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Direct Action and Desegregation (1960-1965)

The emergence of the student movement and its use of nonviolent direct action as a tactic to gain various citizenship rights are key factors that defined this phase. In addition to direct action, the students' collective leadership style and their focus on encouraging group-centered leadership among the grassroots of the city were distinctive. Tensions existed among new student activists, some of the younger adult leaders, and the movement's "old guard. "However, at pivotal moments, these groups closed ranks and, using the new direct action tactics along with the old tactics of negotiation and litigation, pushed for the desegregation of businesses, schools, housing, and health care facilities in Atlanta.

African American power center shifts

Although the Atlanta University Center (AUC) had always played a vital role in the city's civil rights activities, Auburn Avenue had been the center of power. In the early '60s, however, the focus of power shifted symbolically from Auburn Avenue to the city's Historically Black Colleges and University, as a new generation of leaders with new tactics rose up to share the mantle of civil rights movement leadership.

The shift in the balance of local leadership also was played out in institutions of the city. For example, it is significant that while the Butler Street YMCA in the Auburn Avenue community on the east side had been the black "city hall" of local movement activities, Paschal's Restaurant and Frazier's Café Society — both eateries located on the west side on Hunter Street near the AUC — became meeting places for local and national civil rights strategy sessions. Such sessions were increasingly led by students like Julian Bond, Lonnie King, Herschelle Sullivan, Carol Long, and Ruby Doris Smith, who exemplified the desire to make leadership more inclusive than was the case among the Auburn Avenue elite. Indeed, the tactic of direct action required the involvement of a larger group of people than did the backroom negotiations of past eras. The students outlined their goals and strategies in "An Appeal for Human Rights," which was published in the Atlanta papers on March 9 and in the New York Times in the winter of 1960. Later in 1960, AUC students, supported financially by the Empire Real Estate Board and the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, established their own movement newspaper, The Atlanta Inquirer, to counter the conservative stance of the Atlanta Daily World newspaper, which had opposed the students' direct action tactics.

Such efforts demonstrate that Movement leaders fully understood the power of the black and white media to either garner widespread support for the goals of the movement or galvanize opposition against them. Support came from some unexpected places. Almost one hundred years before, Henry Grady, editor of The Atlanta Constitution advocated the disfranchisement and oppression of African Americans. Now, in the 1960s politically moderate Constitution editor/publisher Ralph McGill often used his daily column to urge racial tolerance and the inevitability of desegregation.

A small group of southern white liberals contributed to African Americans’ fight for civil rights as well. For example, Georgia novelist Lillian Smith, who had spoken out against segregation since the 1930s, praised the nonviolent tactics of the civil rights movement in her 1964 non-fiction book Our Faces, our Words. Frances Pauley had been an advocate of racial desegregation since the 1940s when she joined the Georgia League of Women Voters. In the 1960s she worked for school desegregation and as executive director of the Georgia Council on Human Relations, she encouraged interracial organizing. The efforts of older white liberals provided a precedent for the involvement of young white students in the Atlanta Movement.

Students begin to lead

The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) was established on April 15-17, 1960 at Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina. Under the guidance of SCLC's Executive Director Ella Jo Baker the organization provided a way to harness the energy and idealism of black and white youth (Mueller, 1993; Carson, 1981). SNCC held its first conference at the Atlanta University Center on October 14-16, 1960. One hundred and forty delegates from 46 protest centers in the South attended the meeting. Among those delegates were 80 black student leaders and white student leaders such as Constance Curry, director of the United States National Student Association's Southern Project headquartered in Atlanta. Clayborne Carson wrote about the conference: "SNCC gained permanent status, and its leaders became increasingly confident of their ability to formulate the future course of the movement. The conference also revealed a general trend in the protest movement toward a greater emphasis on political issues than on the religious ideals." (Carson, 29)

The October 19, 1960, mass sit-ins at lunch counters of Rich's Department Store and seven other Atlanta department stores was one of the major actions of the student leaders. It was carried out under the auspices of Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR). Students received advice from community leaders, such as Whitney Young, Jesse Hill, and Leroy Johnson, as well as AUC professors Howard Zinn, Robert Brisbane, and the Rev. Samuel Williams. Martin Luther King, Jr. and students were arrested as they demonstrated outside Rich's. King was transferred to Reidsville State Penitentiary. In the days after these arrests, John Wesley Dobbs and other movement elders, who had initially criticized the use of direct action tactics, joined the students' demonstration at Rich's.

Direct action has an impact

The political implications of the demonstrations and incarcerations were understood and counted on by the student leaders. Among other things, direct action was intended to be an object lesson for the country, a way to instruct America about the contradictory nature of denying basic civil and human rights to Americans solely because of the color of their skin. As was expected, the sight of nonviolent black protesters being jeered by crowds of hostile whites flew in the face of Hartsfield's carefully crafted image of Atlanta as "the city too busy to hate." Accordingly, the presidential candidates in the 1960 election were invited to respond to the arrest of Dr. King in particular. Although presidential candidate John Kennedy did not publicly request that Martin Luther King, Jr. be released from Reidsville, he did telephone and speak with Dr. King's wife, Coretta Scott King. This gesture was a basis for Kennedy's campaign description of him as the "candidate with a heart." Bobby Kennedy made a strong plea to Judge Oscar Mitchell for King's release and the following day, he was let go. Republican candidate Richard Nixon ignored the situation. The intended instructive dimension of the demonstrations was shown when small groups of white students from Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, and Agnes Scott College showed their support for COAHR by demonstrating against segregation. (Harmon, 141) Very soon, hundreds of white students from the North and South would become involved in direct action initiatives of SNCC, SCLC and other movement organizations. Veteran black leaders supported the student sit-ins and boycotts by initiating negotiations with the Mayor Hartsfield and white business leaders of the city.

A Christmas season of significant financial loss for white merchants, because of a boycott by the black community, demonstrated the economic clout of African Americans in the city. In May 1961, the seventh anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, COAHR students also filed a lawsuit in an attempt to spur the end of segregation and racial discrimination in all recreational facilities and public buildings operated by the city of Atlanta. By September 1961, a number of white merchants desegregated their lunch counters and restaurants, and in 1962, a federal district court ordered the desegregation of the city’s public pools and parks. (Harmon, 144-148)

Desegregating education

The desegregation of Atlanta's public schools went through several stages in the early '60s, which epitomized the gradualist approach to dealing with controversial racial issues and which formed the basis for desegregation efforts in subsequent years.

After a federal court order in 1959 demanded that Atlanta's public schools be integrated immediately, Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver recruited an elder member of Atlanta's white business elite, John Sibley, to head the General Assembly Committee on Schools, which became known as "The Sibley Commission." In 1960, the commission issued a report after conducting public forums around the state to gauge the will of the people. In reality, a primary effect of the commission's work was to stall for time as the governor sought ways to avoid the quagmire that would be created if he followed the dictates of state law and shut down public schools rather than integrate. Personally, Vandiver never wavered in his condemnation of desegregation, calling it "the most overriding internal problem ever to confront the people of Georgia in our lifetime." (Henderson & Roberts, 148)

Organizations like the NAACP, the white group Help Our Public Education (HOPE), and the biracial coalition Organizations Assisting Schools (OASIS) advocated finding ways to desegregate so that public schools could stay open. On the other hand, many segregationists advocated mass resistance and even the closing of public schools rather than integrating them. Sibley's goal was to devise a plan to "establish a system of education within the limitations of the Supreme Court decision, yet one which will secure the maximum segregation possible within the law." Echoing ideas from a proposal by HOPE, Sibley created a plan that satisfied many. The report proposed that the state save separate schools by permitting token integration and giving local school systems the right to decide whether they would integrate. Specifically the report suggested: (1) a freedom of association amendment be added to the state constitution to guarantee each student the right to transfer schools or receive tuition credit for private school if that student's school was forced to integrate; (2) a second constitutional amendment to offer each community an opportunity to choose for itself through a local election what to do when faced with the prospect of desegregation; (3) legislation for tuition grants if a student wanted to transfer from a desegregated school or if a local school system decided to close rather than integrate. Sibley adhered to the letter if not the spirit of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, craftily noting that the Supreme Court did not order the states to integrate their schools, it simply prohibited them from maintaining laws that demanded schools be racially segregated. (Roche, 162-166)

The integration of the University of Georgia by Atlantans Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes early in 1961, however, led the state legislature to strike down its school segregation law and laid the foundation for efforts to desegregate the Atlanta elementary and secondary schools. In the spring of 1961 the city's school system received 133 requests for black student transfers. Only 10 were accepted, and by that fall only nine African American students were allowed to transfer to previously all-white schools. A decade would pass before a court ordered "majority to minority" desegregation plan would take effect.

Disagreement about whether to bus students to achieve integration would rage in the early 1970s. An agreement struck between NAACP President Lonnie King and the Atlanta Board of Education called "the second Atlanta Compromise" allowed extremely limited busing in exchange for hiring a black superintendent and more African Americans in top administrative positions. In time this measure and the movement of whites in large numbers out of communities when African Americans began to move in, would result in the re-segregation of primary and secondary schools; most schools in the Atlanta Public School System would then contain a predominantly African American student population.

Voter registration and other efforts advance

In the early 1960s, Atlanta student leaders and the SCLC continued the fundamental civil rights imperative of voter registration — particularly in underserved areas like Vine City. This period also is marked by the coalition of young and elder activists to achieve the desegregation of health facilities and middle class residential areas in Atlanta. COAHR and the NAACP backed the efforts of physician Asa Yancey, dentist Roy Bell, and a cadre of other African American health professionals as they fought to desegregate Grady Hospital. They were joined by white supporters, such as longtime activist Eliza Pachall, executive director of the Atlanta Council on Human Relations.

Formally united as the Citizens Committee for Better City Planning (CCBCP), "old guard," young adult, and student organizations protested the Peyton Road wall, erected by Mayor Ivan Allen to deter African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods in southwest Atlanta. CCBCP successfully demonstrated, negotiated, and litigated for the desegregation of these neighborhoods.

To address issues of economic empowerment during this period, SCLC established Operation Breadbasket, which combined direct action tactics with the negotiation tactics of the previous years to secure jobs for black women and men. Advised by SCLC co-founder Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), Martin Luther King, Jr. established relationships with labor organizations. Such relationships laid the foundation for SCLC's emerging agenda to empower all segments of the country's diverse work force. In 1961, SCLC also took over the work of the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) originally developed by Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, Esau Jenkins, and Myles Horton at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. Under the leadership of Septima Clark and Andrew Young, the CEP became the SCLC's program for politicizing and empowering the black masses through instruction in community organizing, black history, literacy, and voting rights. (Morris, 236-239)

In previous periods black voting power was used to influence white candidates, rather than to challenge the white power structure. Now, as a result of state district reapportionment which empowered black voters, African Americans became viable candidates for the state legislature and won elections. In 1962, Leroy Johnson won a seat in the State Senate, making him Georgia's first African American state senator since Reconstruction. In 1965, a record 11 African Americans were elected to the state legislature, including Grace Towns Hamilton, Ben Brown, and Julian Bond (of SNCC). White members of the House of Representatives refused to seat Bond, claiming that he was un-American because of his statements against the Vietnam War. Bond ran for office and was elected three times. The House voided Bond’s election after each victory. It would take a federal court order to finally seat him in 1967. The episode was eerily reminiscent of the efforts of white legislators to keep black legislators out of office during Reconstruction.

Student leaders play a national role

Student leaders' local organizational efforts provided a foundation for their involvement in two of the premiere national civil rights activities of this era — the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1964 Freedom Summer voter education and registration drive in Mississippi.

Although veteran and student leaders had united to combat local issues in Atlanta, the experience of John Lewis at the March on Washington demonstrated the schism between the perspectives of the "old guard" and the "new guard" of the movement. Lewis, the 23-year-old national director of SNCC, was forced to change his speech to the nation because it was perceived as too militant. Yet, soon after that, the passage of the 1964 Voting Rights Act affirmed the successes of the aggressive direct action approach to voter education and registration of the Mississippi Freedom Summer. Despite that success, the failed attempt of the bi-racial delegation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to unseat that state's all-white delegation at the 1964 Democratic Convention had a far-reaching effect on Atlanta's young activists. John Lewis has said they realized that "when you play the game and go by the rules, you still can lose…in a sense we were naïve to go on believing that somehow the Democratic Party in 1964 would have unseated the Mississippi regular Democrats." (Carson, 127)

Violence always a threat

The murders of four young African American girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Church in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 15, 1963, demonstrated the ruthlessness of the champions of white supremacy and stunned all in the movement. In 1965, the white backlash against African American activism continued during the Selma to Montgomery March led by Atlantans such as Hosea Williams of SCLC and Worth Long of SNCC. There, the nonviolent marchers were violently attacked by police.

In the wake of such brutal attacks on nonviolent protesters, this period ended with a call for Black Power and for Black Separatism that was heeded and institutionalized in Atlanta during the next phase of the movement.


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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.