On the surface, the South in the 1950s seemed at peace. But in the five years between the Montgomery boycott and the historic sit-ins of 1960 there were sit-ins in sixteen cities. Like so many acts of resistance that take place all the time in this large country, they did not get national attention; the media, like the politicians, do not take note of rebellion until it is too large to be ignored.
At Spelman College, at Morehouse College, at the other four Negro colleges of the Atlanta University system in those years, all appeared to be quiet, and looking at the surface of things, it seemed as if it would always be that way. One of the important things I learned at Spelman is that it’s easy to mistake silence for acceptance.
At the beginning of February 1960, on radio, on television, in the press, the news came that four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, had occupied stools at a Woolworth lunch counter and refused to move, and that similar “sit-ins” were spreading quickly to other cities in North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee—then Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, and Texas.
In Atlanta, Julian Bond and another Morehouse student, football star Lonnie King, went into action. They contacted students from the other black colleges connected with Atlanta University—Spelman, Clark, Morris Brown, the Theological Center—and began making plans.
The college presidents, hearing of this, took steps to cool the militancy of the students. They wanted to avoid sit-ins, demonstrations, picket lines. They suggested instead that the students take out a full-page advertisement in the Atlanta Constitution outlining their grievances. To encourage this, the presidents promised they would raise the money for the ad.
The students accepted the offer but secretly decided that the ad would be used as a springboard for direct action. The Spelman student president, Roslyn Pope, a student of mine who had become a friend of the family, came to the house one day asking to use our typewriter.
The year before, just after her return from a scholarship year in Paris, she and I had been arrested together as I drove her off-campus one evening to her parents’ home in Atlanta. Flooding my car with their searchlight, two policemen ordered us into their patrol car.
“Why are you arresting us?” I asked. (Roslyn was silent. I imagined her measuring the moral distance between Atlanta and Paris.)
“What’s disorderly about our conduct?”
Smacking his flashlight into his palm, he said, “You sitting in a car with a nigger gal and asking me what’s disorderly conduct?”
We spent much of the night in jail, in separate lockups—each a large communal cell harboring a bunch of hard-luck characters of all ages and conditions. (Jails were doubly segregated, by sex and by race.) When I asked to make a phone call—the arrested person’s sacred right, in the mythology of American justice—the guard pointed to a dilapidated pay phone in the corner. I had no change, but a fellow prisoner offered a dime. The coin dropped. The phone was dead. I looked down—the wires had been severed. I held the two ends together with one hand, dialed with the other, and managed to reach Don Hollowell, a young black lawyer whose bold demeanor in court I had admired. He came in the early hours of the morning and got us out. The charges were later dropped.
Visiting us now, a year later, Roslyn Pope was working on the first draft of the statement planned by the student leaders. She was an English major, a fine writer, and we could see immediately that it would be an extraordinary document.
It appeared March 9, 1960, dramatically, on a full page of the Constitution under a huge headline, “AN APPEAL FOR HUMAN RIGHTS,” and it created a sensation:
We … have joined our hearts, minds, and bodies in the cause of gaining those rights which are inherently ours as members of the human race and as citizens of the United States.…
We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are already legally and morally ours to be meted out to us one at a time.… We want to state clearly and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate, in a nation professing democracy and among people professing Christianity, the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is living today in Atlanta, Georgia.
The appeal went on to catalogue very specifically the wrongs committed against black people by the system of segregation in education, jobs, housing, voting, hospitals, concerts, movies, restaurants, law enforcement. It concluded with words that for the students were a code forecasting their plan of action: “We must say in all candor that we plan to use every legal and nonviolent means at our disposal to secure full citizenship rights as members of this great democracy of ours.”
The governor of Georgia, Ernest Vandiver, was furious. The appeal was “an anti-American document … obviously not written by students.” Furthermore, the governor said, “it does not sound like it was written in this country.”
Five days later, my wife and I were at a student party when I was drawn aside and told of the plan: at eleven o’clock the next morning, hundreds of students would sit in at ten cafeterias in downtown Atlanta. They wanted me to telephone the press just a few minutes before eleven, so as not to tip off the police.
The next morning, at about ten o’clock, six Spelman students came to our house on campus to borrow our car. They needed it, they said, smiling, “to go downtown.” I waited until exactly eleven o’clock to make the call. I could hear the editor on the other end of the telephone calling out assignments to reporters as I gave him the names of the cafeterias.
It was a beautifully organized action. Several hundred students had gone downtown, in small groups, to different cafeterias, and at the stroke of eleven, they took seats and refused to move. Seventy-seven were arrested, including fourteen students from Spelman. Of those fourteen, thirteen were from the Deep South—places like Bennettsville, South Carolina, Bainbridge, Georgia, and Ocala, Florida—the Faulknerian small towns of traditional Negro submissiveness.
Among the “Spelman girls” arrested was another of my students, Marian Wright. A photo that appeared all over the country shows Marian sitting quietly behind bars, reading C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters.
The students were released on bail, charged with multiple counts of conspiracy, breaching the peace, intimidating restaurant owners, and refusing to leave the premises. The possible prison sentences for each added up to ninety years. But the rush of events in Atlanta and the South soon overwhelmed the system, and their cases were never brought to trial.
It was the beginning of an assault on racial segregation in Atlanta—and also on the long tradition of gentility, silence, and abstinence from social struggle which had marked Spelman College during its seventy-five years of existence. The “Spelman girls” would not be the same. Demonstrations, boycotts, and picketing would become part of the life of these black young women. And this would cause tremors among the conservative administrators and trustees of the college.
Some of the faculty were also unhappy. A black professor of political science wrote a letter to the Atlanta Constitution deploring the students’ actions, saying they were missing their classes and hurting their education. To me, they were furthering their education in a way that could not be matched by a dozen courses in political science.
Marian Wright, in the midst of all that followed the sit-ins, walked into our apartment on campus one day carrying a notice she was about to post in her dormitory. Its heading combined perfectly the past and the present of the “Spelman girl.” It read, “Young Ladies Who Can Picket, Please Sign Below.”
(Marian would go on to Yale Law School. She would become the first black woman lawyer in Mississippi, marry civil rights lawyer Peter Edelman, start the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and become a powerful, eloquent voice throughout the nation, declaring for the rights of children and mothers as against the demands of a war economy. Our friendship has continued through those years.)
Our family life in Atlanta was not “normal.” It seemed that there were always meetings of some sort in our apartment on campus, while the kids tried to do homework in their rooms. With the Atlanta school system still segregated, Myla and Jeff were going to all-white schools not far from Spelman.
Roz and I knew that the complications of race in a time of turmoil were a heavy burden for children to bear, and we were proud of how stalwart ours were, Jeff bringing his white school chums back to campus to play with the neighborhood black kids, Myla befriending the first black girl to be admitted to her high school.
We tried our best not to make them feel that they had to be political heroes. But there was no way they could not feel the pressure to “do right” in those tense years in the South, when moral dilemmas presented themselves every day. We made sure not to say anything when they kept their cool distance from the things going on around them, perhaps in defiance of their parents’ intense involvement. But it was good to be surprised every once in a while. In the fall of 1962, during the Cuban missile crisis, with nuclear threat in the air, we were on a picket line in downtown Atlanta, calling for a peaceful solution. Myla was fifteen. Like her mother, she was involved in local theater at that time, and had been cast for the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank. She had been featured in the newspaper publicity surrounding the coming production, and we expected that she would not want to complicate her situation by getting involved in controversial politics.
But that day she suddenly appeared on the picket line. The reporters on the scene crowded around her to get some comment. She simply said her presence spoke for itself.
Roz had immediate rapport with the students and faculty in the black colleges. The Atlanta-Morehouse-Spelman Players, a superbly talented company, enlisted her to join the cast of the musical The King and I, to play the role of the white British teacher of the King’s children.
The role of the King of Siam was played by a tall, powerfully built, very black young man, a Morehouse football player named Johnny Popwell. With his head shaved he looked properly fierce. On opening night, in the famous dance-lesson sequence when the King says, “No, this is not the way Europeans dance,” and Johnny Popwell put his arm firmly around Roz’s waist to dance with her, there was an audible murmur in the audience. In the year 1959 that was a bold theatrical event.
Living in Atlanta those seven tumultuous years, I learned not to trust the Northern stereotype of white Southerners as incorrigible racists. Yankee self-righteousness ignored the depth of race hatred in places like Boston or New York. And everyone is capable of change as circumstances change. The change might only be in response to self-interest, but that is a beginning, leading to deeper changes in thought and behavior.
The self-interest that motivates behavioral change is often based on the simple but inexorable pull of financial gain. For instance, in 1959 the Georgia General Assembly overwhelmingly approved a resolution calling for the impeachment of six justices of the U.S. Supreme Court for overly liberal decisions. Shortly afterward, it refused to pass a resolution banning interracial sports in Georgia. The impeachment resolution cost nothing; the banning of interracial sports would have made it impossible for the Georgia baseball team to remain in the South Atlantic League, and thus would have lost much revenue for the state. Similarly, Atlanta firemen said they would not work if the fire department became racially mixed, but when blacks were hired they stayed on the job.
Another force working for change in race relations has been political power, as when racist politicians, seeking black votes, change their tune. The arch-segregationist Governor George Wallace of Alabama made a startling about-face after the Voting Rights Act became law. In Atlanta, as more blacks voted, Mayor William Hartsfield, a longtime segregationist, began to alter his viewpoint.
Change was evident in the spring of 1960, when the musical company of My Fair Lady came to play in the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium, which had a special section in the balcony for blacks. A half-dozen members of the Atlanta-Morehouse-Spelman troupe decided to attend, but were determined to sit in the main section of the orchestra. Henry West went downtown to buy a group of tickets for the first rows in the orchestra, the best seats in the house.
The actors, including the Othello-like director, J. Preston Cochrane, all elegantly dressed, presented their tickets and swept past the ticket-taker to their seats before he could recover from his surprise. The manager asked them to move; they showed the stubs of their tickets. He said the show would not go on unless they moved. They said they could wait. The other theatregoers were not making a fuss, they pointed out. Indeed, the whites occupying the seats near them had come to see a musical, not to fight the Civil War.
The manager, much upset, went back to his office and phoned Mayor Hartsfield at home to tell him what was happening. Hartsfield thought a moment, then drawled, “The only suggestion I can make is that you dim the lights.” The show went on, and it was the beginning of the end of racial segregation at the Atlanta Municipal Auditorium.
As an atmosphere begins to change, people adapt, discarding long-held habits. A Spelman student told of riding an Atlanta bus the morning after a federal court ruled that the races could no longer be separated on public buses. She watched a black man get on the bus and sit down in a front seat. An indignant white woman demanded that the bus driver move the man. The driver turned. “Ma’am, don’t you read the newspapers?” She insisted that he stop the bus and she hailed a policeman. The policeman boarded the bus, listened to her, and said, “Ma’am, don’t you read the newspapers?”
There have always been Southern whites who, at great risk, pioneered in the movement for racial justice. I was lucky to know some of them: Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee; Carl and Anne Braden, editors of the Southern Courier in Louisville, Kentucky; Pat Watters and Margaret Long, journalists with the Atlanta Constitution; reporters Fred Powledge and Jack Nelson. As the black movement began shaking things up, many others, their sense of outrage long suppressed, were encouraged to take a stand.
What has been accomplished these last few decades by the struggles and sacrifices of people in the civil rights movement in changing the consciousness of both blacks and whites can only be called a beginning. Every day there are stories that show the persistence of racism in this country. But not to recognize or to underplay the movement’s accomplishment is to discourage the new generation from participating in what will be a long, slow struggle, not for equality (that phrase suggests completion), but towardequality.
What took place in Atlanta was a combination of frontal assaults—sit-ins, demonstrations, arrests—and a persistent, stubborn wearing away of the encrusted rules of racial segregation. In that decade we heard the word “revolution” thrown about. To some people it meant armed rebellion. To me it came to mean just such a combination of daring forays and patient pushing-pushing-pushing as I saw in the South, “the long march through the institutions,” as someone described it—not a completed event, but an ongoing process.
As I began to realize, no pitifully small picket line, no poorly attended meeting, no tossing out of an idea to an audience or even to an individual should be scorned as insignificant.
The power of a bold idea uttered publicly in defiance of dominant opinion cannot be easily measured. Those special people who speak out in such a way as to shake up not only the self-assurance of their enemies, but the complacency of their friends, are precious catalysts for change.
I remember driving to the Atlanta airport (much of my truly revolutionary history has consisted of driving to airports) to pick up E. Franklin Frazier, a black man and a world-famous sociologist, author of the classic The Negro Family in America. He had just arrived from France and was coming to speak in the Atlanta University Center.
He was a stocky man of medium height, wearing a jaunty beret. When they refused to serve us a cup of coffee at the airport cafeteria, he said, smiling to the waitress, “This is interesting. Last week I had coffee with the president of France, and this week I’m refused coffee in Atlanta.”
Frazier’s trip to Atlanta caused great excitement. He had been run out of the city as a young man when he published a blistering article on “The White Southerner.” His Atlanta friends remembered him as an irascible, fearless person who refused to cater to white notions of how black people should behave. He smoked cigars, drank whiskey, and used direct, pungent language, as if in a calculated affront to those blacks who, in an effort to assimilate, cultivated the manners of the smart set and the vocabulary of pedants.
His most recent book at the time, Black Bourgeoisie, was a critical, sometimes excoriating look at affluent blacks in the United States and had aroused bitter controversy in the black community. Frazier said that the Negro middle class had borrowed its bourgeois style and traditional religion from the white middle class, which was itself intellectually and culturally barren. Black people should look to their own heritage, he said, create their own culture. I thought of Frazier years later when I listened to Malcolm X.
The lecture hall on the Spelman campus was jam-packed, with people sitting in the aisles, on window sills, in every square foot of space. Frazier was unsparing in his attack on American racism, but also on what he saw as subservience and conservatism among blacks. He denounced those black newspapers and magazines that created a world of “make-believe” in which successful businessmen were the heroes.
It was the job of education, he said, to smash through this make-believe and give black people a realistic picture of themselves and of the world. “Most of our schools are finishing schools for the Negro middle class,” he told the audience that night. “I went to compulsory chapel in college for four years, and I heard nothing in those four years but sugary, sentimental slop!” He was not directing a special attack on his own people, he assured us. “We have never invented any crimes or sins that white people hadn’t already perfected.”
In the question period someone asked, “Why did you write so harshly in Black Bourgeoisie?” His response brought laughter and applause from the audience: “My friend, white people have bamboozled us. Preachers have bamboozled us. Teachers have bamboozled us, and kept us all bamboozled. We need someone to debamboozle us!”
I was struck by Frazier’s willingness to hurl challenges one after the other, like a fearless David, at the Goliath of American racism, not checking first to see if anyone would join him. He had faith that if he spoke truth, however unpopular at first, others would gather around, and ideas first scorned would be more and more accepted. In the years to come, I was much encouraged by his example.
That June the student movement planned a small sit-in at the lunch counter of Rich’s Department Store. There were no stools at the counter itself, but there were tables and chairs where people could sit after they bought their food. Roz and I took the assignment of going to the counter, each buying two cups of coffee and two sandwiches. We sat down at a table. Two black students, John Gibson and Carolyn Long, who had been browsing through records nearby, now sat down with us and we all began to have our meal. Another foursome was doing the same at the other end of the lunch area.
We were asked to leave but we didn’t. The Rich’s managers did not call the police, wanting to avoid public attention to a policy that was becoming more and more embarrassing; they just shut down the lunch counter, put out the lights, and began putting chairs up on tables all around us. A crowd of white shoppers gathered around, muttering angrily that we were preventing them from getting their lunch. More black students, including Lonnie King, joined us at our table. We sat there in the semidarkness, chatting, until the store was about to close, and then we left, our point made.
It took more sit-ins, more arrests, and a boycott of Rich’s by its substantial black clientele, but in the fall of 1961 Rich’s and a number of other restaurants in Atlanta agreed to end their policy of racial segregation. What had seemed fixed could change, what had seemed immovable could move.