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Woman at center of Civil Rights Movement celebrates 108th birthday

Leila Williams' restaurant was not only a headquarters for college students, but also a haven for some of the most important civil rights leaders of our time.

ATLANTA — Editor's note: The video above is a story on Ms. Williams from 2019. 

A woman whose restaurant was at the center of the Civils Rights Movement is celebrating a milestone on Saturday. Leila Williams is turning 108.

Williams was born on November 14, 1912, according to her family.

From 1949 until the early 90s, her cooking skills became famous in Southwest Atlanta and her small restaurant on Fair Street --  Leila's Dinette -- gained fame.

“What really stands out in my mind in my memory is her cooking, and actually and how she reached out to so many people,” said Charlotte Webb, her goddaughter.

For more than 40 years, during the most tumultuous times of the Civil Rights Movement, Leila's Dinette not only became a headquarters for college students, but also a haven for some of the most important civil rights leaders of our time.

FLASHBACK: Her restaurant was a haven during the Civil Rights Movement. She's turning 107 years old.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Congressman John Lewis and Reverend Joseph Lowery all dined at the restaurant. 

Rev. Earle Ifill, Williams' pastor, remembered them well.

“All of them came here," he said. "All of them have eaten here at some point or another."

For years after Williams closed the small Dinette, the building remained vacant.

It was then purchased by Keitra Bates. She established a shared kitchen--named Marddy's. Community chefs can prepare their specialties and market them throughout the metro.

But the legacy of Leila's Dinette was always with Bates.

“We were stepping into some very big shoes," Bates said. "That we were stepping into a place that just is hallowed ground for black independence in Atlanta, because it was opened in 1949 and there were not many places we could go and be served with dignity and Ms. Leila created a space where that could happen and so I feel we are continuing that legacy with Marddy's. It was very emotional for me to meet her.”

Williams is currently one of the oldest residents at Glenwood Health and Rehabilitation Center, according to that center's activity director, Niki Malone.

With visitors not allowed to the center due to COVID-19, Malone said that they planned a birthday parade in Williams' honor on Friday, complete with ice cream.

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