Editor’s note: Atlanta historian Clifford M. Kuhn, quoted in this article, passed away in November, 2015.
Bette Graves Thomas remembers 1963 as the year her family couldn’t turn left on Peyton Road.
Thomas was 17 when Atlanta’s mayor placed barricades across the road between a black and white neighborhood.
“I remember it being inconvenient,” said Thomas, now 67. She also saw it, rightly, as a message for black families to abandon thoughts of moving into the adjoining white neighborhood — and that rankled. “I thought we were being treated unfairly, all because of the color of our skin.”
Across town, Bob Hope played football at white Northside High School. The coach warned the players that, next season, they would play teams from the black schools. Watch out for their sweat, the coach told them, it can burn your skin.
The year 1963 was “turbulent as well as decisive,” for both the nation and Atlanta, said Cliff Kuhn, a Georgia State University history professor. A quarter million marchers gathered on the National Mall to demand “jobs and freedom.” Newly elected Alabama Gov. George Wallace called for everlasting segregation. Civil rights leader Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy were slain by assassins.
Atlanta had a relatively progressive reputation on civil rights, for the South. There weren’t the racial flash points of a Selma, a Birmingham or a Little Rock. Under the veneer, though, percolated racism, fear and conflict.
The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee renewed efforts begun a few years earlier to integrate restaurants, hotels and lunch counters. SCLC members demonstrated at places such as Leb’s and the S&W Cafeteria. Twenty-one people were arrested after protests at the Toddle House on Peachtree Street.
White and black Atlantans lived in largely separate, insular worlds: different schools, different churches, different restaurants.
For a 14-year-old girl living in the black neighborhood of Hunter Hills, whose father worked for the black-owned Atlanta Daily World newspaper, life was not filled with insults and humiliation.
“I lived in a lovely black cocoon,” said M. Alexis Scott.
She knew if she rode the bus, she’d be ordered to the back, so her family took the car. They knew they could eat at Paschal’s but wouldn’t be welcomed at Leb’s or the S&W Cafeteria.
Still, Scott didn’t have to step far outside the cocoon to encounter Jim Crow.
She still gets angry remembering those times: When one of her father’s paintings was chosen for the Piedmont Park Arts Festival, but her family could not view it in the segregated park; when her family could not sit up front at a Theater Under the Stars production at Chastain Park; when, traveling in south Georgia, she was directed to a ratty, rancid restroom for “colored” people.
“It was totally nuts,” said Scott, “It didn’t make sense to a little kid.”
Atlanta was changing in 1963 — too slow for some, too fast for others. The city had recently elected a progressive (for that time) mayor in Ivan Allen Jr., who defeated staunch segregationist Lester Maddox. Atlanta schools were slowly desegregating, allowing a few black students to attend white high schools.
The Peyton Road episode occurred when Allen bowed to pressure from whites concerned that blacks would move into their neighborhood. When the city erected barricades on Peyton Road, an angry black community dubbed it Atlanta’s Berlin Wall; the attention from the national media embarrassed a city hyper-aware of its image.
In March of 1963 a court ruled the barricades unconstitutional, and Allen immediately pulled them down.
A few months later, he broke ranks with Southern politicians and testified in Washington in favor of the Civil Rights Act. He called segregation slavery’s stepchild and he came home to many a cold shoulder in Atlanta.
Civil rights, while embraced by several city leaders, “ran into general resistance from the white public,” said Paul Crater, research director at the Atlanta History Center.
When the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce called on all businesses serving the public to desegregate, most merchants ignored the request. When the city integrated its municipal pools, many whites installed private pools.
Sam Massell, then president of the city Board of Aldermen and an advocate of reform, recalled the hate mail he received, some even threatening his life. He took one anonymous letter to the police chief, who told him, “Sam don’t worry about it. The one who is going to kill you, is not going to tell you.’”
Massell went on to become mayor and is currently president of the Buckhead Coalition.
Frank Holloway felt the slights of discrimination keenly. As a child in the 1940s and ’50s, he would brazenly drink from a “white” water fountain, and sit in the front of the bus, ignoring the driver telling him to get to the back. Sometimes, his mother had to come up front and pull him back.
Later, he said, he was pushed, pulled and punched by customers, restaurant owners and the police during the Atlanta protests.
“It was very racist, and it was a negative situation for black people, and something had to be done,” said Holloway, now 74 and living in Fayetteville. “And I wanted to be part of it.”
Dorothy Fierman Carrillo was a high-schooler living in a Jewish section in the Morningside-Lenox area. She remembers hearing the n-word at school, but when she used it at the table at home, her father slapped her face.
At her high school, Grady High, there was one black girl. On the girl’s birthday, a teacher goaded a shy white boy to give her a birthday kiss.
The students went still and silent.
“I thought, ‘What a bigot this teacher is,’” Carrillo recalled.
The boy just sat there.
“My heart went out to (the black girl) and him,” Carrillo said, “but I also felt like a coward.”
Samuel DuBois Cook was a young political science professor at Atlanta University, a black college. It was, he said, an incredible time to teach political science. The students he taught about social change were themselves demonstrating against segregation. Sometimes he took up a sign and joined them.
Class discussion burned with the events of the day. It was easy to teach about the American or French revolution, when students had come from a sit-in the night before, he said.
And when Cook needed a guest speaker to address the students, he turned to his former classmate at Morehouse College: Martin Luther King, Jr.