An east central Georgia town that was once the state capital and now hosts golf's famed Masters Tournament, Augusta has a storied history. Literary greats Frank Yerby and Erskine Caldwell have roots in the city formerly the site of the Confederacy's powderworks. The nineteenth-century African American educator Lucy Craft Laney opened an industrial and normal school here, while African American celebrities from entertainers Butterfly McQueen and James Brown to opera singer Jessye Norman have called Augusta home.

Augusta was known during Reconstruction in Georgia and the Jim Crow Era as a city where blacks could make it. Yet a strict code of separatism kept even prosperous African American doctors and businessmen relegated to the boundaries of their neighborhoods and the confines of a social system built on skin color.  However, there were blacks who worked to improve their communities. For example, the dentist T. E. Carter hosted a radio show in the 1940s, and became known as a leading advocate for social change.

Nonetheless, by 1960 the city remained completely segregated, and would have continued so, if not for the combined efforts of Augusta’s college students, a revitalized branch of the NAACP, and a growing coalition of blacks and whites. In May 1960, prompted by student leaders at Paine College, a historically black institution, the student movement in Augusta officially began. Hundreds of Paine undergraduates stepped onto local buses and, in defiance of Jim Crow policies, took seats at or near the front. They were arrested and threatened, jailed, and pronounced guilty of disorderly conduct.

Claiming that they were denied their constitutional rights, five Paine students later filed suit against the city, the bus company, and others, including the Georgia Public Service Commission. In 1962, two out of three federal judges agreed with the students, and struck down both city and state ordinances mandating segregated seating on buses. Not all of the students' campaigns met with such success. Although they boycotted businesses that refused to serve or hire blacks, and tried to integrate churches and city parks, permanent changes were slow. Before the bus desegregation ruling, Augusta was the only city in Georgia where full segregation still reigned in spite of the nonviolent direct social action practiced by the activists.

Augusta's NAACP worked in tandem with the Paine students. Like the Reverend William P. Randall who is discussed in the Freedom on Film Macon pages, pastors of Augusta's black churches held mass meetings, and some whites joined with blacks to create biracial coalitions. Because of the work being done in Augusta, people have said that the Reverend Dr. King never had to do more than visit the city and encourage activists to continue toward progress.

Since the 1960s and 1970s progress has not come easily. Augusta has struggled with integrating its schools, and ensuring adequate economic opportunities for its black residents. On May 11, 1970, a race riot broke out in Augusta. In just over one evening, six people were killed—all shot in the back—and damages totaled more than a half million dollars. Racial tensions that had smoldered for decades had finally erupted, and many white Augustans were shocked to learn that their black neighbors were angry and discontented. In the riot’s aftermath, the rhythm and blues singer James Brown called for peace, and the city established biracial commissions to investigate the inequalities that led both to the riot and to the two racially divided constituencies within the city.

Augusta has since elected its first African American mayor, seated African American city and county commissioners, and apppointed African American school superintendents, fire chiefs, and legislators. On the other hand, white flight out of the inner city to the suburbs has contributed to urban blight and joblessness, and race-based politics continue to affect the city.

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Writer: Kamille Bostick, Dept. of English, The University of Georgia, and former reporter for The Augusta Chronicle

Editors and Researchers: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, Professor Barbara McCaskill, and the students of ENGL 4860 (The Civil Rights Movement in American Literature, Fall 2007).

Web Site Designer: William Weems  

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