ATLANTA, called the Dogwood City on the city-limits signs, claims to have the most beautiful spring in America, and on my first day there the claim seemed justified. It was a warm March day, and in the heavily wooded residential sections the white dogwood blossoms were already coming out. Downtown, I saw another rite of spring. Some Negro students—like all students, always more likely to protest in the spring—were picketing the Henry Grady Hotel on Peachtree Street. The pickets, who also included two or three white students, were protesting the white-only policy maintained by the Henry Grady and most other Atlanta hotels. One sign read “No Room at This Inn.” Another, more to the point in a city that prides itself on being concerned chiefly with commercial competition, read “Dallas, Houston, and Miami—Why Not Atlanta?” To anyone who had lived in Atlanta in recent years, it was a familiar sight. The students, solemn and neatly dressed, were walking slowly up and down Peachtree, careful to stay the correct distance apart. Two or three Atlanta policemen, assigned to make certain that the incident could be reported as having resulted in “no incidents,” stood in the shade of the hotel, but few of the passing shoppers gave the pickets a glance. I had watched the students picket department stores and movie theaters in Atlanta two years before, and it occurred to me that they would have little left to picket after the restaurants and hotels were desegregated—a move that seemed inevitable. (The word had always had some currency in Atlanta, even when it was not used in the rest of the state.) The hotel keepers were already under pressure from businessmen, the editors of the newspapers, and members of the city administration, all of whom kept pointing out that hotel segregation might be costing Atlanta millions every year in convention business, plus a possible World’s Fair. The progressive Atlanta Constitution, which had only urged reasonable negotiations during previous demonstrations, had just come out flatly for desegregation of the hotels. Race relations in Atlanta, it seemed to me during my stay there, had taken on a faintly Northern flavor, with a lot of talk about brotherhood and the fine relations between the races, and great satisfaction at having schools that were technically integrated but did not actually have many Negroes in classes with whites. The last race story I had read about Atlanta was on an essentially Northern topic—housing. The story, which concerned the erection of wooden barricades by the city across two streets between a Negro neighborhood and a white neighborhood that felt itself threatened by infiltration, even had a Northern ending. A judge of the state superior court—not a federal judge—ruled that the roadblocks, which had become nationally known as “Atlanta’s Wall,” were obviously racial barriers and were therefore unconstitutional. He ordered the blemishes on Atlanta’s image removed, whereupon the white homeowners, announcing that they had nothing against Negroes, decided to move out of the neighborhood as a group.
The Atlanta Negro community has traditionally been led by the wealthy businessmen who run the insurance companies, banks, and real-estate offices on Auburn Avenue and by the presidents of the six private Negro colleges that make up Atlanta University Center, and it has long had a considerable middle class whose level of prosperity and education is the highest in the Negro South. Negroes have registered freely since 1944, when the white primary was declared unconstitutional, and in the two mayoral elections in Atlanta preceding my visit the candidate elected mayor did not have a white majority. But even though Atlanta was a relatively enlightened city—“too busy to hate,” the former mayor used to say—it had desegregated practically no public facilities by the late fifties. The traditional leaders of the Negro community, usually called the Old Leadership, seemed to have settled into the belief that the white businessmen, always called the Power Structure, would take care of everything in time if the boat remained unrocked and the voting coalition remained unbroken.
“Atlanta was comparing itself to Mississippi and saying how enlightened it was,” says Whitney Young, Jr., the executive director of the National Urban League and a former dean of the Atlanta University School of Social Work. “Nothing was really integrated, not even the library or the buses, but the people were beginning to believe their own press clippings—even the Negroes.” Early in 1958, to make a study of just what had been done in Atlanta toward equality for the one out of three citizens who was a Negro, Young and several other Negroes, most of whom were in their forties and most of whom had their headquarters on Hunter Street, in the newer Negro district, rather than on Auburn Avenue, started an informal group called The Atlanta Committee for Cooperative Action, or A.C.C.A. The editor of the study, which was published eight months later under the title A Second Look, was Carl Holman, who was then an English professor at Atlanta University Center’s Clark College and later became the public-information officer for the Civil Rights Commission in Washington, D.C. From 1960 to 1962, Holman was also editor of the Atlanta Inquirer, a lively and militant weekly founded during the Atlanta sit-ins by him and some other Negroes, most of whom were members of the same A.C.C.A. group and all of whom were fed up with the cautious policies of Atlanta’s Negro daily newspaper. By the time A Second Look was published, it had the backing and financial assistance of the Old Leadership, and it immediately became a guide to the action that was needed. The younger men, working through existing organizations whenever that was possible and forming new ones when it wasn’t, initiated the action, pulling the Old Leadership behind them—the pattern that integration activities in Atlanta have followed ever since. The man from the A.C.C.A. group who was most concerned with school integration was Jesse Hill, Jr., the energetic young chief actuary of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, which is the second largest life-insurance company in Georgia and one of Auburn Avenue’s most solid institutions.
In 1957, Hill, who was a member of the education committee of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had enlisted the help of two or three other Negro leaders in an attempt to desegregate the Georgia State College of Business Administration in Atlanta. Georgia State had the advantage of being a city college with no dormitories, which obviated travel and rooming problems, and of having night sessions. “In those days,” Hill told me when I visited him in Atlanta, “people hesitated to send a seventeen-year old kid into that hostility, and we were working mainly to get older people to try for the night school. Frankly, we did some real campaigning. We tried to get some of the people in our own office, for instance. We got three girls to apply, and we won our court case, although the judge didn’t order the plaintiffs admitted. By that time, the state had investigated the girls who were applying and found some illegitimate births and that kind of thing with two, and they would have probably been turned down on so-called moral grounds. Then, the state passed a law that said nobody over twenty-one could start as an undergraduate in a Georgia college, which eliminated the third girl and ended any chance of having older people apply for Georgia State.”
In 1958, working quietly (in anti-integration bills passed after the 1954 decision, Georgia strengthened its laws against barratry, or incitement of litigation), Hill and some of the other younger men compiled a list of outstanding seniors in the Atlanta Negro high schools and began to approach those whose academic records were so good that a college would have to find other reasons for rejecting them. Hill talked to about a dozen students. Some of them were considering Georgia State; others were more interested in the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech or the state medical college at Augusta. Ultimately, either because something in their background made them vulnerable to one kind of attack or another, or because of a final unwillingness to go through with it, none of them actually applied. Then, in June 1959, Hill found Charlayne and Hamilton.
“Ordinarily this is a selling job,” Hill told me. “You have to go seek out and work with these people and do quite a bit of selling. That’s how it’s been with the other kids at Georgia and those in the Atlanta schools and all. But not Hamilton and Charlayne. They had an almost normal desire to go to the University of Georgia—as normal as you could expect from a Negro in a segregated community. They both knew something about the school; Hamilton had followed the football team and Charlayne knew all about the journalism school. They were almost like two kids from Northside.” Northside is a formerly all-white high school in Atlanta’s best residential district, and it may be a sign of progress that one of the Negro freshmen who entered Georgia Tech in 1962 actually was from Northside, having gone there as one of the nine Negro seniors who integrated Atlanta high schools in 1961.
“Hamilton Holmes was on the list,” Hill went on, “but I really didn’t have to recruit those kids; they almost recruited me. They knew just what they wanted. I took them by Georgia State. We were after a breakthrough and we had a good chance there. The judge had retained jurisdiction in the case, and Georgia State had plenty of vacancies because of this age law. The Atlanta Journal had run pictures of almost empty classrooms. That was important; after all, the University of Georgia kept Charlayne and Hamilton out for a year just by saying they were overcrowded, and it sounded pretty legitimate on the face of it. Anyway, Charlayne and Hamilton wouldn’t hear of going to Georgia State. Both of them wanted to go to Georgia. Why they wanted to go I’ll never know, but it happened that was the right thing. It got straight to the heart of the matter. I think the governor might have closed Georgia State or the Atlanta high schools if they had come first, but Georgia, with all those legislators’ sons over there and the way everybody in the state feels about it, was different. He wouldn’t dare close it.”
Once Charlayne and Hamilton had decided to go to Georgia, Hill set out to do battle again with the system that had defeated him in the Georgia State case. He sent the first volley of letters and phone calls through the facilities of Atlanta Life, and then got the local N.A.A.C.P. branch to put up the money for legal expenses that were necessarily incurred before the litigation got far enough along to be eligible for aid from the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (a separate corporation from the N.A.A.C.P. itself, and usually called The Inc. Fund, or The Ink Fund). Hill called around the country to find the Turner High School principal, whose signature was required on the application forms and who had left for the summer. Hill went to the Fulton County Courthouse with Charlayne and Hamilton, towing their pastors along as references, and was passed from judge to judge until the clerk of the Fulton County Superior Court finally agreed to certify that both of the students were residents of the State of Georgia, documentation that the federal court had ruled was adequate without the addition of alumni recommendations, which were formerly required and which were not easily obtained by Negro applicants. Hill, Holman, and Young met with Charlayne and Hamilton to warn them of what to expect from Georgia admission officials and Georgia students.
“I had sent for application blanks and a catalogue and hadn’t got them,” said Hill. “We wanted to make sure we had them in time. Like most places, the University of Georgia has Negroes to do the cleaning up, and one of the janitors got application blanks and catalogues for us. Every time we made a step we double-checked. I must have written a hundred letters to the university; they wouldn’t tell you anything. Don Hollowell checked every letter. We had to certify it and send it registered mail, receipt requested. Anything that got lost, that was the end of that for another year. It was just like pulling teeth. Carl Holman checked and double-checked the applications. We didn’t leave anything to chance. And still it took a year and a half.”
The energy was provided by the same men who had published “A Second Look.” In the first weeks after Charlayne and Hamilton applied, the A.C.C.A. group even maintained a nightly patrol of Charlayne’s house. (Atlanta has always had more bombings than Southern cities with otherwise less progressive race relations; there were a dozen in the twelve months prior to public-school integration.) Support from the rest of the Negro community varied greatly. Some people thought Georgia Tech or the Atlanta public schools would be a better place to begin. Others believed that it was rather early to begin anywhere. “A lot of people were opposed to this,” Hill told me. “They said, ‘These people are going to take reprisals on us. There’ll be a loss of jobs, and all.’ During the Georgia State case, one leader of the Negro community said, ‘Why’d you take those unwed mothers over there?’ After Charlayne and Hamilton applied at Georgia, he said, ‘Why’d you take those two fine kids over there?’ All we ever got from the older leaders was ‘You’re going to mess up some kids.’ ”