LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Some of the biggest names in American business this week pushed back against religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas. Companies such as Wal-Mart and Apple said the laws could open the door to discrimination. This kind of corporate intervention is not new. Back in 1964, social conservatives in Atlanta refused to attend an interracial dinner honoring Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. As Jim Burress reports from member station WABE, Coca-Cola put its corporate foot down and changed Atlanta's history.
JIM BURRESS, BYLINE: At the dinner honoring his Nobel Peace Prize, Martin Luther King, Jr. opened his speech at Atlanta's Dinkler Hotel with a nod to the almost 1,600 people in the audience.
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MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR: This marvelous hometown welcome and honor will remain dear to me as long as the cords of memory shall lengthen.
BURRESS: But that hometown welcome almost didn't happen. Shortly after Dr. King won the Nobel Prize, event invitations went out to Atlanta's elite. Almost no one responded. A worried Mayor Ivan Allen appealed to the former head of Coca-Cola. Although no longer in charge, Robert Woodruff was arguably the most powerful person in town.
RICK ALLEN: This was not a liberal, progressive individual...
BURRESS: Rick Allen wrote "Atlanta Rising: The Invention Of An International City."
ALLEN: ...But he was open-minded for his time and he was attuned to what the world thought, not just what Atlanta thought. And the mayor told him, we've got a real problem with this dinner, we're not selling any tickets, it's going to be an embarrassment to Atlanta.
BURRESS: Coca-Cola was becoming an international company. Atlanta longed to become an international city. And that made Robert Woodruff receptive to the mayor's concerns. Woodruff asked Coca-Cola CEO J. Paul Austin to intervene. Former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young was a close friend of Dr. King at was at the dinner.
ANDREW YOUNG: J. Paul Austin was from LaGrange, Ga., but he been in South Africa for the last 14 years before coming back to Coca-Cola. And he had seen what apartheid done to the South African economy. So he was very strong on Atlanta not giving in to this kind of pettiness and racism.
BURRESS: About that time, The New York Times published a front-page story about the tepid response Dr. King was getting in his hometown. J. Paul Austin decided to flex Coca-Cola's muscle.
YOUNG: The phrase that he was quoted as saying was that Coca-Cola cannot stay in a city that's going to have this kind of reaction and not honor a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
BURRESS: The ultimatum worked. The event quickly sold out, says Mark Pendergrast, author of the book, "Of God, Country and Coca-Cola."
MARK PENDERGRAST: If Robert Woodruff, who basically could run the town of Atlanta, if he had not let it be known that the white business community was going to honor Martin Luther King at this dinner, I don't think it would have happened.
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KING: And so all people of good will are challenged to work passionately and unrelentingly to remove every vestige of segregation and discrimination from our nation's life. We must do this not merely because it is economically and politically sound, but because it is morally compelling.
BURRESS: Ambassador Andrew Young says the climate at the dinner was like there'd never been a problem. The audience even stood and sang "We Shall Overcome." For NPR News, I'm Jim Burress in Atlanta.
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