The strategies and tactics used by African American leaders in Atlanta to galvanize black voting power, gain access to public facilities and institutions, and increase economic opportunities for African Americans offer a valuable perspective on the uniqueness of Atlanta’s Civil Rights Movement experience during the period 1940 to 1970.
The core of that uniqueness resides in the fundamental role that churches, social organizations, businesses, and other institutions of Auburn Avenue ("Sweet Auburn"), and the colleges and universities of the Atlanta University Center (AUC), played in developing black leadership. While African American leaders traditionally have emerged from institutions in their communities, the confluence of the businesses and institutions of “Sweet Auburn” with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities of the city – Atlanta University, Spelman College, Morris Brown College, Clark College, Morehouse College, and the Interdenominational Theological Center – created an infrastructure for activism that was unparalleled.
From 1940-1970, the goals of the Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta did not change. There was a consistent and clarion call to educate and register eligible African American voters, a demand for access to public and private opportunities on par with the access afforded Atlanta’s white community, and there was a call for equal protection under the law. However, as tactics changed over time, a corresponding change in perspective occurred: civil rights were increasingly seen as basic human rights applicable to all peoples — no matter where they may be.
As noted above, the role of organizations on Auburn Avenue and the role of faculty and, most profoundly, students in the AUC were unique features of the city’s movement. Despite a period of decline on Auburn Avenue beginning in the 1970s and challenges in the AUC at the beginning of the twenty-first century, these communities continue to serve as incubators for African American leadership.
In 2000, forty years after participants in the Atlanta student movement issued “An Appeal for Human Rights” on March 9, 1960, a second appeal was put forth by former members of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COHAR), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), united with current student leaders in the AUC. They called upon Atlanta to confront old problems, such as voter apathy and economic inequalities, and to face the new challenges of the city’s increasingly diverse population — from high dropout rates in the schools to homelessness to crime in the streets. Their rallying cry is compelling:
In past years, we, as African Americans, have resisted the assaults against our persons, our dignity, our rights, our liberties and our very survival through resolute solidarity among our community groups and institutions. We must do so now again. We must commit our intellect and energies across lines of geography, age, sex, economic and social station in order to secure for all citizens the guarantees of the United States Constitution. ("Appeal for Human Rights V. II," The AUC Digest Online)
The Civil Rights Movement in Atlanta does indeed live on.
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Writers: Professors Clarissa Myrick-Harris and Norman Harris, OneWorld Archives, Atlanta, Georgia. This is excerpted with permission from "Atlanta's Story." See the complete essay at the web site Atlanta in the Civil Rights Movement, 1940-1970, by the Atlanta Regional Council for Higher Education.
Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Lauren Chambers, Christina L. Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, Mary Boyce Hicks, Courtney Thomas, Professor Barbara McCaskil, and the students of ENGL 2400 (Survey of Multicultural American Literature, Spring 2007) and AFAM/ENGL 3230 (Survey of African American Literature, Spring 2007).