Remembering the Atlanta Student Movement of 1960
Lonnie King Jr.
April, 2014

Excerpted from 50-Year Retrospective Discussion.

See Atlanta Sit-ins for background & more information.
See also Atlanta Movement for web links.


What We Achieved
The Manifesto
The Sit-Ins
Dr. King is Arrested     
The Agreement
The Mass Meeting
Looking Back
What We Failed to Achieve

What We Achieved

I'm from Atlanta, Georgia, and I was the founding Chairman of the Atlanta Student Movement. We called it the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights.

What did we achieve? We were battling a two-tiered society that was created several hundred years earlier, one wherein whites were on top, Negroes, Blacks, African-Americans were on the bottom. And what we achieved, I think, was that we were able to be the catalyst to take down all the signs of segregation, to integrate or desegregate public accommodations and some private. We integrated the theaters, the movies, the swimming pools, the churches. We also registered a lot of voters. I think, in a way, what we did was most significant because it had never been done before.

What we achieved was historic in the sense that we changed, at least on paper, many of the laws in this country that relegated people who were not white to second class citizenship.

If I had to sum it up, I think what we did was that we forced Americans of good will who had not really thought about what was happening in the South to take a second look and realize that what we professed in America was not what the reality was.

The Movement allowed white people of good will the opportunity to stand up for freedom, justice and equality. And I read a book recently about how ... at the time you all were going to jail and I was going to jail, I was unaware that the whites were being arrested and put in separate patrol cars or paddy wagons. This policeman has written this article that's in a book now. And I said: What? They did that? As this policeman has explained it in his memoir, he was [in] a paddy wagon that had all whites in it. And he said that the driver who was white would speed up and then slam on the brakes, in order to throw the white kids up against the wall. And they did that all the way to the police department. And that is unconscionable that somebody would be that vicious, to speed up and then brake. What kind of people were we dealing with?

The Manifesto

In 1960, I'm a senior. On the first of February, young boy(s) sat down in Greensboro. It was in the Atlanta Constitution, I think on the third I believe it was of February, and I'm sitting in the drugstore looking at it. And something in me said: Look, I thought about the panty-raid situation, and some of you are old enough to know what panty-raids were about. You know, prior to 1960, on the white college campuses, you can have a panty-raid at College X, and then soon it would just go all around the place. Well, I took the position that we need to follow the panty-raid theory, because segregation was ubiquitous. It existed all over the South, so Greensboro was not unique.

And I told my good friend, Joseph Pierce, and later on Julian Bond, let's not let Greensboro be isolated. So we were ready to move on it, and we started organizing. And lo and behold, I learned that the college presidents had a tremendous intelligence system. ... So I got this call from Dr. Rufus [Clement?]'s office and Dr. May's office to come to a meeting at three o'clock in [Hartness?] Hall, and when I got there, here were all these other folks I'd been organizing, along with myself and Julian and Joe Pierce.

They wanted to tell us to go back to class and that Dr. Mays was the Chairman of Black Memberships for the NAACP, and he had talked to Roy Wilkins [NAACP national leader] who said that we'll have [our own?] leaders, and send those kids back to class. So we had a meeting there, in that meeting, and the college presidents — all [five] of them — told us all to go back to class.

[At that time (1960), six Black colleges shared a common campus known as the Atlanta University Center — Moorehouse, Spelman, Clark, Morris Brown, Atlanta University, and Interdenominational Theological Center.]

At least the first four. And when we got to the fifth guy, that's Dr. Harry Lee Richardson, President of the Interdenominational Theological Center, Dr. Richardson, being a preacher, waited about ten seconds before he spoke. And when he did speak, he said: "I think that the kids are right. I have a Ph.D.; I head a major college, and I cannot go downtown except to spend my money." And he laid it all out. Shocked the folks who had spoken before. And then Dr. Frank Cunningham, who was the President of Morris Brown College, spoke after him. He was the sixth guy. He said: "And I think that Dr. Richardson is right. I agree with the kids.

And all of a sudden, you could see pandemonium among the college presidents. Because two of them had broken ranks. Clement, Dr. Clement, smart man. He said: "Well, who's going to speak for the students?" And so by this time, I'm the rabble rouser, so they called on me to speak. And I laid it out to them. In the mean time, [UNCLEAR] was thinking. He said, "I'll tell you what. Why don't you write a manifesto on why you're gonna do what you're gonna do? And you're the intellectual group who has gone to Black colleges. Just write the manifesto."

Implied in that was: You write the manifesto, and let other folks do it. You just write the manifesto.

So we wrote the An Appeal for Human Rights which has been seen all over the world now. And I won't go through all of that except that it was a full-page ad, republished by the New York Times, the Harvard Crimson ran it for free, the Nation magazine ran it for free, and also [Senator] Jacob Javits of New York read it into the Congressional Record, and it is there forever.

The Sit-Ins

But as soon as that was published, on the fifteenth — we published on the ninth of March — and on the fifteenth, over two hundred and some students simultaneously hit 11 places in downtown Atlanta, and the battle was on.

I feel that God's hand was involved in this, because there were things that they would've come up with, I don't know where it came from. There was no road map for what we were doing. And contrary to what most people I don't think understand, Atlanta, Georgia was probably the hardest one to crack of all the places, because the richest folks in the South lived in Atlanta. You know, Robert Woodruff was worth $500 million in 1960 [equal to almost $4 billion in 2013]. He could've bought the whole South with his Coca Cola fortune.

And what they had was a modern day paternalistic system where Woodruff and his guys chose the Black leaders to be the buffers [between whites and Blacks], and those Black "leaders" fought us like hell. I mean, because they wanted to be accepted by powers that be. Mind you now, they actually had never met Woodruff nor the other folks who were in charge. The minions for these guys were rich, dealt with the Black folks, the Black leaders. So in Atlanta, we had to fight the white power structure, the political power structure, which is different from the white power structure, the Black power structure, and the college presidents. And God's hand had to have been in it, because it was not something that was a walk in the park.

We didn't have a Bull Connor [of Birmingham] who would beat us in the head that it's gonna go to all the newspapers all over the world. Those folks were poisoning us with arsenic. In other words, it wasn't obvious. They put out the slogan [that Atlanta was] "A city too busy to hate." They were hating all the time when they were hiding their hands.


So what we had to do was this, we had to move to organize the masses. The average person in Atlanta, Georgia — 97% of the Black folks living in Atlanta, Georgia — made $2,000 a year and less [equal to $15,700 in 2013]. Did you hear me? Two thousand dollars a year and less.

So what we had to do was to find a way to corral those folks into a political force, and thank God, I went to Morehouse and was taught by some extremely brilliant economists who laid out to me the domino theory, put out by John Foster Dulles, basically dealing with the Pacific Basin. John Foster Dulles said that if Korea falls, the rest of the basin is going to fall like dominoes. You take that theory and then apply it to something else that another professor taught me which was that the marginal profit for grocery stores was about 4%, department stores was about 8%. And so I factored in that we represented 33% of the population in Atlanta — Blacks did — if we could just get 50% of those folks to not go downtown, we could bring them to their knees.

But, we had to have an organ to make that happen. The Atlanta Daily World, which was the first Black newspaper in America, was against it. It was as if it was either being written by the KKK, because they did not want to write anything positive about us, and so we started something called the Student Movement and You, and we hired Julian Bond who was an English major to write it for us.

And then all of a sudden a white man walked into my office down on Auburn Avenue in late May of 1960, and I was there. I was apprehensive. I said: Jesus, how did he get past Marianne, who was my secretary. So he must've seen that I was apprehensive, so he said: My name is [UNCLEAR] Hill. I own Hill Office Supplies. And I knew then that he was light complexion Black man, and he looked white. He sat down, and he said: "Scotty's wrong at the Atlanta Daily World." He said: "I'm gonna start a newspaper, but I need your help." And that's when I sent Julian over there, Julian Bond, John Gibson. I sent a lot of students to write the paper. Mr. Hill could use his money to start it, and it's called the Atlanta Inquirer. And that's what's in business right now, 50-some years later, but we needed to have an organ to sell our story.

So between Julian and other folks who worked over there, we were able to then get rid of those mimeograph sheets and have our own little newspaper, and we told the story. So we called the boycott on downtown Atlanta, Georgia. We had a slogan: "Close down your account with segregation; open up your account with freedom. Don't shop downtown." And it was a massive thing.

Dr. King is Arrested

And so then I contacted Dr. King, Jr. in August of 1960 and asked him to go to jail with us. And he agreed to do that, and so on the 19th of October, he and I and two plus other kids went to jail at Rich's Department store and other places. The rest of that is history. The Kennedy's got it logged and all that kind of stuff, and Kennedy moved from being double digits down in the Black community to having won by 70% after they got involved with King.

The Agreement

Now, they put out something called the Blue Bond, and the Blue Bond was the one that really turned the tide for them. What I've learned of late is why did the whites all of a sudden decide that they were going to sign that agreement with us to end everything? In doing some research lately, I learned that they lost $10 million over the Christmas holiday in 1960. And that's why when I announced on the 1st of February, 1961 that we were going to extend the boycott, and on March the 6th, they went and signed that agreement. It was the money.

So the point I'm making to you is that if you're going to carry forward a revolution, you have to have your masses organized within a very simple common denominator. Close down your account with segregation; open up your account with freedom. Don't shop downtown. And be able to continue to sell it, sell it. That's what we did. That's why we won in Atlanta. They were not going to give up, as long as we were just sitting there. You had to take the money out of their pocket.

I'll tell you what happened. I got a call from Jessie Hill asking me to come to the most important meeting of my life. And I said: "Well, why Jessie?" "Well, I can't tell you until you get there." So I said: "Okay. ... I went to the meeting, and I walked in, and here is all the power-structure of the white community and the Black community, not Woodruff now, but all the other folks. And they wanted to have us agree to call off the boycott and everything on a gentleman's agreement.

I said: "Oh, no. No. I mean, c'mon." And so they went back and forth on me. So all of a sudden, when I wouldn't give in, Daddy King [Martin Luther King's father] jumped up and said: "Boy, I'm tired of you! I baptized you! You're going to wreck this town!"

Well, my mother taught me to respect pastors, and so I just looked at him. Ironically, the man sitting in front of me was a man named Frank Neely, who was the Chairman of the Board of Rich's [department store]. He had been hitting me on my leg the whole while with his cane from across — Anyway, when I kept saying: "We cannot do this this way. I represent some people. You give me your best offer, and I'll take it to them." That's why King jumped up and said all that.

When the battle ensued with King attacking me, and I wouldn't give in, then Ivan Allen, the guy who became Mayor, called for a recess. And during the recess, all these people [Black leadership] came and talked to me: "We've never had the white people to agree to anything like this." And I said: "No, I'm not gonna do it unless it's in writing." So finally, they wanted to tie it to the school desegregation thing. And what they wanted to do was to — what they proposed to me was to desegregate everything if the school system desegregates peacefully in the fall. ...

I said: "Have you lost your mind?" 'Cause I knew enough about them to know that all they had to do was pay somebody some money to go out there and start a fight, and then they would use that. So finally, they did agree to sign it, but my position was: If you sign it, I still have to take it back to the students. Now why did I do that? Well, I had a situation here where the Black leaders had joined with the white leaders on me, okay? I'm sitting in this room, by myself, with all these folks on the other side.

So, Mr. John Calhoun, who was a major NAACP leader, came up to me, and he says: "Lonnie, you're between a rock and a hard place." He said: "I was born in 1899, and every day of my life I have been segregated. And these white folks are willing to sign this agreement that they're going to desegregate, absolutely, after the school system peacefully desegregates in the fall. And it's in writing." He said: "I've waited all my life." He said: "It's going to come in two, three or four months?" He said: "I'll go along with it."

I said: "Okay, Mr. Calhoun, on one condition. I've got to take it back to my people. I wouldn't give in on that. When I left that meeting, before I got back to the campus, Ivan Allen — we were at the Chamber of Commerce — he had somebody waiting in the wings. He went in there and told them that the Negro students have agreed to end the boycott and that the lunch counters will be open tomorrow segregated. And that's all he said.

The Mass Meeting

That created pandemonium in that town. So four days later, there was a mass meeting at [UNCLEAR] Baptist Church, and all these — so they wanted me to preside. Well, Mr. Carl Holdman who was a professor at AU that they had deliberately left out of that meeting said: "No, hell, you're not gonna do that. You all created this problem. You solve it." So Reverend [UNCLEAR] started presiding, and then Daddy King got up and started trying to lecture to about 2,000 people. That's what happened. Daddy King — they were booing and Daddy King got upset. He said: "I've been fighting for Civil Rights in this town for the last 30 years."

And a woman up there with the white nurse's uniform on said: "That's what's wrong." She said that, the church just erupted. So I asked Reverend [Stinson?] to let me use your phone. And so I called ML, Dr. King, Jr. I said: "ML" — he had just come back to town and lived on Sunset by that time — I said: "Look, we need you over here to talk to us." I said: "Your Dad just got booed down." I said: "Listen, we have a mob up here." He said: "But I'm kinda sick. I got a cold." But I said: "ML, you've got to come." He said: "Okay."

He came in. And everyone talks about his speech at the March on Washington. That wasn't his greatest speech. His greatest speech was that night when he came in there and he took that crowd up the mountain and back into the valley, up and down, up and down. And he praise, "Oh God," for what they had tried to do for all those years. He then talked about this is a new day, and what these young folks have done is unprecedented. And if the white people do not live up to what they said they're gonna do, in writing, he said: "I will have to lead this march downtown." And that's how the crowd kind of calmed down.

Now Ivan Allen in his memoir, former Mayor, wrote, that he was in that meeting. I didn't see him, but he said he was there. He said that's when he realized that this man had power that nobody else in that town had, because he could quell that crowd, because there were 2,000 folks in the church, and I understand there were about another 1,000 or 1,500 outside listening on our loudspeaker.

Looking Back

So to make a long story short, what you had there was a battle between the old guard and the new folks. Between the white people and all of the Black folks. And why did we win? We won because we were organized, and we would not give in. But it was a terrible thing to have to battle in Atlanta, Georgia because you didn't have things in Jackson [MS] where the community was already organized. In Atlanta, you had Black folks who thought that they had arrived, and they were willing to kill their Mama if they thought they were gonna be somehow or another displaced. And these crazy kids? No, no. No, that can't happen. But that Movement broke the back of the old line paternalistic leadership in Atlanta, Georgia.

But I think, in a way, ... I think that I was deluded into thinking that once we changed the law, over time, people would begin to accept the change and therefore the overall society would begin — 

The people who pulled this Movement together were all young people. And most of us had to finish college and go on to do some other things and raise families. To a great extent, the masses of people that we were fighting for to try and make American a better place were kind of sideliners. They watched the battle. They participated in the boycotts. They wouldn't shop downtown, those kind of things. But when ... I left to go to Washington, DC, others of us went on back to school, and you went to law school. The masses of people were left kind of rudderless, because [we] were the people who were the catalysts to bring about the change. [We] were the organized ones.

What We Failed to Achieve

So what did we fail to achieve? We failed to achieve a permanent organization with some roots around the country that would continue to fight for the kinds of things that we were fighting for. Because we, as I said to someone earlier today, unconsciously, we put the freedom struggle for all of us on cruise control. But the folks that we were battling put it on overdrive. The battle.

So what you have here now is a situation wherein the people who were opposed to having the American dream go to everybody, they retrenched, and they did the same thing in the '60s and the '70s that they did after freeing the slaves in 1865. They went to change the rules to reinvent slavery by another name. And they've done the same thing now. What did they do? Richard Nixon, who said in '64 when he lost the governorship of California: "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore." But the South was roiling, the white South, over school desegregation and anti-bussing. So Mr. Nixon said: Oh — and I'm putting this in his mouth now, okay? Based on his actions — Oh, if I can get a base in the South to hook into my Midwest and Far West and Eastern, I can be President. And so he then began to make speeches: anti-bussing, the "silent majority".

[See Cambridge MD & the "White Backlash" for background information.]

And in 1968, in Miami Beach, [Senator] Strom Thurmond [SC] who was head of the southern delegations at that time, went to meet with him in his suite and got him to agree to appoint strict-constructionists to the Supreme Court. Got him to agree to keep pushing this idea of basically white supremacy using code words. And then he brought in a young guy named Roger Ailes, A-I-L-E-S, who now heads Fox Broadcasting as his aide to handle PR. The rest is history, because the [white] South who hated the Republican Party because they had ended slavery, all of a sudden decided: Oh wait a minute now. We can take over the Republican Party in the South, and we can then hook up with our cousins who have moved to the Midwest in 1803, after the Louisiana Purchase, and we're gonna have a new majority. That is exactly what has happened, folks. That's exactly what has happened.

I won't go through all those presidential races, but we had the delusion that America would all of a sudden begin to live up to its creed — in time. We all knew it wasn't going to happen overnight, but we were naive to think that those folks who had spent centuries trying to create this dual society were going to all of a sudden turn around and say: You know, we've been wrong. We need to do a better job.

We now have to do, doctor, we now have to go back and try to readdress this question that we've been trying to make here which is that people of color, regardless of color should I say, should not be treated unfairly in this country, because that's how Jefferson, even though he was a slave owner, that's what was implied in that Declaration of Independence.

Copyright © Lonnie King, 2014

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