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Quest for Black Power (1966-1970)

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC)'s attempt to redouble its efforts to increase activism in inner city neighborhoods was an important aspect of this phase. The cornerstone of the period, however, was the radicalization of SNCC through its Atlanta Project, which was an attempt to encourage community control and to fully exploit electoral and economic opportunities. The goals and tactics of groups and individuals involved in this era were far more direct and assertive than ever before.

Community organizing takes on new life

Community organizing for improvement of conditions in Atlanta's African American neighborhoods was not a new phenomenon. However, in the mid-1960s, grassroots leaders emerged and built on that tradition. SCLC fieldworkers such as James Orange and Tyrone Brooks used strategies developed in the organizing of rural black communities to help spur activism and receptivity to SCLC programs within Atlanta's inner city neighborhoods. The voter education, literacy, and black history programs initiated by the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) were viewed as major components in that process. The Voter Education Project (VEP) of the Southern Regional Council supported some of these activities. Later, community organizer Ella Mae Brayboy implemented innovative programs in the city to specifically empower women to deal with the challenges of motherhood as well as overcome spousal abuse and unemployment.

Growth of radicalism

SNCC's Atlanta Project took shape as racial rebellions in the Dixie Hills and Summerhill communities expressed the frustrations of black youth who felt they had not benefited from the civil rights movement. Bill Ware directed the Atlanta Project, and the perspectives and goals he brought to it were a clear departure from the perspectives and goals previously adhered to in the civil rights movement. The Atlanta Project had a Pan-Africanist orientation, that is, those involved in this initiative believed that people of African descent spread throughout the world share a common history, culture, and experience and should work together to bring about positive change in the world. Unlike SCLC, this group did not place a premium on racial integration and began to question the role of whites in black organizations. All of these factors were a departure from the gradualism associated with Atlanta's civil rights history. In time, the Atlanta Project not only radicalized the Atlanta branch of SNCC, but the entire organization. Significantly, it was SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael who picked up Atlantan Willie Ricks' call for Black Power during the 1966 March Against Fear from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi.

The Atlanta Project also provided the basis for attempts to achieve community control in African American neighborhoods. Vine City offered a proving ground for the community control process. Student and neighborhood leaders would first assess the problems in the community -- which might range from inadequate governmental services, poor educational opportunities, a need for economic development, and issues with the police -- and then the community would be organized. The organization's efforts, however, were not limited to the specifics of the community; rather, the Pan-Africanist perspective placed community issues in a global context. The assessment and the organization were then used as a basis to formulate solutions, which were often issued as demands, to various public and private entities that had responsibility for the specific problems. (Carson, 192-198)

The separatist orientation of the Atlanta Project repeatedly ran counter to the national SNCC leadership. Finally, national director Stokely Carmichael fired or suspended the entire Atlanta Project staff. Still, in time, the radicalism initiated in Atlanta permeated SNCC nationally. One of the outcomes of that radicalization was that SNCC provided the foundation for the creation of the African Liberation Support Committee in the 1970s -- groups throughout the country that had the goal of supporting African liberation struggles in countries like Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau.

The reconsideration of the role of whites in black organizations was a natural outgrowth of the nationalist and Pan-Africanist perspective that prevailed during this era. SNCC invited white members to leave its organization and to concentrate on educating white America about the evils of racism. This purge created considerable personal and organizational challenges since many white members of SNCC had literally risked their lives in the cause of civil rights.

Political power grows

The ongoing efforts of Atlanta's black leadership to educate and register black voters were beginning to pay off in this period. As noted above, in 1965, 11 African Americans won election to the Georgia legislature. That same year, businessman Q.V. Williamson became the first African American elected to the Atlanta Board of Aldermen. And, in 1967, Julian Bond was finally seated as a member of the Georgia House of Representatives. It seemed that African Americans in Atlanta had firmly grasped political power.

Assassination of Rev. King and continuing change

Then the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. shook Atlanta and the world in April 1968.  Many questioned the political, social, and economic gains achieved over the past three decades; asking whether they were true victories or just ways to distract and delude African Americans into believing they finally had achieved equality?  

As a new civil rights institution attempted to address such questions, two of the city's oldest civil rights organizations pushed ahead to keep the movement alive. The creation of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change by Coretta Scott King in 1968 in the wake of her husband's death became a mechanism for assessing, preserving, and continuing the legacy of the slain leader and the movement. The NAACP, revitalized by Jondelle Johnson in the early 1970s, took on the media and won a landmark lawsuit against Cox Enterprises which resulted in more African American personalities on television screens and more blacks in jobs behind the scenes. Veterans of the movement who had fought side by side with Martin Luther King, Jr. took the helm of the SCLC and attempted to navigate the organization through a period of mourning. The Rev. Ralph David Abernathy became president of SCLC after King's death. Both the Rev. Joseph Lowery and the Rev. C.T. Vivian also would be crucial to the survival of the Atlanta-based organization and to keeping it relevant to the broad issues of human rights in America.

The political landscape for African Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s held some disappointments and affirmations. The election of Lester Maddox as Governor of Georgia (1967-1971) represented an effort by white supremacists to revive the spirit of segregation in state government. Four years later, however, newly-elected Governor Jimmy Carter (1971-1975) declared that the time for racial discrimination had passed. His administration attempted to nullify vestiges of the image of Georgia as a relic of the "old south" in the realm of civil rights and race relations. The election of Maynard Jackson as Vice Mayor of Atlanta in 1969 bolstered the spirits of African Americans in the city. The election of Jackson as the Mayor of Atlanta in 1973 would make him the first African American mayor in the "deep south" and affirm the fight for black political strength that had been championed for so many years by his grandfather, John Wesley Dobbs. Further affirmation of the power of the black electorate was the 1973 election of former SCLC leader Andrew Young as the first African American Congressman from Georgia since Reconstruction. Although there was still much to achieve, it seemed the 30-year fight for civil rights in Atlanta had not been in vain.


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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.