Martin Luther King, Jr. was born and grew up in Atlanta, sister city of Toulouse. A major figure in American history, Dr. King has also become a symbol of a unique friendship uniting Toulouse and the United States.
Athough he never visited Toulouse, it was a fellow civil rights pioneer and family friend of Dr. King’s who first opened the door to this relationship.
Irene Dobbs Jackson
Irene Dobbs Jackson, a professor of French literature at Atlanta’s Spelman College who earned advanced degrees from the University of Toulouse in the 1930s and 1950s, knew Dr. King well. She married her American fiancé in 1933 at the Capitole. Returning to Toulouse as a doctoral candidate from 1956-58, she spoke often about the movement for civil rights in the United States with Toulousains interested in learning more about the struggle against segregation. A letter she wrote Dr. King about these exchanges is preserved in his papers.
Her eldest son, Maynard Jackson, Jr., was elected Atlanta’s first black mayor in 1973. Soon after taking office, he initiated discussions with Toulouse Mayor Pierre Baudis to formalize a sister city relationship. On December 17, 1974, at the ceremony at the Capitole proclaiming Toulouse and Atlanta sister cities, Baudis presented Jackson with an official copy of his parents’ marriage record, preserved in the city’s archives from over 40 years before.
Place Martin Luther King
On December 17, 1993, the 19th anniversary of the Toulouse-Atlanta Sister City agreement, the City of Toulouse honored Dr. King with the designation of a central plaza in the city’s Bellefontaine district as Place Martin Luther King. This action was the result of an initiative led by AFFICHE, a Bellefontaine community association.
“I Have a Dream”
From 2006 to 2008, the City of Toulouse sponsored an annual essay contest for high school students, “I Have a Dream,” in partnership with the U.S. Consulate in Toulouse, the Toulouse school district and the Toulouse-Atlanta Sister-City Committee. Including nine participating schools and featuring a visit to Atlanta as first prize, the contest encouraged young people to explore the message of Dr. King’s most enduring words and to present their own dreams for society.
The U.S. Consulate made significant contributions to this program, including talks on the civil rights movement by Consul Jennifer Bachus Carleton at participating schools, loans of exhibitions chronicling the struggle of Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists, and organization of a 2007 conference on African-American history and sociology to which interested pupils were invited. The U.S. Consulate in Toulouse and the City administration also co-sponsored a fund-raising concert for the program by American singer Lea Gilmore.
Fête Martin Luther King
In 2008, with the buildings of Place Martin Luther King scheduled for demolition under Toulouse’s Grand Projet de Ville urban renewal program, Bellefontaine community associations approached the U.S. Consulate with a proposal for a celebration of the old neighborhood. The U.S. Consulate became the first major supporter of the event, which has since become a staple of the district’s cultural life.
Every July, close to 1,000 people visit Bellefontaine’s Fête Martin Luther King for a day of exhibits, activities for children, concerts and an outdoor picnic feast, honoring Dr. King and the thousands of people who have made their homes by the plaza bearing his name.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Toulouse
On January 20, 2009, at Toulouse’s Salle Osete, a full house of over 300 French, African and American residents came together to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the inauguration of President Barack Obama. The event, organized by the regional chapter of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN-MP) and the U.S. Consulate in partnership with the City of Toulouse, featured the USIA film, The March, chronicling the March on Washington where Dr. King gave his “I have a dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, and a live transmission of the inauguration ceremonies from Washington.
In January 2010, Bellefontaine NGO ASVEC, lead organizer of Fête Martin Luther King, sponsored a commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the district’s Alban Minville Cultural Center. At the same time, the University of Toulouse organized a week-long program of lectures, films and exhibitions on Dr. King and the American civil rights movement. The U.S. Consulate in Toulouse supported both events with loans from its media library.
Place Martin Luther King reborn
On July 3, 2010, following ASVEC-led efforts to have a new site in honor of Martin Luther King dedicated in Bellefontaine, district residents welcomed Consul David Brown, Mayor Pierre Cohen and members of the American community as they joined together to inaugurate the new Place Martin Luther King within view of its original location.
In remarks to the gathering, Consul Brown paid tribute the many whose efforts had culminated in the day’s ceremony, and highlighted the legacy of Irene Dobbs Jackson and the universal values she shared with Dr. King. Among the day’s other speakers was ASVEC board member Aimé Djinékou. One of the activists who led the two-year movement to keep the name of Martin Luther King alive in the community, he had returned only months earlier from his first visit to the United States as a participant in the Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program.
2011: The next chapter
On January 22, 2011, a program of events celebrating the life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. took place at the Cinémathèque de Toulouse. The program was organized by a remarkable cross-section of associations with ties to the city’s French, African and American communities that have come together in a broad-based partnership especially for this event to honor the memory and values of Dr. King.
A large crowd joined in this unique celebration, which included hip hop danse demonstrations, an exhibit about MLK’s life and legacy, a jazz and soul music concert, as well as a film and performance.