The year was 1960. Lonnie C. King Jr., one of the leaders of the Atlanta Student Movement, refused to back down when the presidents of Morehouse College and other Atlanta University Center schools implored African American students to return to class and let civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP fight segregation.
Knowing their participation on protests might get them jailed, injured or killed, the leaders thought they had a duty to keep students safe and focused on their educations, King recalled in a 2017 interview.
He didn’t listen. He would go on to lead thousands of students and adults in marches on the State Capitol and downtown businesses. The protests and an economic boycott which cost downtown businesses millions of dollars over the 1960 Christmas holiday led to the desegregation of Atlanta stores and restaurants.
King died Tuesday morning at the age of 82 from heart problems, said his son Lonnie King III. Murray Brothers Funeral Home, will handle King’s funeral.
Charles Person, a student activist with the movement, said he believes the importance of the movement in the larger civil rights movement has never been told.
He recalled the first march from the Atlanta University Center into town. Students in the thousands streamed down the street toward segregated stores. Looking back on the crowd, he and others realized the students were a force to be reckoned with, he said Tuesday.
Thanks to the students and some local leaders, there was no violence, and the movement was effective in bringing the beginning steps of change.
“It was pivotal,” Person said, and added his friend will be greatly missed.
King was born Aug. 30, 1936, to Bertha Thrasher and Lonnie King in Arlington, Georgia, near Albany.
He spent his early years living with his grandparents in South Georgia while his mother moved to Atlanta and worked as a maid. At the time, King’s mother – whom he described as a brilliant strategist — made $5 a day and car fare. His mother later remarried, and King Jr.’s stepfather was a supervisor at Southern Bakery.
King, who was not related to the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., moved to Atlanta as a young man, joined Ebenezer Baptist Church, started school and was elected president of the student council at Atlanta’s David T. Howard High School.
He ran only after overcoming his initial fear about running against a dapper classmate from a well-to-do family. That early opponent was Vernon Jordan, who went on to serve in President Bill Clinton’s administration.
King’s mother urged him to run against Jordan, telling him he could beat him if he campaigned with the younger students. Sure enough, he won the election in a landslide and stole Jordan’s girlfriend in the process.
“Vernon hates me to this day,” said King with a laugh in 2017. “I beat him in some other things as well.”
After high school, King enrolled in Morehouse College.
In March 1960, King, Julian Bond and other students decided to launch the Atlanta Student Movement after learning college students from North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro staged sit-ins at a Woolworth’s lunch counter there. That sit-in was a seminal spark in the civil rights movement.
“My dad saw that story and said we need to do that here,” King III said. “The Jim Crow laws were in place, and the type of person that he was, he had a burning sense of correcting what was wrong.”
Roslyn Pope and other Atlanta students were ready to move as well. They crafted a paper called “An Appeal for Human Rights,” a bold call-out of the hypocritical image of tolerance that Atlanta liked to project to the broader world. They published the document in The Atlanta Journal and the Constitution newspapers and the Atlanta Daily World. It eventually was published in papers such as The New York Times.
“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,” it said.
King wanted to call for protests on March 16, but the Rev. A.D. King counseled him to do it on the fifteenth to send a message: “Beware the ides of March,” Lonnie King recalled in a 2014 interview.
So, on March 15, students from Atlanta’s historic black colleges and universities, including female students Ruby Doris Smith and Gwen Isles, organized the first Atlanta sit-ins. Over 200 sat in at eleven downtown stores; 83 were arrested. Atlanta’s African American businesses raised money to pay the bonds for the students. In October, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. joined them at a sit-in at Rich’s Department Store and was arrested, bringing more exposure to the student movement.
The young people led marches through downtown and helped stage an economic boycott over the 1960-61 holiday season that resulted in a loss of $20 million to area businesses. Some students also tried to visit the Pickrick Restaurant by Georgia Tech. Its owner, Lester Maddox, was a staunch segregationist who later became Georgia’s last segregationist governor.
Though Maddox would not relent, the student-led demonstrations began winning concessions from downtown businesses. The protests lasted over four years.
Atlanta Councilman Michael Julian Bond, the son of student leader Julian Bond, recalled in 2014, “From his initial conversation with my father, Julian Bond, and Roslyn Pope over lunch at Yates and Milton drug stores, his catalytic leadership filled a space in Atlanta that previously was not occupied.”
King eventually had to drop out of Morehouse for financial reasons.
He joined the Navy to take advantage of the GI Bill after his mother had the recruiter ensure her that her son would not be a sea-going bus boy. Her son already had the opportunity to be discriminated against without joining the military, she pointedly told the man. King III said his father instead worked as a dispersing clerk and a prize fighter though out his three years in the Navy.
After leaving the Navy, King eventually returned to Morehouse to finish his education. He went on to earn a Master’s in Public Education from the University of Baltimore.
In 1970, he ran for Congress in a primary race that included Andrew Young.
“My father and I were very close,” King III said. “I knew when my dad was running for Congress that I had a special father. I just didn’t know how special until I became an adult.”
King was the proud of the role he played leading the Atlanta Student Movement and remained active in social justice work throughout his life. While serving as president of the Atlanta NAACP, King was instrumental in getting the Atlanta School Board to hire its first African-American superintendent, Alonzo Crim.
In recent years, King has worked on voter education and registration with students and other activists in Atlanta. His son said that until recently, King was working on his doctorate from Georgia State University and was ready to defend it, before becoming ill.
King III said he is going to try to take his father’s thesis, which is about the student movement, and turn it into a book.
”I am extremely proud of my dad,” King III said. “I am glad that he was recognized for all of the hard work he did behind the scenes.”
In one of his last conversations with the AJC, King Jr. said: “I’m sad when I reflect back and see how much hope and promise we had for ourselves and America, but then you begin to examine the ensuing years of the 1960s to where we are today, and you realize that the descendants of (segregationists) and their supporters never really gave up in trying to turn the clock back. I’m also disillusioned by the fact that we were perceived and lulled into a feeling that everything is going to be alright, and now we look up now and realize we deceived ourselves. We should’ve kept working and kept pushing, because we still have too many people who could be something else if they had been given the chance.”
King was the father of three children, who survive him, along with six grandchildren and two former wives.