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Gradualism and Negotiation (1940-1949)

This discussion of the civil rights movement in Atlanta begins with the decade 1940-1949, for it was during that period that the city's African American leadership systematically created and mobilized a united black electorate to engage in an ongoing battle for social change. In the face of overt racism, discrimination, and hostility against African Americans of the city, black leaders decided that they could best accomplish their goal through gradualism — slow, deliberate steps — rather than by drastic change. Most often, this gradual change was achieved through negotiations between the black leadership and those with influence in the city's white political power structure.

For Atlanta's black leadership, two major issues shaped the beginning of this era: apathy among African American voters and problems with Atlanta's all-white police force. In 1940, African Americans comprised 30 percent of the city's population, but less than five percent of them were registered to vote. John Wesley Dobbs, the African American leader dubbed "the mayor of Auburn Avenue," said of the black community: "We are asleep at the switch." (Pomerantz, 126) The apathy among Atlanta's African American voters in the early 1940s was in large measure a reaction to efforts to disfranchise and terrorize them that started during Reconstruction.

Voting rights undercut

During Radical Reconstruction (1867-1877) almost 100,000 African American men registered to vote in Georgia. These newly franchised Black Georgians elected thirty-two African American men to the Georgia legislature, but white legislators expelled them after only two months. The black legislators were reinstated in 1870, but when Reconstruction ended, state laws were instituted to undercut voting rights guaranteed to African American men by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution (women would not be given the right to vote until 1920 with passage of the 19th Amendment).

A cumulative poll tax instituted in 1877 required that white and black men between 21 and 60 years of age pay a sum of money for every year since their twenty-first birthday, or since the law took effect. While some black men might have had the economic wherewithal to pay the poll tax, it was much more difficult to prepare for the vaguely defined and arbitrarily applied literacy and citizenship requirements of a 1908 state constitutional amendment. In addition to these measures, at the end of the nineteenth century, the GeorgiaGeorgia Democratic Party—the party in control of government in the state—began to prohibit African Americans from voting in state primaries. In the early 1940s, all of these measures continued to severely restrict black voting, and thus black political strength, in Georgia.

The ever-present danger of racial terrorism during the Jim Crow era dissuaded many black Atlantans from using the limited voting rights they had. “Jim Crow” embodied laws and practices upheld segregation and racial discrimination in the South from 1883 until the passage of federal legislation in the mid-1960s. During this time, white hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Columbians physically intimidated and killed African Americans not only for attempting to vote, but also for having economic power and social standing within the community. Thousands of African American women and men throughout the South were lynched, and their murderers were rarely prosecuted. In Georgia, there were 492 racially-motivated murders of African American women and men between 1882 and 1968, according to statistics of the Archives at Tuskegee Institute. That number placed the state second only to Mississippi, where 539 black people are known to have been lynched during the same time period.

Indelibly etched in the collective memory of black Atlantans of the 1940s were recollections of previous acts of racial terrorism. One of the bloodiest was the 1906 Atlanta Riot in which 25 African Americans and one white man were killed. The riot was ignited, in part, by rumors and unsubstantiated newspaper stories about sexual assaults on white women by black men published in the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Journal. But the flames were fanned by the anti-black rhetoric of the Georgia gubernatorial campaign in which future Governor Hoke Smith warned it was "folly for us to neglect any means within our reach to remove the present danger of Negro domination." (Harmon 10)

It was the fear of "Negro rule" that fueled racial terrorism, according to anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells-Barnett. "The real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that in the South he has no rights that the law will enforce," she had written in her pamphlet Lynch Law in Georgia in 1899 after a series of gruesome murders near Atlanta.

Voter indifference persists

Despite the laws and threats of racial violence, for brief periods in 1919 and 1921, leaders such as the Rev. A.D. Williams, head of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s grandfather; community organizer and educator Lugenia Burns Hope; educator Charles L. Harper; and Atlanta Independent newspaper editor Benjamin Davis successfully rallied black voting power to force the city to build Atlanta's first black public secondary school, Booker T. Washington High School. In 1940, another show of African American voting strength defeated a bond for education that would have short-changed black schools in the city. Generally, however, in the years before the burgeoning of the civil rights movement in Atlanta, legal and illegal roadblocks in the path of black voters made them believe the electoral process was not a realistic way for African Americans to acquire civil rights.

In the early 1940s, this attitude worked against efforts such as those of Lugenia Burns Hope's Neighborhood Union and Frankie V. Adams in the Atlanta University School of Social Work as they attempted to improve the quality of life for impoverished black citizens. Even W.E.B. Du Bois, an Atlanta University sociologist and civil rights activist, found it difficult to maintain support during this time as he revived the Atlanta Conferences, in which empirical data on the status and conditions of African Americans in the city was presented as evidence of the effects of racism and segregation. (Du Bois, 325)

African American voter indifference made it difficult to shake Atlanta from its own indifference toward the many inequities faced by African American citizens. But words penned in 1903 by a younger Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk proved prophetic: "Today it makes little difference to Atlanta, to the South, what the Negro thinks or dreams or wills. In the soul-life of the land he is today, and naturally will long remain, unthought of, half forgotten; and yet when he does come to think and will and do for himself — and let no man dream that day will never come — then the part he plays will not be one of sudden learning, but words and thoughts he has been taught to lisp in his race childhood." (66)

Voter interest takes hold

The African American women and men who comprised the leadership of the Auburn Avenue community and the AtlantaUniversity Center called upon their most powerful words and thoughts to end voter apathy during the 1940s. The local branch of the NAACP, the Atlanta Urban League, Atlanta University, as well as a number of women's clubs and African American fraternal organizations engaged in voter education and registration to place the black community in a position to negotiate with the white power structure for a wide range of needed changes. (Harmon, 14-15)

The efforts of these organizations received a boost from the 1944 United States Supreme Court decision Smith v. Allright declaring white primaries unconstitutional. In 1946 the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Primus King v. State of Georgia outlawed Georgia’s white primary. These decisions provided a legal foundation for the voter registration efforts of Atlanta's African American leaders. Two other catalysts for ending black voter apathy during this period were the abolishment of the poll tax and the reduction of the voting age in Georgia from 21 to 18. To organize and direct voter registration efforts, attorney A.T. Walden and Atlanta Daily World Editor C.A. Scott created the Fulton County Citizen's Democratic Club in 1944. Grace Towns Hamilton, executive director of the Atlanta Urban League at the time, initiated demographic surveys of the black community to assist in canvassing efforts.

In 1946, black leaders' determination to build enough voting strength to influence upcoming elections led to the creation of the All Citizen's Registration Committee (ACRC) — a special coalition committee formed under the local NAACP and directed by Atlanta University History Professor Clarence Bacote. Long-standing organizations like the Atlanta Civic and Political League, founded in 1934 by John Wesley Dobbs, and the To Improve Conditions (TIC) Club, established by activist Ruby Blackburn, were reinvigorated by the removal of voting restrictions. The Hungry Club, organized at the Butler Street YMCA under the leadership of Warren Cochrane, was created to provide a forum for political discussions. A range of other organizations and institutions were recruited to engage in voter education and registration. (Tuck, 63)

Under the banner of the ACRC, in the spring of 1946, organizations used a variety of tactics to educate and register eligible African American voters. Churches sometimes designated Sunday worship as "Citizenship Sunday," at which time the minister encouraged the congregation to register and vote. Black labor and civic organizations urged their members to register. Black media — particularly WERD, the first African American commercial radio station, and C.A. Scott's Atlanta Daily World — was used to rally eligible voters. Businesses encouraged their employees to become registered voters. Former Atlanta University Professor George Towns (father of Grace Towns Hamilton) played a vital role in the efforts. African American public school teachers — 82 percent of whom were women — played a significant role in educating students and encouraging adults to vote: "If you can reach the child, you can reach the parent," affirmed teacher/activist Narvie Harris. (Nasstrom, 123) The campaign was so successful that each day crowds of women and men waited hours in long lines outside the Fulton County Courthouse to register to vote. To reduce the crowds, the Registrar's Office agreed to open on Saturdays and even deploy a mobile registration station into black neighborhoods during the week.

Voting power leads to political change

The impact of newly registered black voters was evidenced by the 1946 mid-term election for the Fifth Congressional District seat. Helen Douglas Mankin was the only one of 19 white candidates who sought the black vote, and as a result, she won the election. All of the candidates were invited to meet with black leaders; Mankin was the only candidate who accepted that invitation. As a result, her secret meeting with this constituency became a model for gradualism through negotiation, which characterized the era. Even though the maneuverings of white supremacists would prevent her from keeping her seat in the next election, Mankin's tactics and initial victory provided a template for white politicians who wanted to garner support from Atlanta's black community. Moreover, the well planned and executed get-out-the-vote strategy of black leaders made it clear that the African American electorate was a force to be reckoned with.

Unfortunately, several events threatened to shake African American voting strength in the wake of the Mankin victory. Unbeknownst to the black community in Atlanta at the time, the Ku Klux Klan considered assassinating A.T. Walden for his leadership role in rallying African American voters to support Mankin. But, for unknown reasons, the Klan never carried out the plan. (Allen, 10) Also, just days after the Mankin victory in July 1946, two young African American couples were lynched, with at least 60 bullets fired into their bodies. These murders occurred following an altercation that resulted in the stabbing of a white man by a black man in Monroe, Georgia, just 50 miles from Atlanta. Although the black leadership of Atlanta offered a reward for information about the murders, no one was brought to justice for the crimes. Another potential setback occurred three years later when the state instituted the Voters' Qualification Act in an overt attempt to revive legal barriers to African American voting rights. Under this law, voters had to re-register every four years and correctly answer 30 questions. However, the law was rarely enforced and was finally repealed two years later because more whites than blacks failed the literacy test. (Henderson & Roberts, 88)

In spite of these events, black voting strength was actually recharged at the end of the decade by the formation of the non-partisan Atlanta Negro Voters League (ANVL) led by Dobbs and Walden and supported by organizations such as the Atlanta Urban League led by Grace Towns Hamilton (Harmon, 36)

Voting power leads to change in police department

Atlanta's all-white police department presented the black community with two faces: brutality and indifference. "Police brutality was so familiar," notes historian Stephen Tuck, "that only a particularly gruesome or unusual offense made the front pages of the Black Press." Tuck recounts one instance in which a 16-year-old African American youth arrested for burglary was tortured with a hot iron. (13) Certainly, the fact that many members of Atlanta's all-white police force belonged to the Ku Klux Klan made such brutality acceptable. Police indifference to "black on black crime," as well as their refusal to patrol black neighborhoods, exacerbated the situation. The high crime rate in many of these neighborhoods reflected these problems.

Throughout this period, Atlanta's black leadership sought to deal with these challenges through public demonstrations, voter registration campaigns, and soliciting the tactical support of organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Regional Council. Significantly, a key demonstration was a 1945 march from Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue to the Atlanta City Hall organized by the United Negro Veterans. Eventually, black leaders were able to use the strength of the black vote to bargain with Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield. Hartsfield refused to support the hiring of African American policemen in 1945, saying he would listen when black leaders delivered 10,000 registered voters. The continued strengthening of black voting power and support from some in the white community — even Hartsfield's new Police Chief Herbert Jenkins — spurred the Mayor to push for black police officers two years later. Eight African American police officers finally were hired in 1948. With the help of the African American community, Hartsfield was re-elected in 1949; support from this constituency also would be crucial to Hartsfield's future bids for re-election. (Harmon, 27; Torpy, 2003)

The city's first black policemen could not arrest white suspects and, to avoid racial tension at police headquarters, these officers were initially stationed at the Butler Street YMCA. "But this is still progress," said John Wesley Dobbs, who had been fighting for black law enforcement officers since the 1930s. "And the other will come." (Pomerantz, 164)

Record numbers of black Atlantans registered to vote during the first phase of the civil rights movement, and they wielded their voting power in ways that resulted in positive change for their community. However, these gains were under assault almost as soon as they were realized. The next section of Atlanta's civil rights history explores this ongoing battle.


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This story of Atlanta’s role in the civil rights movement, along with the accompanying timeline and bibliography, were written by Clarissa Myrick-Harris, Ph.D. and Norman Harris, Ph.D. of OneWorld Archives. Readers for this material include Dr. Vicki Crawford of Clark Atlanta University, Dr. Andy Ambrose of the Atlanta History Center, and Brenda Banks of the Georgia Archives. Editorial changes have been made by ARCHE for purposes of length and style.