This article originally appeared in our March 2010 issue.
At breakfast tables across Atlanta on March 9, 1960, quiet consumption of coffee, grits, and eggs was disrupted as subscribers to the Atlanta Constitution and Atlanta Daily World opened their morning papers to discover a startling full-page ad.
“An Appeal for Human Rights,” read the big, bold type at the top of the page. Below, students from the Atlanta University Center, the consortium of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), presented a manifesto that contradicted the image of enlightened tolerance that Atlanta touted to the rest of the world.
“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—supposedly one of the most progressive cities in the South,” they wrote.
The appeal cataloged the pervasive discrimination—overt and subtle, legal and extralegal—that prevailed in Atlanta six years after the Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling and one year after Mayor William Hartsfield crowed to Time magazine that the city was simply “too busy to hate.”
The student manifesto focused on seven areas: education, jobs, housing, voting, hospitals, law enforcement, and access to facilities such as movie theaters, concert halls, and restaurants. “If a Negro is hungry, his hunger must wait until he comes to a ‘colored’ restaurant, and even his thirst must await its quenching at a ‘colored’ water fountain,” read the appeal, which was crafted by the Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights, a student coalition led by Lonnie King, a former Navy noncommissioned officer attending Morehouse College on a football scholarship, and fellow Morehouse student Julian Bond.
The Appeal was the first salvo in the students’ plans. They were not going to wait around for courtroom wrangling and heel-dragging as white Atlanta resisted legal desegregation. They were preparing nonviolent protest and resistance. “We must say in all candor,” they announced, “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.”
For the primarily white readers of the Constitution, the appeal triggered anxiety and indignation. For the black readers of the World (the country’s first daily newspaper for African Americans), the students’ statement confirmed talk around town about how kids were shaking up the “old-guard” power structure. Over the previous weeks, Southern cities had witnessed a wave of student activism. Lonnie King and other students had been inspired by sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina. The Atlanta students, after meeting with six AUC presidents, decided to present their protest in the context of a larger political argument. In Atlanta, the city with the highest number of HBCUs and a forceful regiment of seasoned civil rights veterans, the Appeal signaled more than youthful protest.
By the time the evening subscribers to the Atlanta Journal opened their papers, they didn’t need to look for the ad. It had already been buzzed about all over the city.
Less than a week later, the first wave of sit-ins began. “We moved out with military precision,” recalls Charles Black, who was a Morehouse student. “Everyone was sworn to secrecy.” At around 11 a.m. on March 15, some 200 students fanned out to carefully selected lunchrooms, including the cafeterias at the State Capitol, City Hall, and Fulton County Courthouse. Julian Bond was arrested at City Hall.
Charles Black and A.D. King, brother of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., led a group of students into the whites-only lunchroom at Terminal Station, the Downtown rail hub that opened in 1905 with racially segregated exits, entrances, waiting rooms, and bathrooms. That evening, Black and seventy-six other protesters were hauled off to the city’s prison farm off Key Road, not far from where the Starlight Six Drive-In is today.
At 4 a.m. on March 16, Black was rousted out of bed and taken to hoe fields of collards. At night, he returned to collapse on a “putrid mattress” that he shared with other student inmates because the prison farm barracks were so crowded; more than 100 men were crammed into a single room lined with bunk beds and reeking with the odor of open urinals.
The sit-ins and arrests continued sporadically throughout the spring of 1960. In late summer, when students were back in classes, the protests geared up. Many of Atlanta’s black businesses and institutions lent support to the students. Atlanta Life Insurance Company gave employees time off to staff picket lines. Restaurants near the AUC, such as Paschal’s and Frazier’s Cafe Society, served as meeting places for the students; owners paid bail or brought food to picketers.
The activity in Atlanta paralleled a national movement. In the spring, the executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Ella Baker, traveled to North Carolina to meet with student leaders and helped them form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC, commonly pronounced “Snick”). She strategized with students on how to carry out nonviolent protests. By fall, SNCC held a second meeting in Atlanta and set up offices here. The first big project: larger protests in its new headquarters city.