The Atlanta Student Movement: A Look Back

Fifty years ago this month, students at the Atlanta University Center published a civil rights manifesto and changed the country.
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.

Online Only
>> Documents relating to the Atlanta Student Movement from the archives of  Auburn Avenue Research Library
>> The Appeal revisited: Download a 2010 version
>> Video interviews from a new exhibit at the Atlanta History Center
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.
In early October, Lonnie King called Martin Luther King Jr. (no relation). “It’s time for you to get arrested here. I’ll go with you,” Lonnie said.

Dr. King, by then nationally acclaimed for leading the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and 1956 and cofounding the SCLC in 1957, kept a relatively low profile in his hometown. This was in part out of deference to the old-guard leaders such as his father, Martin Luther King Sr., better known as Daddy King, and John Wesley Dobbs and the Reverend William Holmes Borders, who had successfully crusaded to integrate the city’s transit system and police force.

On October 19, 1960, a massive wave of sit-ins took place. Lonnie King and Dr. King went to the lunchroom at Rich’s, Atlanta’s old and venerated department store. As Lonnie King had predicted, they were arrested promptly. National newspapers and TV broadcasts went berserk. Dr. King’s arrest eclipsed the hundreds of student arrests that had taken place over the past half year. In interviews with reporters at the Fulton County Jail, King explained that he was not an instigator of the sit-ins but felt a “moral obligation” to support the students. Although King had been arrested before, this would be his first night in jail. “I had to practice what I preached,” he said.

“His participation might overshadow the rest, but it was a high point,” said Lonnie King in a recent interview. “His international acclaim did what it was supposed to do: focus the movement away from local into the international/national community.”

A DeKalb County judge ruled that by getting arrested Dr. King violated terms of probation issued in response to a driving violation. King was transferred to the state prison in Reidsville. Ultimately, intercession by Georgians associated with the Kennedy campaign helped get King released, a move that proved influential in swaying the 1960 election. After his son’s release from prison, Daddy King told the congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church that he would be voting for JFK—even if Kennedy was a Catholic.

Kennedy may have earned a victory, but the Atlanta students—and their parents and their AUC professors—still could not eat at the lunch counter in Woolworth’s or the Magnolia Tearoom at Rich’s department store. They could not walk in the front door of the Fox Theatre or drink from most water fountains at Lenox Square.

Mayor Hartsfield begged the students and their allies to call a truce to allow time for negotiations with business owners. But in late November, on “black Friday,” the busiest shopping day of the year, picketers headed out to the stores again, backed by older black supporters and a handful of white students from Emory and Agnes Scott. As soon as the student pickets approached a lunch counter, the operator would simply shut down for the day. Rich’s closed its tearoom but catered to hungry and thirsty shoppers by placing coffee and sandwich stands through the store. The issue of sit-ins was neatly bypassed; no one could sit.

On Saturday, a new wave of protesters took to Peachtree Street: the Ku Klux Klan. In white robes and peaked caps, 100 Klansmen walked in front of Downtown Rich’s, counterprotesting the students. We’re not going to tangle with the Klan, Lonnie King told reporters. In fact, he said, the KKK was doing the students a favor in their efforts to hurt businesses during the holiday shopping season: “The Klan is doing a more effective job than we could of keeping people out of the stores.”

The boycotts continued throughout the holiday shopping season. Downtown businesses suffered, and Atlanta’s white leadership was ready to negotiate, but it would take almost another year before restaurants in Atlanta integrated. Meanwhile, across the country, student protesters risked their lives to protest segregation at restaurants and hotels, on Greyhound buses, and in electoral precincts. Many of the Atlanta Student Movement leaders went on to play roles in the national civil rights movement. Julian Bond would become communications director of SNCC and later serve in the Georgia House of Representatives.

Looking back at the Appeal from the vantage point of a half century, Lonnie King remarks, “It will stand the test of time. It already has stood the test of time. It is like a benchmark upon which we can measure certain areas of progress, or lack of progress.”

He says his feelings are mixed. “There was so much hope and so much promise of change that we thought was going to come about. There was a lot of change achieved over the last fifty years. But the overwhelming majority of African Americans were in an underclass at that time, and too many are still languishing behind others in this country today.” The key to achieving the goals of the Appeal is in its campus roots. “Education has always been the artery for advancement,” he asserts, “certainly in the South.”