Old guard of civil rights movement mentoring Occupy Atlanta

Some of the old guard of the nation's civil rights movement are taking Occupy Atlanta members under their wing, offering advice aboutsustaining a grassroots movement.

Young protesters have talked with the likes of the Rev. Joseph E. Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, a close confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.; the Rev. Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition; and Isaac Newton Farris Jr., president of the SCLC and King's nephew.

Occupy Atlanta protesters plan to return Saturday to Woodruff Park,  from which they were evicted earlier. But before that they planned to participate in nonviolence orientation and training at the Peachtree-Pine homeless shelter, said Tim Franzen, an Occupy Atlanta member who often speaks for the group.

The Occupy Atlanta movement has gained national attention, in part because it is happening in one of the cradles of the civil rights movement and the home of King.

"I think they needed to get to know us and our movement," said Franzen, who added the protesters have received constructive criticism from older civil rights leaders. He said Jackson stayed with Occupy Atlanta members for at least an hour and helped renew their sense of purpose.

Jackson told protesters to keep their eyes on the prize, the Associated Press reported. "Renew your faith, keep your hope alive and victory is assured."

Lowery said Occupy members have attended meetings of the Coalition for the Peoples' Agenda and "we were glad to have them ... they've struck a chord of common concern in this country about the plight of the poor."

But instead of "arguing over parks" he advised them to focus more on home foreclosures, trying to put a stop to draconian immigration laws and assaults on voting rights. "You'll lose steam and public support if you don't latch onto issues that people are concerned about."

Initially, it didn't seem like there would be a smooth relationship between the movements or personalities.

U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a former Freedom Rider and longtime civil rights figure, tried unsuccessfully to address Occupy Atlanta members during their early days in Woodruff Park. He was denied a chance to speak, which some later admitted was a mistake.

In a statement, Lewis said he thought "Occupy Atlanta should study the history of civil disobedience movements, as they did in the civil rights movement, as well as the discipline and philosophy of nonviolence."

Lewis has been invited to speak at Occupy movements across the nation, including those in Florida,  Texas and New York, said Brenda Jones, his communications director.

While sympathetic to the frustration of Occupy Atlanta members about the park situation, "we quite frankly were a little concerned with what appeared to be a lack of focus and organization" and the "black eye it was putting on the whole process," said the SCLC's Farris, who met with protesters.

"This was the first time we've seen a demonstration where, when demonstrators were asked what are their goals,  they didn't have any," he said. "That sets a bad precedent for future demonstrations."

The meeting lasted hours, he said, and was "passionate" at times, touching on such topics as planning and logistics, leadership, responsibility for the security of those participating, and setting goals. He said he sensed that some of the occupiers hadn't studied the civil rights movement.

Joe Beasely, Southern regional director of Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, was an early supporter of Occupy Atlanta and was among those hauled off to jail when the city cracked down on park occupiers.

While he said he thinks the Occupy protesters can learn from the old guard, he warned there is a fine line that shouldn't be crossed.

"This is a new movement and its needs to be led by new leaders," he said.  Civil rights veterans getting too involved "would be a grave mistake and dampen the spirit" of the Occupy movement.

Franzen, who said he has studied the civil rights movement, said there is an education process going on for the occupiers. But, he said, "I think it's really important that this is a new movement. This is 2011, not the '50s and '60s."