Like the eight other Georgia cities and towns featured on this web site, the long civil rights history of Macon begins in slavery. The city's establishment in the middle of the state worked to its advantage, and by the middle of the nineteenth century Bibb County (Macon is the county seat) and the surrounding region were centers for Georgia's cotton production. Macon itself became a transportation hub linked by the railroads and the rivers to Savannah, Darien, and other Georgia ports.
African Americans' resistance to slavery in this area became international news in 1848, when the Macon slaves William and Ellen Craft fled to Philadelphia. Ellen, who could pass for white, disguised herself as an ailing white gentleman planter. With William masquerading as his "master's" slave, the couple traveled openly by carriage, passenger train, and steamship to the North, rather than using the secretive routes of the Underground Railroad.
During the late 1960s and 1970s, blacks in Macon invented more direct strategies than flight in order to dismantle racist institutions. Although some African American residents participated in angry confrontations with the police, the city abolished segregation without the violence or the national media attention that affected other places such as Albany and Americus. The majority of Civil Rights Movement activists opted for consensus-building and negotiations with city and county officials in order to resolve disputes and implement affirmative action programs.
In addition to an emphasis on desegregating public facilities, the activism of this period was characterized by themes of improving salaries and additional conditions for blacks, women, and other minorities in the workplace, and increasing their access to state and county jobs. Two decades later, this advocacy helped to pave the way for the election in 1999 of C. Jack Ellis, the first African American mayor in Macon's 176-year history.
Since the Movement, the city has preserved the historical and cultural legacy of civil rights activists. Like the church-inspired freedom songs, secular music such as the blues, R&B (rhythm and blues), and soul contributed to the Civil Rights Movement by shoring up courage, inviting people to laugh at adversity, inspiring hope and persistence, and reminding those who sang or listened of the triumphs and disasters during the long struggle for equal rights that had come before them. The city's historic black movie palace and stage, the Douglass Theatre, commemorates this heritage.
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame also recognizes natives of the state: Ray Charles, rocker Little Richard, and James Brown and Otis Redding, two black artists whose songs such as “Say It Loud: I’m Black and I’m Proud” (1968), "Respect" (1965), and "A Change is Gonna Come" (1965) contributed to the soundtrack of the Movement. The Tubman Museum of African American Art, History, and Culture, the largest with this focus in the South, contains a permanent exhibition of material objects, such as separate drinking fountains and whites-only signs, that symbolize the Jim Crow system which the city finally destroyed in the late twentieth century.
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Writer: Professor Barbara McCaskill, Dept. of English, The University of Georgia
Editors and Researchers: Christina L. Davis, Ebony O'Neal, Stacie Walker, Delila Wilburn, and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems
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