A. T. Walden (1885-1965)
A. T. Walden was a noted attorney, a civil rights leader, and one of the New South's first black political power brokers. His life spanned nearly eighty turbulent years of southern history, when racial segregation and restrictions on black voter participation were common practices. One of the few black lawyers in Georgia during the civil rights era, Walden litigated civil rights cases to help equalize pay for black teachers in Georgia. Having won the lawsuits that helped to desegregate the Atlanta public schools and the University of Georgia, Walden earned a national reputation as a civil rights lawyer.
Austin Thomas Walden was born in Fort Valley on April 12, 1885, to former slaves Jennie Tomlin and Jeff Walden. He attended Fort Valley High and Industrial School and was the lone graduate of the class of 1902. He received a bachelor's degree from Atlanta University (later Clark Atlanta University) in 1907 and a law degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1911.
Walden began practicing law in Macon in 1912. In June 1917 he joined the army and during World War I (1917-18) served as a captain and assistant judge advocate. On May 18, 1918, he married Mary Ellen Denney of Baltimore, Maryland. They had two daughters, Jenelsie and Austella. He received an honorable discharge from the military in February 1919 and that same year moved his law practice to Atlanta. In 1948 Walden founded and was president of the Gate City Bar Association. The Gate City Bar Association provided African American lawyers with resources to keep up with new legal developments and encouraged prospective African American lawyers to attend high-quality law schools. These resources were sorely needed in the legal community at the time. African American lawyers had limited access to law libraries and difficulty attracting clients, and they were not allowed to join most other bar associations.
Walden eventually became a member of the Atlanta and American Bar associations and litigated cases in all levels of the court system of Georgia as well as in the U.S. Supreme Court. He also served as legal counsel for Citizens Trust Company, Mutual Federal Savings and Loan Association, and the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.
In addition to his legal work, Walden assumed leadership roles in a number of community organizations. He served as chair of the executive boards of Butler Street YMCA and the Atlanta Urban League and was president of both the Atlanta University Alumni Association and the Atlanta Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also held positions as the cochair of the Summit Leadership Conference in Atlanta, the national vice president of the NAACP, a member of the NAACP's national legal committee, and the chair of the trustees of Wheat Street Baptist Church.
Walden began his political life as a Republican, serving as chair of the Republican Party executive committee from the fifth congressional district of Georgia. In 1940 he switched to the Democratic Party and remained active with that party for the next twenty-five years. In recognition of the importance of voter participation and the need to increase black registration, he became a founder and cochair of the nonpartisan Atlanta Negro Voters League and leader of the All-Citizens Registration Committee. With these visible political positions, Walden was able to exercise great political influence on behalf of black Atlantans. As the rate of black voting increased in the late 1940s, significant progress was made in the black community, such as street and sewer improvements and the hiring of black policemen in African American neighborhoods.
Walden's political savvy brought him an appointment to Atlanta's city executive committee in 1953. Ten years later, he was one of the first two blacks to serve as members of the state Democratic executive committee. U.S. president John F. Kennedy appointed Walden as a member of the American Battle Monuments Commission in 1963, and he was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1964, the first year in which blacks were included in the Georgia delegation. For several years he served as president of the Georgia Association of Citizens Democratic Clubs.
In 1963 Walden retired and opened a nonprofit community counseling office. The following year, Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. appointed him to serve as judge of the Atlanta Municipal Court, making Walden the first black judge in Georgia since Reconstruction. Walden, the "dean" of black lawyers in Georgia, died on July 2, 1965.