Many Freemasons believe that we should only take part in marches, demonstrations, politics or activism as individuals and never as Freemasons. I wish these brothers were at Big Bethel A.M.E. Church (Atlanta, GA) in the 1940s when Grand Master John Wesley Dobbs debated Attorney A.T. Walden. Grand Master John Wesley Dobbs was able to use his influence to fill Big Bethel A.M.E. Church with thousands of Freemasons. During the debate, after Dobbs spoke and before Walden was given the opportunity to speak, Dobbs gave a Masonic Sign and the thousands of Masons gathered in the Room cleared out! Grand Master John Wesley Dobbs truly knew the power of Freemasonry and how to use Freemasonry and politics for a purpose.
John Wesley Dobbs was initiated in 1911 into Prince Hall Masonry, a fraternal order that attracted socially conscious leaders within the Black middle class. Dobbs was elected Grand Master of the Prince Hall Masons of Georgia in 1932, thereby earning the nickname “The Grand”. Through his leadership position within Prince Hall Masonry in Georgia, he tried to instill in Atlanta’s African-American community the same core values he strived to pass on to his children.
Dobbs fervently believed that African-American suffrage was the key to racial advancement. He announced a goal of registering 10,000 Black voters in Atlanta and preached the importance of voter registration in Masonic halls, in African-American churches, and on street corners. Dobbs also founded the Atlanta Civic and Political League in 1936 and with Attorney A. T. Walden, co-founded the Atlanta Negro Voters League in 1946. Both of these leagues advocated voter registration and Black political unity.
Due largely to Dobbs’s efforts, African-Americans achieved two significant political victories in the late 1940’s. In the spring of 1948, Atlanta mayor William B. Hartsfield fulfilled a promise he had made to Dobbs by hiring eight African-American police officers. Although they could patrol only Black neighborhoods and could not arrest Whites, the hiring was a significant challenge to segregation. The following year Hartsfield fulfilled another campaign promise by installing street lamps on Auburn Avenue, the center of Atlanta’s Black community. Both of these achievements served to solidify Dobbs’s position as a leader. Dobbs himself coined the term “Sweet Auburn”, an expression of the area’s (Sweet Auburn Ave) thriving businesses and active social and civic life.
During the 1950s, Dobbs continued his work toward African-American equality. He constantly pressed Hartsfield to fulfill other promises made to the Black community. Dobbs’s influence began to wane as the decade ended due to his arthritis and inability to consistently get out of bed and a younger generation of African-American leaders emerged at the forefront of the Civil Rights struggle in Atlanta. When Dobbs finally made his transition in 1961, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the speakers at his funeral, and Thurgood Marshall, NAACP attorney and future Supreme Court justice, served as a pallbearer.