As much of a researcher and history buff as I am (or claim to be), I almost let one of Atlanta’s most significant civil rights moments of 60 years ago slip right past me.
I forgot that in 1960, students from Morehouse, Clark College (now CAU), Morris Brown College, Spelman, Atlanta University and the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) created the Atlanta Student Movement.
Thanks to an intergenerational conversation broadcast over Facebook Monday, October 19 and assembled by a small but vocal cadre of former students, the historical episode lit up a slowly dimming light over my now 70-year-old brain and recalled memories which started for me as a 10-year-old fourth grader at Collier Heights Elementary School in Northwest Atlanta.
One Sunday morning, during service at the Union Baptist Church of Southwest Atlanta where I attended and grew up, my Sunday school teacher, Ms. Christine Sparks (Buchanan), a native daughter and rising junior at Clark, rose to speak about a boycott she and several hundred college classmates were participating in against downtown businesses and other establishments which accepted the money we and our parents were spending but refused to allow us to try on clothes, use rest rooms, were often insulted by salespeople and certainly not dine at any of their restaurants or lunch counters. Why? Simple. We were Black, or as we were called in those days Negroes, nigras, coloreds …or worse.
At 10, I had no idea of exactly what was on as I sat in a pew on the front row of the church. But the looks on the faces of my own parents, deacons, ushers, the choir, other ministers in the pulpit and our pastor, Rev James A Wilborn, Senior and the loud applauses Christine was generating with her words was a clear invitation that this “boycott” talk was serious business.
All this was brought back to me during the hour and a half panel discussion featuring three “foot soldiers” of that movement who at the time were students of varying classifications studying and struggling to get their degrees from their respective AU Center institution.
One of them was Dr. Roslyn Pope from Spelman who principally authored the document “An Appeal for Human Rights” which was eventually distributed and read worldwide and spelled out the movements’ aims. Other panelists were Dr. Georgianne Thomas who had just arrived on Spelman’s campus as a freshman as the movement was evolving, Dr Charles Black, a Morehouse junior, a co-leader and founder of the ASM and a former editor for this newspaper, and current AU Center students Zoe Sanders of CAU and Michael McGirt of Morehouse College. Alabama based AME pastor Avelyn Sanders-Swafford moderated the session. Along with Dr. Thomas, she produced a documentary called “Foot Soldiers” in 2018, a reflection of the 1960-64 movement.
As I grew older, became a broadcast-print journalist and a researcher, I began asking questions. How did all this start? That was answered by Black, who said he was approached by Morehouse colleague and football star Lonnie King, who eventually became the point-person for the entire movement. “We both knew each other, him on the football team and me being editor of the student newspaper. He approached me about coming to a meeting at (Morehouse’s) Sale Hall) set up by Julian Bond and Dr. Pope about the situation in Greensboro, NC (four students from North Carolina A&T University had staged a lunch counter sit-in there February 1, 1960). “About 18 to 24 students attended (February 5). We discussed the possibility of doing similar actions in Atlanta.” He further explained that King had asked those not wanting to participate remain silent about the meeting. They didn’t. The leak led to a meeting between King and other proponents with the Atlanta University presidents. Atlanta University president Rufus Clement presided. Their first attempt was to talk us out of doing this because a lot of the funding for the school came from white folk. They were liberals but the (presidents) thought they might be disturbed about this action. They were also concerned about our safety and their obligation to our parents. We were sent there (the colleges) for our education and not for this other stuff. Leave these matters for the NAACP they said. Our attitude was we were not interested in evolutionary change but revolutionary change.”
Clement, who spoke last after the other presidents had-had their “say”, rose to support the students but suggested “we needed to let the public know why we were doing what we were doing”, according to Black. “He suggested we produce a manifesto and they (the presidents) would raise the funds.”
The manifesto, largely written by Pope, was advertised in the three Atlanta daily papers (the AJC morning and evening papers and the Black-owned Atlanta Daily World). The manifesto, called “An Appeal for Human Rights” was later published by the New York Times at no charge. Several other national and international publications ran the document and it was written in the Congressional Record by New York Senator Jacob Javits. “That made it historic,” said Black.
Predictably, it also caught many Blacks and whites as well, particularly Ernest Vandiver, the Governor of Georgia. Initially thought of as a moderate, or at the very least, better that the man he succeeded, Marvin Griffin, a rabid racist, Vandiver condemned the document and said that “no student could have written a document like this” and publicly suggested that it probably originated “in Moscow.” But author Pope said Vandiver did manage to get his foot out his mouth thanks to a daughter who attended a program at a small college in Georgia where Lonnie King was receiving an honorary doctorate. In Georgianne’s documentary, Vandiver is said to have regretted his remarks. “Several of us went with Lonnie to see him receive his degrees, but when we arrived at the school, we were asked to stay on the bus,” said Pope. “Vandiver’s daughter then approached Lonnie and asked him not to mention the incident. She said her father was very unhappy with himself for doing what he did. He never recovered. The incident was actually not mentioned until this program”.
Vandiver’s “cease and desist” order wasn’t followed but the actual protest or “D-Day” for the demonstrations and sit-ins didn’t occur until October 19, 1960 when several hundred AU students marched from the Trevor Arnett Library on campus downtown to Rich’s department store where they broke up into several clusters to visit other locations. Rich’s however, was the principal target. The students had been joined by Dr Martin Luther King, Junior who was initially reluctant because of an “arrangement” he had made with his father, ML King, Senior and several so called “old guard” Black religious and political leaders not to lead or participate in any local demonstrations. “Lonnie convinced King to be arrested with about 53 of us at Rich’s because our movement was losing some steam. We had started in March. It had been going on for a while”. The other jailed students were released, supposedly through an arrangement by then Mayor William Hartsfield who actually supported the manifesto. King was held, however, for violating his so-called probation from a traffic ticket he was issued by police who stopped him in DeKalb County (months before October 19) for having a Georgia license plate on his car but still carrying an Alabama driver’s license (King pastored in Montgomery for 6 years before returning to Atlanta and had simply forgotten to convert his license when he moved back to Georgia. For that, he appeared with his attorney Donald Hollowell before Judge Oskar Mitchell who sentenced him to four months but probated it. Marching with the students and being arrested was deemed a violation of the probation. “King was then re-arrested and taken in shackles to Reidsville Prison (300 miles away) in the middle of the night,” Black continued. “Everybody was afraid for his life (Reidsville was once the home of Georgia’s electric chair). “This was two weeks before the presidential election between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. While the Nixon campaign was trying to figure out what to do about the King arrest, Kennedy’s campaign was persuaded by a Black campaign staffer named Louis Martin to take some action”. First JFK called Mrs. Coretta Scott King, then asked his brother Robert to call Judge Mitchell. Prodded by some white moderates and even Governor Vandiver (likely to atone for his blunderous response to the manifesto), King was released). “The Kennedy campaign published a pamphlet called the “blue bomb” (it was on blue paper) which described the situation and ran quotes from MLK Senior and Junior, Ralph Abernathy and others which offered statements of praise for the Kennedys”, said Black. “It was distributed in every major city with big Black populations. As a result, Blacks who had previously voted Republican switched and voted for Kennedy who won the election, albeit by a slim margin. But if King hadn’t marched with the students on October 19 and been arrested, Nixon would have become president.”
“Just to hear you and Dr. Pope tell these stories in the first person is so powerful,” said Thomas, who participated in the student movement as a Spelman freshman. “I was there but I’m hearing some things I didn’t know. It’s important these stories be told over and over. I am very upset that we start the civil rights narrative in 1965. The 1960s story is seldom told. October 19, 1960 is a lost day in the history of the civil rights program.” “Ours was a movement,” noted Black. “It involved people who were not prepared to go to jail but driving us or making sandwiches or making phone calls and boycotting the stores when we asked them to. And some people put up their homes as collateral to bail us out of jail. Our movement had that kind of moral persuasion that people were willing to do these things to support us even if they themselves were not willing to be directly involved. If you are planning a movement, keep that in mind. Don’t ever expect everybody to do everything you’re prepared to do because it all makes a difference.”
Last updated on October 25, 2020