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Exploring the history and future of Atlanta's civil rights legacy

In this 1960 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. (AP Photo, File)
In this 1960 file photo, Martin Luther King Jr. speaks in Atlanta. (AP Photo, File)

Atlanta—the center of civil rights activism.

From the 1950s and 60s, to the 90s.

“It had sort of become this Black mecca,” Rose Scott says. “If you were going to make it, folks were moving to Atlanta.”

These days, Atlanta is in transition.

“Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different lens, a different viewpoint of today’s activism. But definitely the outcomes that they want are the same, which is justice,” Rose Scott, host of “Closer Look with Rose Scott” on WABE, says. “Whatever that looks like. Social, racial, economic. It’s the same.”

Today, On Point: The desired outcomes for modern civil rights activists might be familiar, but the means of achieving them might be different. We explore Atlanta’s legacy, and future leadership in the pursuit of civil rights.

Guests

Charles Black, civil rights activist. Former chairman of The Atlanta Student Movement.

Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project. (@nseufot)

Maurice Hobson, professor of African American studies at Georgia State University. Author of “The Legend of the Black Mecca.” (@DrMoHob)

Also Featured

Georgianne Thomas, humanities professor at Clark Atlanta University and creator of “Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964.” (@drgeorgianne)

YoNasDa Lonewolf, community organizer and activist in Atlanta, GA. (@QueenYoNasDa)

Transcript: Highlights From The Show’s Open

In 1960, Georgianne Thomas was 18 years old and headed to college in Atlanta, Georgia. Georgianne is Black. She grew up in Gary, Indiana. And she says she didn’t think too much about race at the time. She had Black and white friends at school. She knew Black families and white families in her neighborhood in Gary.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Atlanta was different. Georgianne’s mother went to Spelman College, a historically Black college for women. So Georgianne went there, too. And in September of 1960, she got on the train from Gary to Atlanta. She traveled alone. But when she got off the train, the woman from the college who was supposed to meet her wasn’t there. So Georgianne took a peek inside the waiting room.

GEORGIANNE THOMAS: And I see a man in there mopping the floor. A white man mopping the floor in the waiting room. … I did see the sign. It said colored and white. Which had no bearing on me. Because I had never seen a colored and white sign. And it didn’t have any impact, because my mom forgot to give me — as the young people say, the 411. I missed it. And so I proceeded to open the door. And he looked at me with such astonishment, I could just see his face to this day. And it was at the same time, the Spelman woman who had come to meet me, said, Georgianne, you can’t go in there. I was just so put out with that. Just on my first time down south, I could not believe I was having to deal with something like that. It didn’t make sense to me.

CHAKRABARTI: Then Georgianne and the Spelman representative made their way to campus, but they could not take a taxi. They had to travel in another way.

THOMAS: The Jitney was for colored people. You couldn’t ride in a taxi. So there were people who got together and had I guess a business, and it was called the Jitney. And the Jitney took us on campus.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, transition to college life isn’t easy now, and it wasn’t easy then. It was even harder for Georgianne. Given the culture and political shock she was feeling. She was getting homesick. So later in her first week at Spelman, she decided to go to Woolworth and have a hot dog, which was one of her favorite things to do at home in Gary.

THOMAS: But they told me I couldn’t go. I had to go to the back door. I could not go in the front door, and I couldn’t sit at the counter. And I tell you, I was just dumbfounded at that. I could not sit at the counter of the Woolworth to get a hotdog and a drink, and I had been doing this most of my life. So right away, I was just blown away.

CHAKRABARTI: Not long after, something changed for Georgianne in a conversation with another student, Herchelle Sullivan Challenor.

THOMAS: She came to one of the student movements and said, You have to do this. We have to make a change. We cannot allow things to happen. And I said, I am going to do it.

CHAKRABARTI: Challenor recruited Georgianne Thomas to join the civil rights movement. In 1960 in Atlanta, she marched, often facing danger. A white man burned her with a cigarette, and she had several run ins with the Ku Klux Klan. But still, she marched. Georgianne was in Atlanta, after all. Cradle of the civil rights movement. In that same year, 1960, Dr. Martin Luther King had just become co-pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, a mere three miles from where Georgianne Thomas was studying at Spelman.

MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. [Archive Tape]: They came to the point after saying how God is able to deliver us. From the burning fiery furnace. But, if he doesn’t deliver us, we still are not going to bow. But, if not. Do you get that? These men were saying that our faith is so deep, and that we’ve found something so dear. And so precious. That nothing can turn us away from it.  

CHAKRABARTI: Dr. King delivering his “But, If Not” sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1967.

CHAKRABARTI: Georgianne Thomas is proud of her civil rights work. She is not so proud of where she finds the country today.

THOMAS: It’s heartbreaking. It’s heartbreaking to me. I really believe the hype. What was the hype? The hype was if we march, it will be a change. The hype was if we went to school and we became educated, that white America would say, Oh, look, see it’s not what they thought. If we integrated, you could see how we were people, too.

CHAKRABARTI: Georgianne stayed in Atlanta. She is now a humanities professor at Clark Atlanta University. And a few years ago, she created a documentary about her classmates’ activism. It’s called “Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964.

THOMAS: And I’m trying to say, well, why can’t [we] be friends? I wrote a song. It’s on YouTube. Can’t we be? Can’t we be friends? Can’t we be friends? What happened to that? What happened to friendship? What happened to that?

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Professor Georgianne Thomas. She’s a professor of humanities at Clark Atlanta University, and that song is from her documentary called “Foot Soldiers: Class of 1964.”

From The Reading List

Black Perspectives: “The King of Atlanta: Martin Luther King Jr. and Public Memory” — “On April 4th, the world will commemorate the sacrifice of Atlanta’s own Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. American presidents, world diplomats, and ordinary citizens will gather to honor a prophet who paid the ultimate price for humanity.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.