WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN?
A Personal History of the Civil Rights Movement in Five Southern Communities
EPISODE 23: CROW AND MOLASSES
George King, Cliff Kuhn and Steve Suitts with Vertamae Grosvenor
You have to remember that when Atlanta desegregated its schools, you're only talking about 9 students. And there was as much to-do about 9 students as there should have been about 100,000 students. So it was a gradualist process. But even that gradualist process had a traumatizing effect on white people because what it represented for them was the beginning of the end.
SERIES THEME MUSIC: "Will The Circle be Unbroken?"
You are listening to Will the Circle Be Unbroken?, a personal history of the civil rights movement in five southern communities, and the music for those times.
Amid the racial tensions of the post-war South, Atlanta's white leaders promoted their hometown as, "a city too busy to hate". Yet, Atlanta, like many other southern cities, resisted school desegregation for years after the historic 1954 Brown decision.
In both black and white communities, reaction to the Supreme Court's decision was swift and dramatic.
NAACP leader Jondelle Johnson...
It was like I imagine when they had the Emancipation Proclamation and the slaves was free...We've won that victory. That is over and from now on we'll have integrated schools and equal education.
SPEECH: SENATOR JOHN GREER4
Now I'm not a moderate on segregation. I'm a segregationist period. All of us in the state, 99 percent of the people are, but we must face reality and that is that we're under federal court order.
The Supreme Court decision called for school desegregation "with all deliberate speed."
Federal Judge Elbert Tuttle...
JUDGE ELBERT TUTTLE
I don't think it would have made much difference if the Supreme Court said all school districts in the South shall be desegregated no later than the fall term of 1954. I don't think they would have moved any faster. They'd said you make us do it -- and that's what they did. Everyone of them said, "You make us do it."
"Theme from ‘High Noon’"
The Georgia state legislature denounced the Brown decision and quickly passed a barrage of laws designed to challenge federal authority and fight school integration, no matter what the consequences.
The major response in Georgia took place in the legislature where there was developed the policy of massive resistance. This was designed to prevent integration by closing the public schools as a last resort and shifting to a private system. And by 1958, most of the white public seemed to believe their elected officials, who had been telling them that regardless of what the court said, Georgia schools would never have to be integrated.
Former Governor Ernest Vandiver...
SPEECH: GOVERNOR ERNEST VANDIVER4
There is no real sentiment in Georgia for integrating the classrooms of our schools and our colleges and we are the targets, my friends, of destructive forces beyond our borders and the evil effects of which must be neutralized by Georgians acting in concert for their best interest. [APPLAUSE]
That same year, through the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, black parents in Atlanta forced the action by filing a suit challenging the segregated school system. When federal judge Frank Hooper ruled that Atlanta's schools must desegregate by Fall 1960, the scene was set for a showdown.
College professor John Griffin...
Georgia had a law that called for the closing down of the whole system if a child were admitted to any one school within the system.
So if just one black student entered a white school--all the city's schools would be closed--an option many whites preferred. Others saw the matter differently.
We were so horrified by what had happened in Little Rock--so determined that that not happen in Atlanta.
Of course, it was a tremendous number of people--well-meaning people, who said, "You cannot legislate morality." Well, if we hadn't legislated morality, I don't know if we ever would have gotten any.
As the crisis deepened during the winter of '58, a group of liberal white women founded a new organization. HOPE–Help Our Public Education was formed to keep the public schools open. HOPE leaders, Muriel Lokey and Nan Pendergrast explain the group's pragmatic approach...
From the beginning we felt that our best strategy would be to stress the one issue of preserving public schools. And to maintain a neutral position in arguments over integration. We chose not to be a biracial organization but rather to be white people persuading white people. It was seen as a tactical necessity.
My particular job was talking to the Kiwanis and the Rotarians and the Civitans who at that time would never have allowed a black person in their door and probably not allowed anybody who was known to consort with those people. We had 7 children who were in the public schools for at least some part of their career.
And I also was very fortunate in having a grandmother who had been born in Atlanta during the battle of Atlanta and born in the basement because the Yankees were occupying the rest of the house. I exhumed the woman with every speech, because it was terribly important to let people know that you lived here--that you understood the situation.
HOPE adopted many creative tactics to demonstrate white support for keeping the public schools open.
My name is Frances Pauley. I remember once we had a telegram that we blew up until it was about six feet long, you know, about like so and delivered the telegram to the governor with some real pretty sweet looking ladies carrying it.
By the end of '59 we had 20,000 names on a statewide mailing list. And when the legislature convened in January of 1960, the Athens chapter sent an open telegram to the governor with 747 signatures and a few days later HOPE presented a statewide edition with 10,000 names on it. We had pasted them all together and made a big roll.
We were up on the third floor in the Capitol. So over the banister of the rotunda, we dropped the petition down and it goes down, fell down to the first floor. And of course we had all the press and everything taking pictures of it.
"Something’s Gotta Give"
[The Andrews Sisters]
With NAACP lawsuits, new federal court decisions, Decisions, and pressure from hope affirming the necessity for school desegregation, some Georgia politicians began to back away from their public rhetoric. In early 1960, the legislatureappointed a commission to conduct state-wide hearings on the schools. It was headed by prominent Atlanta attorney, John Sibley....
Former governor Ernest Vandiver...
GOVERNOR ERNEST VANDIVER2
Judge Sibley went into each congressional district and had...public hearings and gave everybody that wanted to testify a chance. And so if they were opposed to it, they had a chance to say they were opposed to it.
Do you think it's better to have separate schools for the colored people and the white people or do you prefer having mixed schools?
Well, I tell you, I'm speaking for the group...cause in my church and, the ah...PTA, we prefer our school remain unmixed.
I attended one, one here... I remember Mr. John Sibley was gentle, and courteous and encouraged everybody to say what they thought. Some people said some outrageous things. But mostly it was constructive...
GOVERNOR ERNEST VANDIVER2
It quieted the situation -- it gave the people of Georgia knowledge as to what their options were -- either have no schools or had integrated schools.
And the majority of people that appeared before that hearing said keep them open and segregated.
The Sibley Commission's final report never advocated desegregation per se. It favored plans to enable white children to transfer out of any school where a black child had enrolled.
Vernon Jordan ...
But the Sibley Commission was not in charge of the issue. We were in charge of the issue. And in effect black people were calling the shots, and the white community was having to respond. We had the initiative and it was our call.
"Glory, Glory For Old Georgia"
[University of Georgia Redcoat Band]
Continuing to apply pressure, Atlanta lawyer Donald Hollowell and other NAACP attorneys targeted the state's best-known public school--the University of Georgia. Under the state's massive resistance laws, like any other school, the University would be closed down if black students were admitted. The table was set.
I think that the NAACP was terribly smart when they picked the University of Georgia to make the first case. Because if it was one thing that was close to the hearts of the General Assembly, was the University of Georgia because too many of them were graduates.
Former U.S. Congressman James MacKay...
Donald Hollowell understood Georgia and that football is God! Donald Hollowell said, we gonna test this allegiance to God Almighty. And so the crunch ain't coming in Atlanta. And immediately they said, "Well, you know, we will be disqualified to be in the football conference." Well, I mean, you know, you can't interrupt the football schedule!
In January 196l, when federal judge W. A. Bootle ordered two black Atlantans, Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes, admitted to the University of Georgia--a riot broke out on campus. The school was closed down—Holmes and Hunter were suspended. Then judge Elbert Tuttle ordered the university to re-open with the two students admitted. Governor Ernest Vandiver, going back on his campaign promise reopened the university.
GOVERNOR ERNEST VANDIVER2
I spent a lot of time – prayerful time – on my knees during that period of history, seeking guidance. I could think of nothing worse than a million children out of school and on the streets and what would happen if you closed the schools. I was caught on the horns of a dilemma. Finally, I made a decision and recommended to the legislature that all of the segregation laws be wiped from the books.
Well, I think it turned the tides as far as open schools and"Little Ernie" as we used to call him, Ernest Vandiver, was the governor. He had said never, never, no never and so then he got up and said that the schools would open, and so everybody says all right, now go home and send him a telegram and I said I cannot send him a telegram! It was usually me that was telling everybody else that. Said if he's got to eat crow, at least let him have a little molasses on it. [LAUGHS].
"Mama Said There'd Be Days Like This"
With the University of Georgia Successfully desegregated, the focus shifted back to the Atlanta public schools. The city school officials took a "go slow" position, calling for only token integration in the upper grades alone. But black community members maintained the pressure, recruiting students to apply for transfer to white schools. Student Martha Holmes.
Mr. Jesse Hill with the Atlanta Life Insurance Company was instrumental in encouraging us to go down to get the applications.
Then we went to the homes and went to the PTA meetings and we solicited people and some of them just came forward, and wanted to do something for history.
We had lived through the sit-ins with the college students. When I got the opportunity to do this in high school, then we jumped right on it.
The students who went to the segregated schools did not come from Atlanta's finest in the black community. They were regular blue-collar people's children.
I don't think that any one of the parents were college graduates, and they were really low income, low middle income families. Hard working, but very intelligent very determined parents. Many of them indirectly received some type of economic retaliation--but of course we were able to support them, even to get employment for people who were threatened.
JUDY TILLMAN HIWETT2
Someone came to our home from the NAACP and I remember my mother and grandmother whispering, "No we don't want to subject her to that. We don't want her to go." She said that someone came to the house and asked if I would want to be one of those nine and my mother said that she was fearing and especially my being the only child, she didn't know what would happen.
Despite the violence that had accompanied school desegregation in Little Rock and elsewhere, the first students were assured things would be different in Atlanta.
MAYOR WILLIAM B. HARTSFIELD4
I'm William B. Hartsfield, mayor of Atlanta. Soon now Atlanta's public schools will be desegregated according to federal law. I'm sure we'll all meet this change with the order and dignity that Atlanta's have been famous for and show the whole world Atlanta is truly a great city. Let's not let Atlanta down.
Martha Holmes was among the students who applied to transfer to a white school.
MARTHA HOLMES JACKSON
The message was that we won't let the same thing happen here. We could do it better in a sense. I guess they couldn't afford to let something like that happen in Atlanta.
133 black students applied for transfer. 10 were accepted.
MARTHA HOLMES JACKSON
We kind of thought they put fewer of us in the schools, hoping that we would be discouraged and want to go back. And they'd say, "Well, you see we tried and they couldn't stay, so what else can you do?"
I awakened that morning with my heart in my throat wondering what would happen and worrying about, of course, the transfer students themselves.
On August 31st 1961, Atlanta's public schools would finally admit 9 black students.
Nine Negro students are to attend four previously all-white high schools. The schools involved are Grady, Brown, Murphy and Northside High.
With an eye to the city's image, mayor William Hartsfield and others carefully choreographed the event.
Journalist Celestine Sibley...
In other cities there were protests and marching. Here, Mr. Hartsfield set up a pressroom in City Hall for the out of town press, equipped them with desks, and typewriters, and food, merchants brought in food, Coca Cola company brought in Cokes. They were connected by radio with the campuses of these schools, and then given a bus trip to visit the schools. The out of town press were given a party that night. It was altogether different from what was going on in some cities. It was a great public relations coup.
Everything was beautifully quiet and just a regular old school day. WSB Radio News...
In looking back on it, was sort of incredible. We had all of that attention to put how many people was it, half a dozen kids in school. But the city felt so proud of itself when it was all over.
You can't imagine the pride in this town when Jack Kennedy started his news conference that August afternoon.
ACTUALITY: PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY
I strongly urge the officials and citizens of all communities which face this difficult transition in the coming weeks and months to look closely at what Atlanta has done and to meet their responsibilities as have the officials and citizens of Atlanta and Georgia with courage, tolerance and above all, respect for the law.
Even now, I can't talk about it without getting emotional --- it just set this place on FIRE!
I don't want to leave the impression that everything was just beautiful. Betty Vinson was there at City Hall as a press representative for OASIS and she still recalls now, with pain, the shock of hearing on a loudspeaker a voice coming from one of the schools, from one of the police cars, saying, "Everything is normal. No one is eating with them. No one is speaking to them. I repeat: everything is normal. No one is eating with them and no one is speaking with them."
MARTHA HOLMES JACKSON
The very first day we attended school, we went to lunch. And it was pretty much like a table had already been reserved for us. Nobody else was sitting there.
They pretty soon came to be comfortable enough with us being around that they could sit and eat their lunch and not have to run away from us.
For those first students who desegregated the Atlanta public schools, the experience was often unpleasant, lonely, and confusing-- feelings that would last through graduation.
"Pomp and Circumstance"
[Arthur Fiedler w/the Boston Pops]
MARTHA HOLMES JACKSON
Graduation - huh! It wasn't terribly exciting for me.
They had a class outing at a place that did not allow blacks to come in and of course, the principal and other people assured me that I had EVERY RIGHT to attend and if I wanted to, they would make other arrangements. But at the same time suddenly they were telling me you know you really don't want to spoil this for all of these students. And I guess I didn't. It wasn't that important to me.
I did attend the prom, but I didn't stay very long. My escort and I hung around for a little while. But then they was playing music that we didn't dance to.
"I Saw Her Standing There"
MARTHA HOLMES JACKSON
I do remember just being sick of them. I said I've had enough of it, I've done what I set out to do and I think my sentiment might have been let somebody else do their part now.
Throughout the 1960's, Atlanta school officials continued to stall desegregation. They placed the burden on the shoulders of black students and their families. In the black community they said, it was easier to get into Harvard or Yale than to transfer to a majority white school.
Attorney Leroy Johnson...
The board of education as it was then constituted never adopted the theory of equality of education. So at every opportunity they resisted it.
You see you have to understand that when these white men were in office no one had to pressure them. I mean they believed in what they were talking about. And they believed that the races should be segregated. They did not believe that black kids ought to sit in schools with white kids.
For some years desegregation continued on a grade-by-grade basis. No white students were ever required to change schools. The city rejected any bussing plan whatsoever until the early 1970s. By that time, massive white flight from the city of Atlanta and its public schools had made city-wide integration nearly impossible.
That same power structure never took a stand in education, that same group that sought to protect the business never took a stand to protect the schools. Instead, they took their students, their children out and sent them to some other school where they could afford to send them.
Well, whites were moving out of Atlanta at a rapid rate to escape school desegregation.
They went to the suburbs.
So these folks are all over the suburbs now. Still coming in Atlanta working, but their kids going to school in their neighborhoods out there. Mableton, Palmetto, Austell.
At that time I had become president of the NAACP, this was in 71, I said well I'd be interested in entertaining how we can drop this law suit, but there has to be a price for the dropping of the law suit.
In the time-honored Atlanta fashion black and white leaders met behind the scenes in early 1973 -- to hammer out an agreement on the schools. Julian Bond, a state senator at the time, reflects back on the deal known to some as, "The second Atlanta compromise."
The community settled for black control of the school system in exchange for an integrated school system... At the time it had a lot of attractiveness to it, but in hindsight it was an awful mistake.
Black control of the school system was inevitable; population dictated that! Surrendering integration of the public schools here and elsewhere in the country has been an awful mistake. You only have to look at the state of inter-city education to see how much apartheid there is in American life and in American education today. It's epidemic.
We keep putting off the issue really, which to me is whether or not the color of your skin really makes any difference to people as individuals in Atlanta. Schools are not really integrated and we have never had a discussion on what it would mean to integrate the schools.
"New York Girl"
|1||Georgia Legal History Foundation, Institute for Continuing Legal Education|
|2||"Dawn’s Early Light," Ralph McGill Papers, Woodruff Library, Emory University, Atlanta, GA|
|3||Howard University, Ralphe J. Bunche Oral History Collection, Washington DC|
|4||WSB Television News Video Archives, University of Georgia, Athens, GA|