An early but little-known moment in the Civil Rights Movement happened right here in Buckhead.
It involved the U.S. Supreme Court, an attorney named Thurgood Marshall and four black men who just wanted to play a round of golf at Bobby Jones Golf Course.
It is a story I have written before, but it bears repeating, especially considering February is Black History Month.
In 1951, segregation was the law of the land in the city of Atlanta and the South. This was a systemic separation of the races in all facets of life. There were different schools for blacks and for whites, separate hospitals, hotels and restaurants. Even toilets and water fountains were separate.
It was in this divided environment that four men decided to attempt to play golf at a nicer public course than the one to which they had access. The course, Bobby Jones, was segregated.
I don’t think the two boys, their father and their friend had any intention of changing the world that day. They loved the game and were tired of playing the run down, nine-hole public course in their community.
The four men were Dr. Hamilton Holmes, a prominent physician; his sons Oliver Wendell Holmes and Alfred “Tup” Holmes and family friend Charles T. Bell. Tup Holmes was one of the best golfers in the area. He played at Tuskegee University and would win three National Negro Amateur Championships.
They knew the course manager would not permit them to play. But they had a plan.
Earlier on that spring day in 1951, Course Manager Billy Wilson accepted payment from K.B. Hill, a single player. He teed off and went about his round. Wilson didn’t know Hill was a black man with a light complexion. He was often mistaken for a white man.
The foursome arrived a short time later. Some unprintable words were said as they approached the clubhouse with their clubs. Wilson told them to leave.
But they protested, saying they had just seen a black man playing the course. That man was Hill. Rather than let them play, Wilson pulled Hill off the course and kicked all five off the premises, using slurs and threatening them throughout the ordeal.
Even though they knew it was unlikely they would be permitted to play, the vitriol directed at them by the golf course manager cut deep. After much contemplation, Tup Holmes sued the city of Atlanta, Mayor William B. Hartsfield and Wilson.
In 1954, a U.S. District Court ruled Holmes had a constitutional right to play golf on public courses but only by following Atlanta’s segregation policies. The city agreed to allow blacks to play on public courses Mondays and Tuesdays.
Holmes and his attorneys rejected the compromise and appealed the decision. The NAACP joined the fight as the case rose through the courts. Holmes vs. Atlanta went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The attorney who eventually took over Holmes’ case was Marshall. The Supreme Court agreed with Holmes, and Atlanta’s public golf courses were desegregated by law Nov. 7, 1955.
To celebrate their victory, Tup Holmes, his sons and Bell planned to play Bobby Jones the next day. But the Supreme Court decision angered many, and some people made threats against their lives.
The group instead played North Fulton Golf Course at Chastain Park in Buckhead. A television news station caught wind and ran out to interview the foursome as they played. The group mistook the camera for a machine gun. Otherwise, the round went off without incident.
They did play Bobby Jones later. Tup Holmes died of cancer in 1967, but 16 years later, the city dedicated the Alfred “Tup” Holmes Memorial Golf Course at Adams Park in his honor.
Less than one month after the Supreme Court decision, police officers in Montgomery, Alabama, arrested Rosa Parks for refusing to give up her seat on a bus. In 1961, one of Tup Holmes’ sons, Hamilton M. Holmes Jr., integrated the University of Georgia.
And of course Marshall would go on to become the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court. The U.S. Senate confirmed him by a vote of 69-11 Aug. 30, 1967.