Joseph Louis Atkins, African-American civil rights activist, educator, and businessman, was born in Jefferson, Texas, on March 6, 1936. He was the son of Willie and Mable Atkins. His family moved to Dallas in 1950, and he graduated from Lincoln High School in 1954, the year the United States Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that segregation of public schools was unconstitutional. Atkins had a keen interest in the decision because his parents, the owners of a plumbing business, belonged to the Dallas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he had joined the NAACP Youth Council of Dallas in 1952 at the age of sixteen. Juanita Craft, one of the city’s leading civil rights activists, also became a major influence on Atkins while he attended high school.
Atkins enrolled at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas, on an academic scholarship in the fall of 1954, but after one year decided to transfer to North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas) in Denton. He had visited the college on a field trip with Juanita Craft and knew that it had a strong reputation in the field of teacher education, which he hoped to enter. Moreover, Denton was near his home in Dallas. Atkins, accompanied by his mother and Craft, sought to enroll at North Texas in June 1955, but school officials rejected his application on the grounds of race. Rather than give in, Atkins and his father went to U. Simpson Tate, the NAACP regional attorney in Dallas, and on Tate’s advice brought a legal action against North Texas. (Atkins was not yet twenty-one, so his father had to file the case.) In December 1955 United States District Court Judge Joe Sheehy ruled in favor of Atkins, primarily on the basis of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and issued a permanent injunction against North Texas’s denying admission to Atkins or other African Americans on the basis of race.
Victory for Atkins brought an end to segregation at North Texas, but rather than wait for the decision, he had enrolled at Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) where he earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Journalism. He served in the U.S. Army from 1959 to 1962 and then became a high school teacher in Dallas. In 1963 he began graduate work in the College of Education at North Texas, where he earned a master’s degree in 1966. Atkins continued to teach high school in Dallas until 1974, when he became a field representative for the Texas State Teachers Association. He worked in that capacity until 1997 and promoted the interests of the state’s teachers. In 1975 and 1977 he served as campaign manager for Juanita Craft in her successful campaigns for a seat on the Dallas city council.
In 1997 Atkins became a realtor with Blair White Real Estate, a position that he held until March 2015, when he joined Joe Atkins Realty, a firm headed by his son. During his career, Atkins served an impressive list of civic groups, including the board of the Dallas African American Museum, the Dallas Police Chief Advisory Committee, and chairman of the Good Street Baptist Church Federal Credit Union. His numerous honors included the “Outstanding Texas Award” by the Texas Legislative Black Caucus (2001), a doctor of humane letters degree from the University of North Texas (2004), and the Texas NAACP 2005 Heroes Award for his service in the cause of civil rights, liberty, and justice.
Joseph Atkins was married twice. His first marriage, to Sylvia D. Boyd in 1967, ended after a year. He married Marjorie C. Manney in 1971, and they had one son. Atkins died of heart failure on July 7, 2015, and was buried in Dallas.