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Paine College Students Desegregate City Buses

In the winter of 1960, just as the student movement gained momentum across the U.S., students at Augusta’s historically black Paine College joined together to change their community. Inspired by the increase in youth activism reshaping the nation at the time, as well as by the daily injustices they faced in a segregated city, the leaders of campus organizations formed the Paine College Steering Committee. This group acted as an organizing and coordinating force for students on campus.

Following the principles of nonviolent resistance, the Steering Committee and student activists staged a series of protests from 1960 to 1963. Although the students eventually held sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, pray-ins at segregated churches, and even a march on the famed Augusta National Golf Club, they first targeted city buses that still adhered to Jim Crow accommodations. These students attacked the policy that required blacks to enter from the back of the bus and to relinquish their seats to white passengers on command.

On May 2, the Paine students issued warnings to the local daily newspaper detailing specific plans for their coordinated protest. They sat down at or near the front sections of the city buses in direct violation of segregation laws. Following the example of Rosa Parks during the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955, the students refused to abandon their seats when demanded by the bus drivers. Police arrived and arrested eleven of the students, and a judge set a bond of thirty dollars for each of them. Later, the courts found the students guilty of disorderly conduct and fined them $45 each.

Those involved in the bus demonstrations contacted famed civil rights lawyer Donald Hollowell to explore the possiblity of using their case as a legal challenge to city ordinances that required segregated seating on public transportation. He agreed to represent the students. On August 9, five students from Paine College--Henry Taylor, Thomas Snowden, William Chambers, Jimmy Dukes and Silas Norman--filed a suit in U.S. District Court. This case, Taylor v. City of Augusta, sought to eliminate Jim Crow seating on Augusta buses.

Students' allegations reported in The Augusta Chronicle cited the denial of rights, humiliation, and inconveniences that segregated seating caused as the impetus behind the demonstrations. The defendants named in the case at the time included the City of Augusta Mayor, Millard A. Beckum; Police Chief F. B. Green; and the Augusta Coach Company. The students requested that the courts recognize the illegality of the seating policy and they sought an injunction against the city to prohibit such seating.

In 1962, two years after the students filed the initial suit, federal judges ruled on the case. By that time the Georgia Public Service Commission and the Civil Service Commission had been added as defendants. On February 13, by a 2 to 1 margin, federal judges sided with the plaintiffs. They ruled to expunge various ordinances of the City of Augusta, state laws, and a rule of the Georgia Public Service Commission that stipulated segregated seating on public buses.

The Paine students not only had succeeded in desegregating the buses in Augusta; the ruling set a legal precedent for the entire state. Now a case law had established that segregation on buses violated the personal dignities and civil rights of black riders, and the ruling also struck down the state law that allowed segregated buses. The custom of segregated buses in Georgia was now illegal.

The federal injunction sought by the students against the Augusta buses was signed on March 2, 1962. Defendants in the case appealed the decision to U.S. Supreme Court, even though the court had ruled days earlier to end segregation for intrastate and interstate carriers. While the Augusta Coach Company asked its drivers and riders to remain segregated voluntarily, black riders quickly took advantage of their new rights.

With minimal assistance at the beginning of their campaign, these students began a demonstration that ultimately outlawed bus segregation throughout the state. They proved that collective action among students can sometimes bring about major change. Relying upon one another for moral support and legal guidance, these students used both non-violent demonstrations and legal strategies to make a change in their community. The student movement joined civil disobedience tactics to the older activist tradition pioneered by the NAACP and other national organizations of legal change through court action. Student activists later in the century, from those who opposed the U.S. presence in Vietnam to those who demonstrated against nuclear facilities and post-Cold War foreign policies, would base many of their protests on the model set by Paine students and other youth in the Civil Rights Movement.

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Discussion Questions

1. The student activism of the 1960s made lasting contributions to the history of this country. Given the role that students played in the struggle for civil rights, what do you think of such activism today? What sort of mobilizing forces, such as the Paine College Steering Committee, unite and direct student activism? How necessary is it to have an organizing group or body to effect social change?

2. The response of the Augusta Coach Company was, at first, to ask black and white riders to continue to abide by segregated seating voluntarily. In today’s school lunchrooms, gymnasiums, stadiums, and other meeting places there often seems to be a “voluntary” segregation as blacks, whites and others assemble in groups that reflect their races or ethnicities. What causes this self-imposed segregation? What sorts of problems does it pose to individual interactions and the building of community spirit or tension (a good example would be the “white tree” at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, which led to the events in the case concerning the Jena 6)?

3. Are there any current issues that you think may warrant civil disobedience to bring attention to them and/or to create positive change? How would you go about organizing such an event? What would be the potential consequences of being arrested (for future employment, for example, or for remaining in the nation if you are an immigrant), and would it be worth it?

Take it to the Streets!

In the field of law major decisions by superior courts set precedents or examples for lower court cases to follow. Divide into groups and select one topic from the list below. Research the precendent-setting legal case that affected subsequent decisions. Did all of the judges vote unanimously on the decision? Why or why not? Debate whether or not your group agrees with the reasoning behind and the fairness of the the decision.

Voting Rights
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