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Cities: Athens

The Desegregation of the Athens YMCA and YWCO

In September 1968, after nearly a year of planning by an ad hoc committee, professors at The University of Georgia initiated an economic boycott of the Athens Community Chest.  They were responding to the Chest’s support of the segregated Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Young Women’s Christian Organization (YWCO).  The Community Chest, established in 1953, was a fund-raising organization that sponsored annual campaigns to raise money for eleven service agencies operating in the Athens area.  Some of these agencies included the Boys Club, the Boy and Girl Scouts, the Red Cross, the YMCA, and Athens’s version of the YWCA, the YWCO.

Throughout much of the 20th century, Athens’s YMCA and YWCO refused service to African Americans, even though in 1946, the YMCA National Council had passed a resolution commanding local branches to eliminate racial discrimination.  In the 1968–69 fundraising drive, the segregated YMCA and YWCO were slotted to receive the largest share of funds raised, roughly   one-third of all donations. 

The Chest’s ambitious campaign officially began at a breakfast ceremony held at the YWCO on the morning of September 23, 1968.  As seen in this WSB clip, the morning kick-off meeting is greeted by about ten picketers protesting the YMCA and YWCO’s segregationist policies.  Because professors at The University of Georgia believed that segregationist policies should not be condoned by the University, many University employees refrained from donating to the drive until the YMCA and YWCO integrated or until the Chest expelled them from membership. 

To compensate for the loss of University monies during the drive, Chest leaders asked businesses to donate more abundantly.  At the same time, the Athens Human Relations Council urged all Athens citizens to withhold donations to the Chest as long as it supported segregated organizations. The campus was also divided.  The student Senate voted on a proposal asking UGA President Fred C. Davison to disallow payroll deductions for the Chest drive.  In October 1968, in a telling and close decision, 44 voted against the proposal and 30 for, with 2 voters abstaining.  By January 1969, the Chest announced that it had failed to meet its campaign goal by $46,800, largely due to the decrease in University contributions. 

The financial strain imposed by the protests led to the integration of the YMCA and YWCO in Athens.  On July 17, 1969, the YMCA and the YWCO quietly sent letters to Chest leaders notifying them that each body was now officially open to all races.  By September 3, 1969, encouraged by this change in policy and the subsequent resumption of contributions from the University community this change would engender, the Chest kicked off its 1969–70 fund-raising drive.

One lesson from the Civil Rights Movement that this economic boycott underscores is that creating social change often required more than one approach or more than one attempt.  To desegregate the YMCA and YWCO, for example, Athens activists used the power of their wallets, but also more traditional strategies such as picketing in front of the buildings, talking to the media, and circulating and signing petitions to raise community awareness about the problem.  The Movement catalyzed different groups in communities who might not otherwise have interacted--here, the University professors and citizens not affiliated with the school--to come together and improve the quality of their lives. 

Not all of the organizations involved in the Community Chest were segregated.  However, since the Chest did support the all-white YMCA and YWCO, it risked undermining its altruistic purposes and risked sending a message to civil rights activists that an organization or an individual could straddle the fence about racism.  That both the YMCA and YWCO were Christian organizations, based on religious principles of brotherhood and sisterhood, made it even more urgent that they practice what they preached and desegregated.

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Discussion Questions

1. What does this story tell you about how money can be used to institute social change? Can you think of other examples from Civil Rights Movement history where this has been the case?

2. Do members of your school--students, librarians, teachers, staff--serve the community around you?  In what ways?  Can you think of areas for improvement?

3. Read the stories on our Americus pages: Integrating First Methodist Church and Picketing at the Piggly Wiggly.  How were these integration campaigns similar to and different from the desegregation of the Athens YMCA and YWCO?

4. Visit Emory University's online site entitled "Historical Sketches of the
Greater Atlanta Young Women's Christian Association."
  Click on the link to the historical highlights (1917-1969) of the city's all black YWCA, the Phillis Wheatley branch.  How do the activities and accomplishments of this branch demonstrate a commitment to ideas of racial and social equality in spite of segregation?  How was naming this branch after the enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley a response to racism, and a statement in particular about the preparation of African American women to lead campaigns to fight it?

  Take it to the Streets!

A person's mistakes or wrongdoing can overshadow the good he or she has done. Read one of the following short stories or book chapters:

"The Minister's Black Veil" by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1836)
"Sonny's Blues" by James Baldwin (1957)
"A Perilous Passage in a Slave Girl's Life" from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)

And, think about one or more of the following public or historical figures:

Bill Clinton
R. Kelly
Michael Jackson
La Malinche  
Margaret Thatcher

Choose one of the figures above and write one or two pages discussing whether you think that society has judged this person too harshly.

Writer: Aggie Ebrahimi
Editors and Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Christina L. Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems 

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