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Legal Pioneer Austin Thomas and Atlanta

by Arman Deganian
President, DeKalb Bar Association

As we all reflect on Black History Month this February, it is hard not to consider the contributions of African Americans from Georgia, and more specifically, the metro Atlanta region. We all know about the more prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, but many, including myself, know very little about African American attorneys who paved the way for others to thrive in the practice of law in Georgia. One such person that I recently discovered is a gentleman by the name of Austin Thomas (A.T.) Thomas. 

An African American attorney in the early 20th century in Georgia, Mr. Thomas was a bit of a rarity. He was born in Fort Valley, Georgia in 1885 to former slaves. Amazingly, he was the one and only graduate of the 1902 class at Fort Valley High and Industrial School. He next attended Atlanta University and graduated in 1907 and then went on to attend the University of Michigan School of Law and earned his JD in 1911.

We all know about the prominent leaders of the civil rights movement, but know little about African American attorneys who paved the way for others to practice law in Georgia.”

After earning his JD, he made the bold move back to Macon, Georgia to practice law. In 1917, he joined the army, and served as a captain and assistant judge advocate during World War I. After the war, he moved back to Georgia and relocated his practice to Atlanta. After moving back, he played a key civic role in numerous organizations in Atlanta, such as the Butler Street YMCA, the Atlanta branch of the NAACP, and, among others, Wheat Street Baptist Church. He gradually focused his civic efforts on increasing black voter registration in Georgia in the early 1940s. In that capacity, he founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League. 

In 1948, Mr. Thomas founded the Gate City Bar Association due to the fact that African American lawyers were excluded from the white legal association in the Atlanta at the time. The organization still thrives here in Atlanta. In 1953, he increased the scope of his political activism and was appointed to the Fulton County Democratic Executive Committee and later served on the Georgia Democratic Executive Committee. In 1963, Ivan Allen Jr. appointed Mr. Thomas to serve as a judge of the Atlanta Municipal Court. Astonishingly, that appointment made him the first black judge in Georgia since Reconstruction, a time span of nearly 100 years. In 1964, Mr. Thomas had the distinction of serving as the first African American delegate to the national Democratic Convention, held in Atlantic City. Mr. Thomas died in Atlanta in 1965, at the age of 80. 

We have come such a long way, yet we, as a body, still have a long ways to go. Sometimes it helps to be reminded of that by reflecting on how far we have come.

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