Atlanta History Center

from the Atlanta History Center

On February 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T students entered a Woolworth store, sat down at the lunch counter to be served, and changed the course of history.  Their simple act of nonviolent, direct action launched a movement that helped end segregation and pave the way for civil rights legislation in 1964.  In Atlanta, the roots of racial discrimination and inequality were buried deep. Many African Americans were not registered voters, received poor education, lived in sub-standard housing, worked in menial jobs with inadequate access to health care, and suffered under the dual strains of Jim Crow laws and police brutality.   Young African Americans hoped to change their situation but were not willing to adhere to the conciliatory philosophies of their elders in the Civil Rights Movement. They did not want to bargain for the rights and privileges that were legally theirs. Lonnie C. King, a Morehouse College student, took note of the actions in Greensboro and convened students from the colleges and universities that comprised the Atlanta University Center: Atlanta University, Clark College, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, Spelman College, and the four seminaries represented in the Interdenominational Theological Center. On March 15, 1960, students began a series of protests across the city of Atlanta that lasted for more than four years.   This exhibition tells the story of a group of Atlanta students who quickened the pace of the Civil Rights Movement, altered the course of history, and extended the legacy of struggle and determination for freedom of African Americans. 
In post-World War II Atlanta, black leaders chose not to directly challenge the system of segregation known as Jim Crow, but instead to focus on voter registration and political unity. Their accomplishments, while significant, did little to quell the unrest that lay beneath the surface in the city’s black community.

Incremental change through voter registration appeared in 1948 when Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield approved the hiring of eight black police officers, thus desegregating the city's police force.

Atlanta featured a well-connected network of African American business and civil rights elites. Along with north-side whites, they were prominent figures in Atlanta’s most powerful political coalition. Sitting on the couch (right to left) is businessman Clayton Yates, Atlanta Daily World publisher Cornelius A. Scott, and an unidentified man. Sitting behind the couch moving clockwise is real estate developer Walter Aiken; unidentified; attorney A.T. Walden; realtor John Calhoun; Atlanta School of Social Work President Forrester Washington; unidentified; Atlanta University President Dr. Rufus Clement; unidentified; and Atlanta Life Insurance executive Eugene Martin. The remaining are unidentified.

The Atlanta Negro Voters League was a bipartisan group led by A.T. Walden, a Democrat, and John Wesley Dobbs, a Republican. The group sought to leverage black political power by unifying the black vote in local elections.

To achieve their ends, the Atlanta Negro Voters League invited candidates to speaker forums and issued candidate endorsements. Over the course of the league’s existence, from 1949 to 1965, this source of political power secured victory for their candidate in every mayoral election.

Civil rights sit-in demonstrations led by college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, galvanized Atlanta students in February 1960.  Morehouse College senior Lonnie C. King led the effort by Atlanta University Center students against racial segregation and social and economic injustice.  Their efforts garnered the support of most members of the black community, including the presidents of the Atlanta University Center schools and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  The student-led coalition of Atlanta University Center students, black business leaders and clergy, and white citizens was successful in forcing the hand of Atlanta’s white business and political leaders to end the practice of segregation in public facilities.  In doing so, the members of the Atlanta Student Movement not only advanced their goal of social equality, they thrust the city of Atlanta and the South into the mainstream of American life. 

An Appeal for Human Rights was a bold declaration of solidarity with the rapidly flourishing student sit-in movement and Atlanta’s beleaguered African American community. In a clear and eloquent statement, Spelman College Senior Rosyln Pope and her co-authors presented a series of demands that grabbed the attention of the highest authorities in the state of Georgia. Published March 9, 1960, in the Atlanta Constitution, the Atlanta Journal, and later in the New York Times, the document precipitated a turbulent struggle for change.

Beginning in March, 1960, students orchestrated sit-ins at downtown Atlanta lunch counters and cafeterias, most notably restaurants at Rich’s Department Store.

To express solidarity with the students, Reverend William Holmes Borders led more than a dozen of Atlanta’s prominent African American clergy, business leaders, and politicians, in endorsing the student actions. The publication of their signed support in the Atlanta Daily World was notable due to the paper’s opposition to the tactics of the students.

Students demonstrated at Rich’s and several other downtown stores on October 19. Dozens of protestors were arrested, including Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

King refused bail, explaining that his decision to choose imprisonment was consistent with the philosophy of the movement in which he was engaged. Matters were complicated significantly when King’s lawyers were notified he would be prosecuted for a misdemeanor traffic charge issued in May. This resulted in King facing an extended and potentially dangerous sentence in the state penitentiary for violating the terms of his earlier arrest. The event became entangled in the fall presidential election when aides to Senator John F. Kennedy suggested he place a call of sympathy to Coretta Scott King. Republican nominee Richard Nixon demurred on the King case.

In a stunning reversal, the judge assigned to the case changed his mind and ordered King released on bond. Upon hearing the news of Kennedy’s intervention, many of Atlanta’s black Republicans switched allegiance and cast their presidential votes for the Massachusetts senator.

In October, 1960, Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield called for a thirty-day halt in demonstrations to give merchants time to work out an agreement with the students. Negotiations stalled and students resumed their efforts as the Thanksgiving holiday arrived. Protests against segregated eating establishments continued until September 1961 when seventy five Atlanta establishments opened their lunch counters to blacks.

Having won concessions in 1961 from white business owners to desegregate lunch counters, student activists turned their attention to Atlanta’s restaurants and hotels, most of which remained segregated. Beginning in the spring of 1963, COAHR, in cooperation with SNCC and a small group of sympathetic whites, conducted sit-ins at local restaurants throughout the city, including Leb’s, a sandwich shop on Luckie Street owned by Charlie Lebedin.

Students heightened their activities to push for complete desegregation of public accommodations and advocated similar reforms in the areas of employment, education, housing, and health.

Beginning in November 1961, Morehouse student Charles Black led demonstrations protesting the lack of black health care workers at Grady Memorial Hospital and the unacceptable conditions for black patients at Hughes Spalding Pavilion. Though the majority of patients at Grady were black, the hospital did not allow black physicians on its professional staff and barred black students from its technical schools. Grady hospital initiated token desegregation in 1962, but received a court order to fully desegregate its facility in 1965.

Passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed segregation in restaurants engaged in interstate commerce, forcing Atlanta’s white restaurants to open their doors to black customers. One of the last holdouts was Lester Maddox's Pickrick Restaurant. . Maddox later rode a wave of resentment and anger over the advancement of the Civil Rights Movement to win election to the Georgia governor’s office in 1966.

The Atlanta Student Movement helped bring about significant legislation outlawing racial segregation in schools and public facilities, as well as discriminatory voting practices.  This legislation and the determined effort of individuals led to greater political participation and enhanced economic opportunities for some African Americans in Atlanta.  Many student leaders gained valuable political experience as a result of their participation in the Atlanta Student Movement.  The movement also benefited the city of Atlanta and the region.  No longer burdened with the stigma of segregation and overt racism, the Southeast was presented with economic opportunities that otherwise would not have been available.

Julian Bond’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement began during his junior year at Morehouse College in 1960 when he helped organize the All-University Student Leadership Group (later named the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He remained with SNCC until 1965 when he won a seat representing the city of Atlanta in the Georgia General Assembly. After his election, the assembly refused to seat him due to his public opposition to the Vietnam War. Bond was elected to serve his district three times and each time the legislature denied him his seat. In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled these actions unconstitutional and Bond was seated the following year. In 1971, Bond returned to Morehouse where he completed his degree.

Former Morris Brown student Fred Bennette, Jr. became an advisor to Governor Jimmy Carter and served on Andrew Young’s mayoral staff.

African Americans gained more social and political influence in cities like Atlanta where there was a strong push for civil rights. This was demonstrated by an increase in the number of African Americans who became politically active in the 1960s and 1970s, including veterans of the Atlanta Student Movement. Among them were Morehouse alumni Benjamin Brown who represented Atlanta in the Georgia General Assembly beginning in 1966.

The election of Maynard Jackson as the first African American mayor of a large Southern city was another victory for the Civil Rights Movement. Though Jackson was never an active participant in the movement in the 1960s, his candidacy electrified young and aspiring blacks in Atlanta. His first two terms as mayor, 1974-1982, was marked by the expansion of the Atlanta airport, the development of a rapid transit system, and an often contentious relationship with many in the white business community. During his third term of office, 1990-1994, Atlanta was selected as the site for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Credits: Story

Curator: Paul Crater, Vice President, Research Services, Atlanta History Center

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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