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Gary Younge
Civil rights kitchen serves last supper

Now Paschal's, the diner once referred to as the kitchen of the civil rights movement, is to be demolished - making way for a new dormitory for the historically black Clark University.

It was a nostalgic, emotional and for some an infuriating moment when the serving hatches finally closed in the dining room where King and his assistants planned the Selma to Montgomery march, which led to the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

"As the primary meeting place for the leadership of the civil rights movement, Paschal's played a central role in the transformation of race relations in America," King's widow, Coretta Scott King, told the New York Times.

"It was the incubator for many of the strategies and tactics that empowered the movement, as well as the site where participants in the movement gathered to discuss and refine the ideas and philosophy that undergirded our freedom struggle."

Emotional because it marked the end of an era and an institution, which counted Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder among its patrons. "I'm real sad," said hostess Orah Sherman, who worked at the restaurant for 39 years. "When I went home last night, I couldn't stop crying."

Diner Henry Dodson was also nostalgic: "Not long ago, if you were black and you came to Atlanta, you came to Paschal's. This was the centre of things in its heyday."

Even after King was assassinated in 1968 the restaurant maintained its political and social significance for many years. In 1972, when Andrew Young announced his bid to become the first black congressman from Georgia since post-civil war reconstruction, he did it from Paschal's.

But there has been anger because some believed that Clark University, which bought the building in 1996, should have kept it open to honour its history, despite the fact that it says it has been losing $500,000 (£310,000) a year doing so. "A member of our family betrayed us. I liken it to infidelity," said Ivory Young, a city councillor.

The rise and demise of Paschal's is emblematic of the fortunes of many black-owned businesses post-integration. For all its ills, segregation imposed an economic and social cohesion on black communities in the south, who were not allowed or eat in white-owned restaurants.

The Paschal's story began in 1947 when brothers James and Robert Paschal opened a small lunch counter across the road from the current diner and then expanded to build what King's right-hand man, Ralph Abernathy, would call "a living monument to black capitalism" - including a hotel and nightclub where the diner now stands.

Paradoxically King's achievements in removing the barriers of segregation paved the way for black people to live and eat where they wanted, thus dissipating Paschal's once captive audience. A sizeable black middle class moved to other areas of Atlanta, such as Stone Mountain, while the poor remained in what was to become a run-down neighbourhood.

Some buildings and areas of importance to the civil rights era, including the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was assassinated, or Kelly Ingraham Park in Birmingham, Alabama, where huge protests took place, have been refurbished and revitalised. Others, like Paschal's and the "white-only" lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, where in 1960 four black teenagers led the era's most famous sit-in, have struggled.

The Atlanta congressman John Lewis, who marched with King in Selma and met him often in Paschal's, believes that with civic effort the diner could have been preserved as an historic site.

"Paschal's did not just nourish the bodies of the leaders of our nation's struggle for civil rights," he said. "It nourished our minds and souls."

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Another Day in the Death of America
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