Thomas I. Atkins

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Thomas Irving Atkins[1] (March 2, 1939 in Elkhart, Indiana[2] – June 27, 2008[3] in Brooklyn[1]) was an African American attorney and politician who served as a member of the Boston City Council and General Counsel of the NAACP.

Early life[edit]

Atkins was born on March 2, 1939, in Elkhart, Indiana[2] to a Pentecostal minister and a domestic.[1] As a child, he overcame a bout of polio.[2] He was the first black student body president at Elkhart High School.[1]

In 1960, he was elected student body president at Indiana University. He was the school's first African American student body president as well as the first African American student body president in the Big Ten.[2] That same year he married Sharon Soash, a 1960 graduate of Indiana University who served as his campaign manager when he ran for student body president.[4] The couple had to marry in Michigan because Indiana prohibited interracial marriage.[5] Atkins graduated from Indiana in 1961 with a bachelor's degree in political science. In 1963 he earned a master's in Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University. In 1969 he graduated from Harvard Law School.[2]

While at Harvard, Atkins served as executive secretary of Boston's NAACP office.[6]


Atkins was first elected to the Boston City Council in 1967.[7] The day following the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Atkins convinced Mayor Kevin White not to cancel a James Brown concert that was to be held that evening at the Boston Garden and helped negotiate an agreement between White and Brown to have the concert televised by WGBH-TV. White and Atkins hoped that televising the concert would keep angry and frustrated teenagers at home and prevent the looting and rioting that was occurring in other cities.[8] The concert has been credited with preventing riots from breaking out in Boston.[8][9][10]

In 1971, Atkins ran for Mayor of Boston. He finished in fourth place with 11 percent of the vote.[11]

On October 26, 1971, Atkins was appointed Secretary of Communities and Development by Governor Francis W. Sargent.[12] He was sworn in on November 1, 1971,[13] becoming the first African-American to serve as a state Cabinet Secretary.[3]

Legal career and NAACP[edit]

Atkins served as associate trial counsel for the plaintiffs in Morgan v. Hennigan.[14]

On July 16, 1974, Atkins was named interim president of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.[15] He was elected to a full two-year term on December 18, 1974.[16] As a Boston's NAACP President, Atkins was a central figure during contentious battle over desegregation busing in Boston.[3]

In addition to serving as President of the Boston branch, Atkins was also the NAACP's chief desegregation counsel nationally.[17] In this capacity he was the chief counsel in organization's desegregation lawsuits in Youngstown, Ohio,[18] Columbus, Ohio, San Francisco, Cleveland,[19] and Milwaukee[20]

In 1980, he succeeded Nathaniel R. Jones as general counsel of the NAACP.[21] In 1983, Atkins was named executive director of the NAACP by Chairperson Margaret Bush Wilson. However, the organization's board of directors sided with suspended executive director Benjamin Hooks and Hooks was reinstated.[22] Atkins resigned as counsel in 1984 to return to private law practice.[23]

Later life[edit]

Atkins and his wife separated in 1984. They would divorce four years later.[5]

Atkins died on June 27, 2008 from complications from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.[3]


  1. ^ a b c d Manly, Howard. "Atkins, first black Hub city councilor, dies at 69". The Bay State Banner. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Thomas Atkins, IU's first African American student body president, being celebrated this weekend". Indiana University. November 4, 2009. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  3. ^ a b c d e Moskowitz, Eric (June 28, 2008). "Thomas I. Atkins, champion of equality, dies at 69". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  4. ^ "White Girl, Negro Wed In Michigan". Associated Press. January 1, 1961. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  5. ^ a b Eric Moskowitz; Mark Feeney (June 29, 2008). "Civil rights trailblazer Atkins dies at 69". Boston Globe. 
  6. ^ "Young Advocates Aid for Negroes". The Harvard Crimson. October 30, 1964. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  7. ^ "Negroes Win Many Races". Associated Press. November 8, 1967. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  8. ^ a b Trott, Robert W. (April 5, 1993). "How Brown soothed a city". Freelance Star (Fredericksburg VA). Associated Press. Retrieved February 2, 2012. 
  9. ^ Gallo, Phil (April 3, 2008). "The Night James Brown Saved Boston". Variety. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  10. ^ Weiss, Joanna (April 4, 2008). "A soul singer and a city on verge of breakdown". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  11. ^ Annual Report of the Election Department. 1972. p. 44. 
  12. ^ Ellis, David (October 27, 1971). "Atkins named development secretary". Boston Globe. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  13. ^ "Atkins takes oath for cabinet job". Boston Globe. November 2, 1971. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  14. ^ "Morgan v. Hennigan". The Massachusetts Historical Society. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  15. ^ Walter Haynes; Ron Hutson (July 17, 1974). "Atkins new president of Hub NAACP". Boston Globe. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  16. ^ "Atkins elected NAACP head". Boston Globe. December 19, 1974. 
  17. ^ Schumacher, Edward (September 1, 1979). "Ohio Cities Gird for Court-Ordered Busing". The New York Times. 
  18. ^ "Ohio desegregation suit ruling seen as 'contrary'". The Washington Afro-American. April 18, 1978. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  19. ^ "NAACP Continues Integration Drive". Associated Press. January 15, 1979. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  20. ^ Bednarek, David I. (September 16, 1979). "Reynolds Wrong, NAACP Brief Says". The Milwaukee Journal. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  21. ^ Osgood, Viola (April 16, 1980). "NAACP Appoints Atkins Top Counsel". Boston Globe. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
  22. ^ Irene Sege; Robert A. Jordan (March 20, 1985). "Atty. Atkins Taken Off NAACP Cases". Boston Globe. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  23. ^ "N.A.A. C.P.'s Counsel To Lea ve Office in July". The New York Times. April 10, 1984. Retrieved 26 June 2011. 
Political offices
Preceded by
Position created
Massachusetts Secretary of Communities and Development
Succeeded by
William Flynn