NAACP Honors Trailblazing Life of Attorney Thomas I. Atkins

The NAACP extends sincerest sympathy to the family of Thomas Ignatius Atkins and seeks to recognize his commitment as a pioneering civil rights activist and honor his dedicated work as a NAACP General Counsel in the mid ‘80s. Atkins died last Friday in New York, the result of a nearly 20-year battle against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 69.

“Tom Atkins was a trailblazer in the truest sense,” said NAACP Interim President & CEO Dennis Courtland Hayes. “He blazed the trail and set the stage for others to follow in law and politics. He did what no one before him had, which is a measure of his ability to communicate new ideas and win the confidence of others. He equalized education for all children. The results of his hard work are yet to be fully realized, yet will live on.”                        

The son of a Pentecostal minister and a domestic, Atkins was a fighter all of his life. He contracted polio when he was 5. Told that he would need crutches the rest of his life, he walked unassisted three years later.

Atkins went to segregated schools at first. Then integration came to the public schools in his native Elkhart, Ind. by accident, when the blacks-only school collapsed, and the town couldn't afford to replace it. Fearing attacks from white classmates, he initially carried rocks in his pockets as a defense.

Instead of attacks, he drew accolades. He would go on to become the first African American student body president at Elkhart High School. He made Phi Beta Kappa at Indiana University, where he was the first black Student Government Association president and first black student body president at a Big 10 Conference school. A residence hall and campus building are named in Atkins’ honor at the university.

In 1967, he became the first African American elected to the Boston City Council, serving two terms. Atkins' powers of persuasion helped minimize unrest in Boston after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., when other cities erupted into riot, convincing the mayor to allow a James Brown concert to go on as scheduled and to televise it live.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Atkins served as Executive Secretary of the Boston Branch of the NAACP in the mid-1960s, becoming branch President in 1974. Atkins was unflinching in his criticism of busing opponents and political leaders who refused to address the de facto segregation of the city's schools. He would serve as Associate Trial Counsel for the plaintiffs in Morgan v. Hennigan, the Boston school desegregation case in 1970. He would also work as a lawyer on school desegregation cases in Detroit, Buffalo and other cities.

He also served as Secretary of Communities and Development under Massachusetts Governor Francis Sargent.

Family and friends are planning a memorial service in lieu of a funeral. 

Founded in 1909, the NAACP is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

Media Contact: Richard J. McIntire (410) 580-5787

< View All Press Releases