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Retrenchment and Redirection (1950-1959)

During this phase, the leadership of the civil rights movement in Atlanta had four major concerns: (1) maintaining black voter strength in the face of the state government's efforts to discredit the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); (2) addressing school desegregation issues; (3) obtaining housing for Atlanta's growing African American community; and (4) desegregating the city's public transportation. The tactics of gradualism — backroom negotiations, compromise, as well as litigation — were the primary means of achieving social change. Unlike the previous era in which African Americans invited Atlanta's white leaders to clandestine meetings, white leaders now just as often asked black leaders to such meetings. In effect, whatever tactical advantage Atlanta's black leaders had obtained through proposing such meetings was in danger of being eroded when white leaders adopted that tactic.

NAACP under attack

The climate for organizations active in voter education and registration was tumultuous during this era. Although organizations such as the Southern Regional Council and the Southern Conference Education Fund were scrutinized, throughout the South the NAACP was the major target of investigations. In Georgia, the most vehement attacks were against the NAACP Atlanta Chapter. While Mayor Hartsfield and Atlanta welcomed the NAACP convention in 1951, Marvin Griffin, the State Attorney General under Governor Herman Talmadge, spearheaded the investigations of the NAACP in the city. The attacks continued once Griffin became Governor in 1955.

Taking a cue from the rhetoric and fears of the McCarthy era, one charge was that the NAACP was subversive and influenced by the Communist Party. The organization also was accused of tax evasion. John Calhoun, president of the NAACP Atlanta chapter during this period, was sentenced to a year in prison after refusing to allow the State Revenue Commissioner access to the organization's financial records. Eugene Cook, Attorney General under Governor Griffin, stepped up the assault on the NAACP as the state faced challenges to segregated public schools. Consequently, the state ruled that any teacher affiliated with the NAACP would be permanently banned from teaching in Georgia. (Tuck, 99) Although the Atlanta NAACP remained open, its effectiveness was diminished as it attempted to deal with internal problems as well as the external threats.

Efforts prevent school desegregation

Promises to prevent the desegregation of public schools became a hallmark of the administrations of three Georgia governors during the decade of the 1950s: Herman Talmadge, Marvin Griffin, and Ernest Vandiver. White supremacist Herman Talmadge, Governor from 1948 until 1955, provided the model. When Talmadge was elected Governor, Morehouse College President Benjamin Mays dismissed suggestions of a mass black exodus out of the state: "Negroes have been battling things worse than Talmadge since they hit America," said Mays, later called the 'schoolmaster of the civil rights movement.' "We don't win the fight by running away." (Allen, 14)

Mays was involved in the legal challenge to segregated schools in Atlanta initially launched in 1950, four years before the landmark United States Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruled segregated schools unconstitutional. In 1950, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of 200 African Americans against the Atlanta Board of Education citing blatant inequalities in the city's black and white schools. Predictably, given the times, that suit was unsuccessful.

The intended effect of the Brown decision rendered in 1954 was to end public school segregation, but under Talmadge's leadership, the state passed legislation requiring that public schools be closed and converted to private schools rather than submit to court-ordered desegregation. Yet Talmadge also increased funding for public education by 310 percent during his administration; with some of that allocated to improve African American public schools and salaries of black teachers. Talmadge, however, was not motivated by altruism, but rather by a desire to justify a continuation of the "separate but equal" approach to public education. (Allen, 46) Moreover, despite the funding allocations, black schools in Atlanta still received less money than white schools and black teachers continued to be underpaid.

Under Governor Marvin Griffin (1955-1958), the Georgia General Assembly ruled that any state or local official who spent tax money on an integrated school would be charged with a felony punishable by two years in prison. Governor Ernest Vandiver (1959-1963) was as adamant as his predecessors about maintaining segregated schools in the state. When the U.S. District Court ordered that the state submit a plan for desegregating its public schools by December 1959, Vandiver promised his white constituency that "neither my child nor yours will ever attend integrated schools during my administration — no not one." (Harmon, 111) In the early 1960s, Vandiver would have to bend to avoid violating the Supreme Court ruling, but as will be noted in the discussion of the next phase of the Atlanta movement, he did so in a way that caused largely segregated public schools in Atlanta and other Georgia cities to remain in place until today.

It is important to mention that a number of Atlanta's black leaders did not initially support the Brown decision. Indeed, although the NAACP called a national meeting in the city and issued the "Atlanta Declaration" to urge the petitioning of local school boards throughout the South to desegregate, a lawsuit using Brown as a precedent was not filed in Georgia until Calhoun v. Latimer in 1958.

Interestingly, a group of African American men led by Alfred "Tup" Holmes (whose nephew, Hamilton Holmes, was one of the two students to integrate the University of Georgia), attempted to use the Brown decision to renew their push for desegregating the all-white city golf courses.The lawsuit, Holmes v. Atlanta, originally filed in 1951 for this purpose, was unsuccessful. However, after an appeal to the Supreme Court, the district court was ordered to integrate the city's golf courses in 1955. Ultimately, that suit led to the desegregation of golf courses throughout the nation. (Tuck 98-100)

Increasing residential communities

The pattern of behind-the-scenes negotiations and compromise by the city's black and white leaders helped structure initiatives to increase the number of residential communities for Atlanta's growing African American population during this period. Although job opportunities for African Americans in white-run businesses and government agencies remained limited, some of Atlanta's largest companies such as Lockheed and Scripto had begun to hire black assembly line workers. These employees joined the business women and men of the east side's Auburn Avenue and the west side's Hunter Street (now Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) communities, along with school teachers, ministers, postal clerks, and porters, to comprise a strong black middle class in the city. These workers needed more and better housing. After World War II, African Americans represented more than a third of Atlanta's population, noted historian Harmon, but were crowded into just 10 percent of the developed residential land in mostly sub-standard housing. During the 1940s and 1950s, African Americans who defied the city's tradition of residential segregation by moving into or near white communities were generally met by threats, physical confrontations, bombs, and cross burnings.

As early as 1946, the Atlanta Urban League, under Grace Towns Hamilton, had spearheaded the establishment of the Temporary Coordinating Committee on Housing (TCCH). This committee, which represented the formalization of the negotiation tactic used to spur social change in the city, set the agenda and tone for all subsequent efforts to solve the housing situation within the framework of segregation. This committee of representatives from the city's black and white businesses, social agencies, and government, outlined a plan for identifying and purchasing land for new African American communities, arranging construction of housing on the land, and implementing the program.

By 1952, the General Assembly followed the Urban League's lead by establishing the Metropolitan Planning Commission (MPC), which identified areas in Atlanta on which to build African American housing. Unlike the Urban League's TCCH, however, the MPC was all white. That same year, Mayor Hartsfield established the biracial, but predominantly white, West Side Mutual Development Committee (WSMDC) to devise a way to increase black residential areas in existing communities on the west side with minimal racial upheaval. The WSMDC negotiated an agreement between African American realtors in the Empire Real Estate Board and the real estate committee of the Chamber of Commerce to designate residential areas that would undergo racial transition — from all-white to all-black. The Mozley Park neighborhood, a white community that had been an area of strong resistance to integration, became a test area of sorts for this racial reshuffling. Remarkably, through swift, systematic buy-outs of homes in Mozley Park by white realtors and immediate purchases of the homes by African American families through black realtors, 737 homes in this community changed hands between 1954 and 1955. A number of African Americans resented the maintaining of segregated communities and many whites initially balked at giving up their homes. There also were frequent retaliatory bombings of African American homes in formerly white communities throughout the decade. (Harmon 63-66) Nonetheless, the Mozley Park conversion and subsequent community racial transitions were viewed as successes by most of the architects of the plan.

The bombings of African American homes received little attention from the white media in the city. However, the October 1958 bombing of the Temple on Peachtree Street, the major Jewish synagogue in Atlanta, received a great deal of media coverage. It demonstrated that the same hatred and ignorance that fueled violence against African Americans had rekindled vicious anti-Semitism, and could eventually spark brutal attacks on other minorities. Occurring at this particular time, the bombing also indicated that white supremacists were retaliating against the Jewish community because the Temple’s Rabbi Jacob Rothchild publicly supported integration.

Desegregating public transportation

The fight to desegregate public transportation in Atlanta met with less overt hostility but no less formidable opposition. In 1957, in the wake of the successful Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, a group of 100 black Atlanta ministers of the "Law, Love, and Liberation" movement attempted to challenge segregated seating on local public transportation. Rather than staging a mass boycott as had been done in Montgomery, only six of the ministers attempted to board a bus and sit in the area reserved for whites. The six protesters included the Rev. William Holmes Borders, the pastor of Wheat Street Baptist Church on Auburn and one of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s role models. The ministers were arrested on state charges. As planned, the Rev. Samuel Williams, now the head of the city's NAACP chapter, filed a suit in federal court to force the desegregation of Atlanta's buses and trolleys. Two years later, segregated seating on Atlanta's public transportation was declared unconstitutional.

Later in 1957, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Rev. Ralph David Abernathy, and the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, along with civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin, founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in Atlanta. A number of the city's ministers who had united around the issue of bus desegregation joined this organization. Ultimately, the SCLC institutionalized the network of ministers engaged in civil rights activities around the country. Its primary goal was to use nonviolent tactics to help local organizations push for full equality of African Americans.

1950s lead to direct action

By 1959, Martin Luther King, Jr. decided to move from Montgomery, back to Atlanta. The strategies and tactics of nonviolent mass demonstrations and boycotts advocated by King and other leaders of the SCLC paved the way for the next phase of the civil rights movement in Atlanta, the phase in which direct action rivaled the tactics of gradualism.


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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.