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Merging Savannah's State Universities

The NAACP files a federal lawsuit to end separate and unequal practices at colleges in Georgia and other southern states.

The Nazis Protest Busing

Members of the National Socialist White People's Party demonstrate against busing in the city.

President Nixon Tours Savannah

The President draws crowds to hear his plans for peace in Vietnam, and draws attention to Georgia's upcoming gubernatorial election.

The Riots of 1963

Mass protests over segregated city facilities erupt into violence.

The Sea Islands during the Civil Rights Era

Pride in an African heritage catalyzes conservation and preservation movements on Georgia's coastal islands.

Hosea Williams Leads Economic Boycott

With his trademark overralls and megaphone, Williams organizes a boycott throughout the city. 




Thirty families under the leadership of General James Oglethorpe settled along the Savannah River in 1733. As Georgia’s oldest and one of the few planned cities during the colonial period, by 1800, Savannah ranked fourteenth on the list of the United States’s largest cities. In spite of migrations out of the city during the War of 1812, and a yellow fever epidemic that killed twelve percent of the population eight years later, by 1860, it was the largest city in the Old South. Savannah’s prosperity prior to the Civil War made it atypical to many southern cities.

The establishment of railroad and steamship lines generated a commercial boom early in the nineteenth century. Savannah’s “booming commerce” attracted a wave of foreign-born immigrants and in-migrations from the north and south adding to the diversity of the colonial city. Savannah’s free-black population added to the city’s distinctiveness and contributed to the success of African Americans after the war. Andrew Bryan established the First African Church of Baptist affiliation in Savannah, in 1778. Men and women like politician/minister Reverend Tunis G. Campbell and teacher Susie King Taylor took the lead in black education after the Civil War.

A century later, the Civil Rights Movement in Savannah followed patterns established by African Americans during Reconstruction, in that local blacks lead efforts to counter racism and bigotry. The Reverend Dr. Ralph Mark Gilbert reestablished the city's branch of the NAACP in 1942. As president of the Savannah branch, Gilbert spearheaded voter registration drives, the hiring of African American public service personnel, and efforts to preserve the historic districts of the city. After Gilbert, W. W. Law presided over the branch from 1950 to 1976.

During Law's tenure, activists in Savannah began to rely less on non-violent resistance as the key to civil rights in favor of what was considered more threatening demonstrations. Conflicts between Law and fellow activist Hosea Williams surfaced during a riot in 1963 and evidenced generational divides between those older activists, like Law, who favored passivity and younger activists who did not avoid confrontation. In spite of disagreements, their diligence led to the end of legal segregation of public facilities in Savannah eight months before Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Blacks in the city, like Otis S. Johnson, who in 1964 became the first African American to graduate from Armstrong Atlantic, slowly began to see signs of change.

Amidst a 1970 decision against the merger of predominately black Savannah State University and predominately white Armstrong Atlantic State University, and a 1971 demonstrations against forced busing that drew a handful of Nazis, black Savannahians continued their efforts to recognize the contributions of blacks to Savannah's history and to American culture at large.

The efforts of Law, Williams, and the thousands of unnamed activists who attended mass meetings, sang freedom songs, marched in the streets, and remained steadfast during year-and-a-half long city boycott, opened doors for African Americans in Savannah, who in the 1990s gained more visibility in the governance of the city. In 1996, Savannahians elected Floyd Adams, Jr. as the first African American mayor and, two years later, appointed Virginia Edwards as the first Savannah native and second African American as superintendent of Chatham County Public Schools.

The legacies of Savannah's civil rights activists live on in the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum and the Beach Institute, popular tourist attractions for those interested in less well-known African American history. As Savannah's first legal school for former slaves, the founding of Beach Institute in 1867, in many ways, marks the beginnings of the freedom struggle in Savannah. Law, in cooperation with the Savannah Yamacraw Association for the Study of African American Life and History, spearheaded efforts to commemorate black culture in Savannah. He played a key role in the 1996 founding of the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum that works to continue the fight for human rights through education.

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Writer: Christina L. Davis, Dept. of History, The University of Georgia

Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, Professor Barbara McCaskill, and the students of ENGL 2400 (Survey of Multicultural American Literature, Spring 2007).

Web Site Designer: William Weems

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