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
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
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
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).
held its first conference at the Atlanta
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
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)
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.
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)
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
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)
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.
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
early 1960s, Atlanta student
leaders and the SCLC continued the fundamental civil rights imperative of voter
registration — particularly in underserved areas like Vine
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.
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
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
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.
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,
Violence always a threat
The murders of four young African
American girls in the bombing of the Sixteenth
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.
Top of page | Works Cited
This story of Atlantas 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.