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Family to celebrate life of late Hub leader Atkins

Banner Staff
Family to celebrate life of late Hub leader Atkins
Former City Councilor Thomas I. Atkins stands in Franklin Field in this 1971 file photo. Atkins died June 27 at a nursing home in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family will hold a celebration of his life on Saturday afternoon. (Photo: Banner file)

The family of the late Thomas I. Atkins will hold a celebration of the former Boston city councilor’s life this weekend, giving friends and admirers an opportunity to pay their respects to a man best remembered for his tireless fights against discrimination and for equal rights.

The celebration will be held this Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008, at 1:30 p.m. at the Boston Public Library’s Rabb Auditorium, located at the BPL’s Copley Square branch.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be sent to either the Northeastern University Thomas I. Atkins Social Justice Scholarship Fund, 716 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02120; or the Indiana University Foundation — Thomas Atkins Living Learning Center, P.O. Box 500, Bloomington, IN 47402.

Atkins died June 27 at a nursing home in Brooklyn, N.Y., after a lengthy struggle with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 69. In addition to his sons and former wife, Atkins left a sister, Anna Jane Millsaps of South Bend, Ind.; a brother, Pierce, of Elkhart, Ind.; three granddaughters; and one great-granddaughter.

Thomas Irving Atkins was born in Elkhart, the son of Pentecostal minister Norse Pierce Atkins and domestic Lillie (Curry) Atkins. He blazed trails from an early age, becoming the first black student body president at Elkhart High School.

His academic ascent continued after enrolling at Indiana University. During his time in Bloomington, Atkins made history as IU’s first black class president and the first black student body president at a Big Ten school. He also earned entry into the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa honor society, and graduated from Indiana summa cum laude — with highest honors.

After graduating, Atkins attended Harvard University, earning a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies and a law degree from Harvard Law School.

Commitment to education was also a linchpin of Atkins’ post-collegiate life, whether in his numerous roles with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — including executive secretary and president of the Boston chapter, as well as general counsel for the national organization — or in his career in public service.

“He spent his entire life pursuing education for everyone,” Todd Atkins, the deceased’s oldest son, told the Boston Herald. “His family sacrificed for him, and I think he wanted to give back.”

Atkins was a pioneer in Boston politics, becoming the first African American voted into an at-large seat on the City Council in 1968. He served on the council until 1971, launching an unsuccessful mayoral bid that year. After his defeat, he added another first to his already impressive résumé, becoming the first black to hold a state cabinet post when he was named secretary of communities and development under Governor Francis W. Sargent.

Those seeking more information on this weekend’s celebration are asked to call 718-623-6040 or 508-316-0235, according to a family statement.