As he sits in the latest iteration of Paschal’s, a modern loft-style restaurant a few blocks from the historic property but a million miles away from it in spirit, Slack can remember the day the eatery took up its role in the civil rights movement.
“One day, a young man walked up to [James] Paschal and told him that his name was Martin Luther King Jr., and he was trying to find a place to meet,” Slack says. “He didn’t have any money to really pay for a room or pay for anything, but he wanted to start a coalition.”
The story, as apocryphal as it sounds, jibes with the one James Paschal told in his self-published 2006 memoir, “Paschal: Living the Dream.” King, Paschal recalled, “came directly to us and asked if he could bring his team members and guests to Paschal’s to eat, meet, rest, plan and strategize. How could we refuse? We had the resources and the place. We believed we had been called to be part of the Movement.”
“In early 1962, we set aside a meeting room for Martin and his teams to lay fundamental groundwork and plan. Some of the work for the 1963 March on Washington took place at Paschal’s. After that march, hundreds of people converged on Atlanta. So many of them gathered at Paschal’s. The same was true when the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed.”
The story of how two brothers became patron saints of the civil rights movement has its roots in slavery’s aftershocks. The siblings were children of sharecroppers in Thomson, Ga., about an hour east of Atlanta. “We worked in the fields from dawn to dusk, wrapping both of our hands around those stinging cotton balls, but it seemed the work was hardly ever done,” James Paschal said in his memoir.
Robert Paschal, 10 years older than his brother, developed a technique that made him a “magnificent cotton picker,” James Paschal said in his book, but the younger sibling never saw any reason to nurture such talents. “I hated every cotton ball I ever touched,” he said. “I was never any good at it, and I never wanted to be good at it.”
James Paschal, instead, had a mind for business. James M. Grant, a nephew of James Paschal’s, recalls that his uncle sold fruits and vegetables out of a wagon as a boy in Thomson before graduating to shoeshine stands in white and black barbershops. James Paschal even persuaded the owner of a small store to let him run it during his high school years; he knew he could transform the business by selling candy that appealed to kids.
“He ran it after school, and it did very well,” says Grant, president of Paschal’s Enterprises. “And the lady took it back after two years after he started making money.”
The brothers’ strengths would make them ideal partners as they launched the original Paschal’s, a 30-seat diner that opened in 1947 on West Hunter Street, now known as Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. James worked the business side while Robert ran the kitchen, which turned out crispy, perfectly greaseless fried chicken.
“The main thing [people] fell in love with was his chicken,” Slack says. “The chicken would bring the best of them in.”
By the time the brothers moved into their larger space in 1959 — located across West Hunter Street — they were well established among Atlanta’s black leaders. Atlanta was still segregated, so there were few locations where African Americans could gather in large numbers. But Paschal’s was on West Hunter, a major east-west artery that was a vital thoroughfare in the black community.
“Most of the black leaders lived on that side of town, and they stopped there on their way to work,” says Andrew Young, a former mayor of Atlanta who was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a principal player in civil rights campaigns. “If you wanted to know what was going on, that’s where most of the discussion was going on and where much of the planning was taking place.”
Young remembers when King and other SCLC members were planning the Poor People’s Campaign, which would culminate in a May 1968 protest on the Mall in which thousands of demonstrators set up a shantytown dubbed Resurrection City. Organizers invited leaders of 23 groups, Young says, including those representing Hispanics, Native Americans, blacks and whites; they all met in the Matador Room at Paschal’s in March 1968.
King “really wanted to focus on the question of poverty,” Young says, “because he felt that was the question that he had not made any progress on in his life.”
The campaign would lose much of its momentum the next month when King was assassinated. “After his death, we brought in a couple of psychiatrists to work with us on grief counseling,” Young says. “That was all held in Paschal’s.”
Even after the civil rights movement stopped generating front-page news, Paschal’s remained relevant to Atlanta’s black community. Jet magazine noted in a 1979 profile of the Paschal brothers: Every morning “for the past 20 years, Black elected officials, political candidates, would-be candidates and various power brokers from Mayor Maynard Jackson on down have gathered there over coffee and scrambled eggs to discuss politics, i.e., who gets what, when and why.” Paschal’s relevance in modern Atlanta, however, is a matter of debate. Old-timers still flock to the new Paschal’s with its airy, industrial-chic decor, says Herman J. Russell, an Atlanta developer who partnered with James Paschal to open the place in the Castleberry Hill neighborhood in 2002. (Russell is also a partner in the Paschal’s outlets at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.) But some critics find the new place a sterile imitation of the Paschal’s on West Hunter.
“While I respect the Paschal’s lineage very much, if I want to experience a sense of history in an African American-run soul food joint that has civil rights connections, I go to the Busy Bee Cafe,” Bill Addison, food editor and restaurant critic for Atlanta magazine, says about the restaurant next to the old Paschal’s on MLK Jr. Drive.
The future of Paschal’s may be even more worrisome. Family squabbles left the company in the hands of Marian Johnson, the sister of James Paschal’s wife, not the co-founder’s son, Curtis. Johnson cared for James Paschal before he died in 2008. She is a senior citizen, and Paschal’s president Grant intimates that it’s not clear who would be the heir to the empire.
Meanwhile, the old Paschal’s restaurant, hotel and La Carrousel lounge — which hosted artists such as Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie and Ramsey Lewis — continue to crumble on MLK Jr. Drive. Clark Atlanta understands the structure’s historic importance, says Donna L. Brock, director of strategic communications and university relations, and it has no intention of selling or demolishing the property.
With no immediate plans to turn Paschal’s into a historic site, the legacy of the two brothers rests largely in a neglected nook at the new location. It’s in that corner where a photo-heavy timeline spells out the rich story of a restaurant that fed a movement.