This discussion of the civil
rights movement in Atlanta begins
with the decade 1940-1949, for it was during that period that the city's
African American leadership systematically created and mobilized a united black
electorate to engage in an ongoing battle for social change.
In the face of overt racism, discrimination,
and hostility against African Americans of the city, black leaders decided that
they could best accomplish their goal through gradualism — slow, deliberate
steps — rather than by drastic change.
Most often, this gradual change was achieved through negotiations
between the black leadership and those with influence in the city's white
political power structure.
black leadership, two major issues shaped the beginning of this era: apathy
among African American voters and problems with Atlanta's
all-white police force. In 1940, African
Americans comprised 30 percent of the city's population, but less than five
percent of them were registered to vote.
John Wesley Dobbs, the African American leader dubbed "the mayor of Auburn
Avenue," said of the black community: "We are
asleep at the switch." (Pomerantz, 126) The apathy among Atlanta's
African American voters in the early 1940s was in large measure a reaction to
efforts to disfranchise and terrorize them that started during
Voting rights undercut
During Radical Reconstruction (1867-1877) almost 100,000 African American men registered to vote in Georgia. These newly franchised Black Georgians elected thirty-two African American men to the Georgia legislature, but white legislators expelled them after only two months. The black legislators were reinstated in 1870, but when Reconstruction ended, state laws were instituted to undercut voting rights guaranteed to African American men by the 14th and 15th Amendments to the U.S.
Constitution (women would not be given the right to vote until 1920 with
passage of the 19th Amendment).
A cumulative poll tax instituted in 1877 required that white and black men between 21 and 60 years of age pay a sum of money for every year since their twenty-first birthday, or since the law took effect. While some black men might have had the economic wherewithal to pay the poll tax, it was much more difficult to prepare for the vaguely defined and arbitrarily applied literacy and citizenship requirements of a 1908 state constitutional amendment. In addition to these measures, at the end of the nineteenth century, the GeorgiaGeorgia Democratic Party—the party in control of government in the state—began to prohibit African Americans from voting in state primaries. In the early 1940s, all of these measures continued to severely restrict black voting, and thus black political strength, in Georgia.
The ever-present danger of racial terrorism during the Jim Crow era dissuaded many black Atlantans from using the limited voting rights they had. “Jim Crow” embodied laws and practices upheld segregation and racial discrimination in the South from 1883 until the passage of federal legislation in the mid-1960s. During
this time, white hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Columbians
physically intimidated and killed African Americans not only for attempting to
vote, but also for having economic power and social standing within the
community. Thousands of African American
women and men throughout the South were lynched, and their murderers were
rarely prosecuted. In Georgia,
there were 492 racially-motivated murders of African American women and men
between 1882 and 1968, according to statistics of the Archives at Tuskegee
Institute. That number placed the state
second only to Mississippi, where
539 black people are known to have been lynched during the same time
Indelibly etched in the
collective memory of black Atlantans of the 1940s were recollections of
previous acts of racial terrorism. One
of the bloodiest was the 1906 Atlanta Riot in which 25 African Americans and
one white man were killed. The riot was
ignited, in part, by rumors and unsubstantiated newspaper stories about sexual
assaults on white women by black men published in the Atlanta Constitution
and Atlanta Journal. But the
flames were fanned by the anti-black rhetoric of the Georgia
gubernatorial campaign in which future Governor
Hoke Smith warned it was "folly for us to neglect any means within our reach to
remove the present danger of Negro domination."
It was the fear of "Negro rule"
that fueled racial terrorism, according to anti-lynching crusader Ida B.
Wells-Barnett. "The real purpose of
these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that in the South he has no
rights that the law will enforce," she had written in her pamphlet Lynch Law
in Georgia in 1899 after a series of gruesome murders near Atlanta.
Voter indifference persists
Despite the laws and threats of
racial violence, for brief periods in 1919 and 1921, leaders such as the Rev.
A.D. Williams, head of the local National Association for the Advancement of
Colored People (NAACP) and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s grandfather; community
organizer and educator Lugenia Burns Hope; educator Charles L. Harper; and Atlanta Independent newspaper editor
Benjamin Davis successfully rallied black voting power to force the city to
build Atlanta's first black public secondary school, Booker T. Washington High
School. In 1940, another show of African
American voting strength defeated a bond for education that would have short-changed
black schools in the city. Generally, however, in the years before the
burgeoning of the civil rights movement in Atlanta,
legal and illegal roadblocks in the path of black voters made them believe the
electoral process was not a realistic way for African Americans to acquire
In the early 1940s, this attitude
worked against efforts such as those of Lugenia Burns Hope's Neighborhood Union
and Frankie V. Adams in the Atlanta University School of Social Work as they
attempted to improve the quality of life for impoverished black citizens.
Even W.E.B. Du Bois, an Atlanta
University sociologist and civil
rights activist, found it difficult to maintain support during this time as he
revived the Atlanta Conferences, in which empirical data on the status and
conditions of African Americans in the city was presented as evidence of the
effects of racism and segregation. (Du Bois, 325)
African American voter
indifference made it difficult to shake Atlanta
from its own indifference toward the many inequities faced by African American
citizens. But words penned in 1903 by a
younger Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk proved prophetic: "Today it makes
little difference to Atlanta, to
the South, what the Negro thinks or dreams or wills. In the soul-life of the
land he is today, and naturally will long remain, unthought of, half forgotten;
and yet when he does come to think and will and do for himself — and let no man
dream that day will never come — then the part he plays will not be one of
sudden learning, but words and thoughts he has been taught to lisp in his race
Voter interest takes hold
The African American women and
men who comprised the leadership of the Auburn Avenue
community and the AtlantaUniversity
Center called upon their most
powerful words and thoughts to end voter apathy during the 1940s. The local
branch of the NAACP, the Atlanta Urban League, Atlanta
University, as well as a number of
women's clubs and African American fraternal organizations engaged in voter
education and registration to place the black community in a position to negotiate
with the white power structure for a wide range of needed changes. (Harmon,
The efforts of these
organizations received a boost from the 1944 United States Supreme Court
decision Smith v. Allright declaring
white primaries unconstitutional. In 1946 the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Primus King v. State of Georgia outlawed Georgia’s white primary.
These decisions provided a legal foundation
for the voter registration efforts of Atlanta's
African American leaders. Two other
catalysts for ending black voter apathy during this period were the abolishment of the
poll tax and the reduction of the voting age in Georgia
from 21 to 18. To organize and direct
voter registration efforts, attorney A.T. Walden and Atlanta Daily World Editor C.A. Scott created the Fulton County
Citizen's Democratic Club in 1944. Grace
Towns Hamilton, executive director of the Atlanta Urban League at the time,
initiated demographic surveys of the black community to assist in canvassing
In 1946, black leaders'
determination to build enough voting strength to influence upcoming elections
led to the creation of the All Citizen's Registration Committee (ACRC) — a
special coalition committee formed under the local NAACP and directed by
Atlanta University History Professor Clarence Bacote.
Long-standing organizations like the Atlanta
Civic and Political League, founded in 1934 by John Wesley Dobbs, and the To
Improve Conditions (TIC) Club, established by activist Ruby Blackburn, were
reinvigorated by the removal of voting restrictions. The Hungry Club, organized
at the Butler Street YMCA under the leadership of Warren Cochrane, was created
to provide a forum for political discussions.
A range of other organizations and institutions were recruited to engage
in voter education and registration. (Tuck, 63)
Under the banner of the ACRC, in
the spring of 1946, organizations used a variety of tactics to educate and
register eligible African American voters.
Churches sometimes designated Sunday worship as "Citizenship Sunday," at
which time the minister encouraged the congregation to register and vote.
Black labor and civic organizations urged
their members to register. Black media —
particularly WERD, the first African American commercial radio station, and
C.A. Scott's Atlanta Daily World —
was used to rally eligible voters.
Businesses encouraged their employees to become registered voters.
Former Atlanta University Professor George Towns (father of Grace Towns Hamilton) played a vital role in the efforts. African American public
school teachers — 82 percent of whom were women — played a significant role in
educating students and encouraging adults to vote: "If you can reach the child,
you can reach the parent," affirmed teacher/activist Narvie Harris. (Nasstrom,
123) The campaign was so successful that each day crowds of women and men
waited hours in long lines outside the Fulton County Courthouse to register to
vote. To reduce the crowds, the
Registrar's Office agreed to open on Saturdays and even deploy a mobile
registration station into black neighborhoods during the week.
Voting power leads to political change
The impact of newly registered
black voters was evidenced by the 1946 mid-term election for the Fifth
Congressional District seat. Helen
Douglas Mankin was the only one of 19 white candidates who sought the black vote,
and as a result, she won the election.
All of the candidates were invited to meet with black leaders; Mankin
was the only candidate who accepted that invitation.
As a result, her secret meeting with this
constituency became a model for gradualism through negotiation, which
characterized the era. Even though the
maneuverings of white supremacists would prevent her from keeping her seat in
the next election, Mankin's tactics and initial victory provided a template for
white politicians who wanted to garner support from Atlanta's
black community. Moreover, the well
planned and executed get-out-the-vote strategy of black leaders made it clear
that the African American electorate was a force to be reckoned with.
Unfortunately, several events
threatened to shake African American voting strength in the wake of the Mankin
victory. Unbeknownst to the black
community in Atlanta at the time,
the Ku Klux Klan considered assassinating A.T. Walden for his leadership role
in rallying African American voters to support Mankin. But, for unknown reasons, the Klan never
carried out the plan. (Allen, 10) Also,
just days after the Mankin victory in July 1946, two young African American
couples were lynched, with at least 60 bullets fired into their bodies. These murders occurred following an
altercation that resulted in the stabbing of a white man by a black man in Monroe,
Georgia, just 50 miles
from Atlanta. Although the black leadership of Atlanta
offered a reward for information about the murders, no one was brought to
justice for the crimes. Another
potential setback occurred three years later when the state instituted the
Voters' Qualification Act in an overt attempt to revive legal barriers to
African American voting rights. Under
this law, voters had to re-register every four years and correctly answer 30
questions. However, the law was rarely
enforced and was finally repealed two years later because more whites than
blacks failed the literacy test. (Henderson & Roberts, 88)
In spite of these events, black
voting strength was actually recharged at the end of the decade by the
formation of the non-partisan Atlanta Negro Voters League (ANVL) led by Dobbs
and Walden and supported by organizations such as the Atlanta Urban League led
by Grace Towns Hamilton (Harmon, 36)
Voting power leads to change in police department
all-white police department presented the black community with two faces:
brutality and indifference. "Police
brutality was so familiar," notes historian Stephen Tuck, "that only a
particularly gruesome or unusual offense made the front pages of the Black
Press." Tuck recounts one instance in
which a 16-year-old African American youth arrested for burglary was tortured
with a hot iron. (13) Certainly, the
fact that many members of Atlanta's
all-white police force belonged to the Ku Klux Klan made such brutality
acceptable. Police indifference to
"black on black crime," as well as their refusal to patrol black neighborhoods,
exacerbated the situation. The high
crime rate in many of these neighborhoods reflected these problems.
Throughout this period, Atlanta's
black leadership sought to deal with these challenges through public
demonstrations, voter registration campaigns, and soliciting the tactical
support of organizations like the NAACP and the Southern Regional Council.
Significantly, a key demonstration was a 1945
march from Ebenezer Baptist
Church on Auburn
Avenue to the Atlanta
City Hall organized by the United
Negro Veterans. Eventually, black leaders
were able to use the strength of the black vote to bargain with Atlanta Mayor
William Hartsfield. Hartsfield refused
to support the hiring of African American policemen in 1945, saying he would
listen when black leaders delivered 10,000 registered voters.
The continued strengthening of black voting
power and support from some in the white community — even Hartsfield's new
Police Chief Herbert Jenkins — spurred the Mayor to push for black police
officers two years later. Eight African
American police officers finally were hired in 1948.
With the help of the African American
community, Hartsfield was re-elected in 1949; support from this constituency
also would be crucial to Hartsfield's future bids for re-election. (Harmon, 27;
The city's first black policemen
could not arrest white suspects and, to avoid racial tension at police
headquarters, these officers were initially stationed at the Butler Street
YMCA. "But this is still progress," said
John Wesley Dobbs, who had been fighting for black law enforcement officers
since the 1930s. "And the other will come." (Pomerantz, 164)
Record numbers of black Atlantans
registered to vote during the first phase of the civil rights movement, and
they wielded their voting power in ways that resulted in positive change for
their community. However, these gains
were under assault almost as soon as they were realized.
The next section of Atlanta's
civil rights history explores this ongoing battle.
Top of page | Works Cited
This story of Atlantas role in the civil rights movement, along with the accompanying timeline and bibliography, were written by Clarissa Myrick-Harris, Ph.D. and Norman Harris, Ph.D. of OneWorld Archives. Readers for this material include Dr. Vicki Crawford of Clark Atlanta University, Dr. Andy Ambrose of the Atlanta History Center, and Brenda Banks of the Georgia Archives. Editorial changes have been made by ARCHE for purposes of length and style.