,” he said. “That’s probably the only thing all of them ever got together on.”

MORE TO ACCOMPLISH

Dodson admits many may view his experiences in life as impressive.

“It was amazing, but we didn’t look at it as being different,” he said. “It was just our lives.”

He said that he still has boxes of 55-years-worth of pictures he took of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other leaders of the Civil Rights movement that he hasn’t sorted through. Eventually he’d like to use the photos along with his experiences to publish a book – which he has tentatively titled “Country Boy Comes to Town.”

When talking about progress and equality, Dodson said that some things have undoubtedly gotten better, while some have sadly stayed too much the same.

“We did make a lot of progress, but we didn’t do that much progress. We still have the same hatred going on that we had 20 years ago,” he said. “Schools and churches may be integrated now, but they’re also more separate now than they were 20 years ago.”

Dodson said that after working to help get Jimmy Carter elected as Governor of Georgia in 1971, he briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing politics on a larger scale.

He ran for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1972 but did not win.

“If they had elected me to Congress,” he said, “Washington would not be the same.”

dodson

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