New Atlanta street name honors student movement

In 1960, Lonnie King did something that would seem impossible to pull off today.

King, one of the leaders of Atlanta’s nonviolent student movement to end Jim Crow discrimination and a Morehouse College student, asked Atlanta’s black residents to boycott Rich’s department store, one of the city’s biggest retailers. And to keep everyone from giving in to temptation and making a quick shopping trip, he asked them to send him their Rich’s charge card.

They did. In days, he had received 350 charge cards for safekeeping until Rich’s, which had refused to desegregate its facilities, including its Magnolia dining room, relented.

“Would you send your charge card to a student today,” said King, recounting the audacious request 50 years later with some amazement. “They trusted us to do the right thing, and it worked.”

Atlanta, a city that is still often associated with its “too busy to hate” sales pitch, was not always so open to African-Americans.

Earlier this month, protesters from the Civil Rights era were recognized when the city of Atlanta changed the name of a portion of Fair Street to Atlanta Student Movement Boulevard in their honor.

Atlanta City Council member Michael Julian Bond, who championed the name change, said it immortalized a generation of students who took the chances that paved the way for their children and grandchildren to live in a world where discrimination was no longer institutionalized.

“They took on such a Herculean task,” he said.

He said it’s especially important because many Atlantans have no idea the role residents played in attaining equal rights in the city. He said this lack of knowledge is partly the result of the civil rights protesters’ attempt to shield their pain from their children.

“They failed to educate us to know the price of the freedom we enjoy,” he said.

Five decades ago, water fountains were segregated. So were dining facilities, pools, department stores and restrooms. Blacks were required to stand on buses while whites sat.

Carolyn Long Banks, who would later serve on Atlanta’s City Council for 17 years, remembers her family visiting the doctor in Buckhead and waiting on the back porch instead of in the waiting room. At that time, black doctors could not be licensed in the state of Georgia.

Inspired by the “Greensboro Four” — the quartet of North Carolina A&T students whose attempt to desegregate a Woolworth’s lunch counter in February 1960 caught the nation’s attention — students from Atlanta’s historically black colleges and universities began advocating for equal rights despite the risks of losing scholarships, being jailed or even violence.

While hometown hero Martin Luther King Jr. participated in some of the protests — he was arrested with the students in an October 1960 protest at Rich’s — the movement was led by youngsters in their late teens and early 20s, including Gwendolyn Harris Middlebrooks, Otis Moss, Charles Black, Benjamin Brown, Julian Bond, Herschelle Sullivan Challenor and Mary Ann Smith Wilson. Their target was everything from drug stores to City Hall to the state Capitol.

Banks said she was arrested four times — typical for the protesters. She was jailed for as many as four days, but the men could be behind bars much longer, she said.

“I got beat up,” Lonnie King said. “I got acid thrown on me.”

Some students failed classes and others ran battles with their parents. And things got very tense in one protest when the marches were met by a counterdemonstration by the Ku Klux Klan.

Some of the heroes of the movement did not live to see the changes ahead. Ruby Doris Smith Robinson, a Spelman student and a leader in many protests, died of cancer at 25. But her niece, City Council member Keisha Lance Bottoms, grew up hearing about her strong commitment to changing the system, including saying at one jailing that her first name was “Freedom” and her last name was “Now.”

“Once when they were trying to integrate Grady [Hospital], she went in and asked to be admitted,” Bottoms said. “The nurse said, ‘You don’t seem to be sick,’ at which pointed she vomited on the counter and asked, ‘Is that sick enough?’”

King said what made the movement effective was its organization. In addition to sit-ins at lunch counters at Woolworth’s and Rich’s, they also staged voter registration drives, coordinated “kneel-ins” at churches and filed lawsuits to integrate the city’s recreation centers. If a lunch counter closed down immediately after they walked in to sit down and be served, they had someone keeping an eye out for when the establishment reopened so they could return.

The protesters also benefited from shrewd political leadership. Mayor William Hartsfield did not want Atlanta’s image tarnished, Middlebrooks said.

“There was a feeling of safety,” she said. “When you’re doing something as a group and you’re young, you don’t feel like anything can harm you.”

The demonstrations had an effect, the members of the movement said. By early 1961 Rich’s had integrated its facilities and most of the public accommodations in the city had followed suit. Atlanta Public Schools also integrated in 1961.

But old habits die hard, Banks said. She was one of the first to eat in Rich’s dining room after the store allowed blacks equal accommodation. But the dining tables where the white patrons sat were pulled far away from her so that she was an island in an ocean, she said.

Several years later, Rich’s offered her a job as a buyer. When they asked if she had ever been arrested, she told them yes, by Rich’s.