Remember the Titan
Arrington, a man known for his drive and passion to do what’s right, made history very early in his life.
Atlanta has been home to countless icons from business to politics to civil rights. The King family has deep roots that run throughout the city; Congressman John Lewis taught us what it meant to get into good trouble here; and Ambassador Andrew Young has left an indelible mark on local, state and world history over decades in our city. However, there are few who can claim to have merged their advocacy, political and business acumen more successfully over the course of their life than Marvin Arrington, Sr.
Arrington passed away on July 5 at the age of 82, leaving behind a son and daughter, both of whom followed in his legendary footsteps to become lawyers. Arrington, a man known for his drive and passion to do what’s right, made history very early in his life. In the mid-1960s, he began his legal studies at Howard University. However, due to the high cost of living in the Washington, D.C. area and with encouragement from fellow Black scholar Hamilton Holmes, he returned to Georgia to finish law school at Emory University, becoming one of the first Black law students in the institution’s history.
For many, this would be a legacy-defining moment, but for Arrington it was only the beginning. Just two years later, he was elected to the Atlanta Board of Alderman, which would later become the Atlanta City Council. He served for 28 years in city government, including 17 years as council president, the longest tenure in council history.
It is hard to overstate how much Atlanta changed in that time and how much of a role Arrington played in that evolution. During his tenure, he advocated for major quality of life changes throughout the city, particularly on behalf of Black residents who had suffered the worst consequences of redlining and segregation. He helped revitalize the struggling Atlanta Zoo, prepared the city for the 1996 Olympics and made the ambitious vision of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport a reality. As a trustee board member and alumnus of Clark Atlanta University, I also know better than most how instrumental he was to Clark College’s merger with Atlanta University in 1988.
At his core, Arrington was a public servant. He was a man who was resolute in his values and determined to make a difference in the city that he loved so much. It is easy to take for granted now Atlanta’s status as the Black Mecca, but it was not a foregone conclusion that we would get to where we are today. It took men like Arrington with the determination, knowledge and love to build us up into one of the greatest cities in the world.
It was during his time with the City Council that he formed one of the most impactful Black law firms in American history with civil rights leader Donald Hollowell, the aptly named Arrington and Hollowell. Together, they ushered in a new era of legal potential in Atlanta at a time when lawyers of color were few and far between. No one understood the importance of opportunity in this key field more than Arrington, who, along with the ACLU, sued the Georgia Bar Association in 1970 claiming an inordinate number of Blacks were disenfranchised due to not passing the State Bar exam.
Just as he was on the verge of retiring in 2002, he got a phone call from then-Governor Roy Barnes that would change the next decade of his life. Barnes offered him a position as Fulton County Superior Court judge, an offer that an unyielding civil servant like Arrington could not refuse. During his tenure, Arrington advocated for programs reforming young offenders and mentoring youth, setting the stage for the next generation of leaders who needed a little more understanding from the bench.
Arrington is not a household name. He should be. His accomplishments speak for themselves, but more than anything, he is one of our city’s best examples of how to serve and give back. He gave all of himself to Atlanta, while never forgetting how to balance his public responsibilities with his family and his faith.
At a time when politics only seems to be growing nastier and more divisive, let us take a moment to look to people like Arrington, who always had a joke, a smile and some wisdom to share. And at a time when Atlanta continues along its meteoric rise, it is worth remembering the people who got us to the launchpad.
Tharon Johnson received a Green Eyeshade award for serious magazine commentary for his December 2022 column, “Making Housing Affordable Again.” He can be seen Sunday mornings on The Georgia Gang on Fox 5 Atlanta.