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Cities: Rome

Racial Tensions Rise in the City of Seven Hills

Local residents and city officials responded to mounting racial tensions with a series of meetings to discuss the unresolved civil rights problems facing the city. These negotiations were catalyzed in part by the rape of a fourteen-year-old white resident in Rome by seven teenaged African American men. In this clip, both City Commission Chairman Ben Lucas and the Reverend Clyde Hill of Greater Mount Calvary Baptist Church agree that the rape itself was neither a result of nor retaliation for the city's neglect of the African American community's grievances.

On August 24, 1971, in response to patterns of racially motivated incidents, black community members met with the Floyd County Board of Commissioners and the Rome City Commission. Black leaders voiced grievances about a dearth of African Americans employed by the city and county, discrimination within the judicial system, and police brutality. The following Sunday, the Rome News-Tribune printed an interview of two African American spokesmen--Jimmy Hardy, a recent graduate of Ft. Valley State College, and Jeffrey Jackson, an Army veteran and former student at Winston-Salem State College--in an effort to bridge the communication gap that existed between black and white residents. Hardy and Jackson expressed a desire to avoid violence in affecting change in the city. Yet they also warned that if opportunities did not improve, even for educated African Americans, more costly incidents and demonstrations would result. Their predictions soon came to pass. The firebombing of local businesses by disgruntled black residents continued and began to cause substantial damage.

Hardy and an estimated four hundred black community members met at Metropolitan Methodist Church and formed a steering committee to brainstorm solutions to their grievances. The members of the committee--Elgin Carmichael, Danny Brown, Hardy, Napoleon Askew, James Wright, and Reverend Hill--encouraged the use of nonviolent resistance. At a second meeting on September 2, Chairman Lucas presented the eight hundred mostly black residents with a report that addressed issues facing their community. As seen in this clip, Lucas admits to a lack of black representation within Rome's government, and he promises that efforts to address this discrepancy are underway. He informs the reporter that an African American would also be appointed to the Housing Authority when the next job vacancy occurred. The most visible result of these meetings between African Americans and city officials was the creation of a biracial steering committee to avoid future breakdowns in communication. The committee vowed to try to increase the percentages of high-ranking black employees.

Yet destruction of business properties continued. This may have been indicative of a generation gap between older black leaders, who saw negotiation and communication as the most viable solution to discrimination, and younger black activists, who were tired of what they considered false promises from white leaders. Some African Americans perceived that Lucas’s frequent use of the word “qualified” was a way to blame blacks, rather than white employers, for the low numbers of African Americans in local businesses and government. Some accused white business owners of continuing to reject college-educated blacks who did qualify for higher paying jobs, in defiance of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibited employers from discriminating on the basis of race.

Rather than assuming responsibility for discrimination, white members of Rome's Board of Education met with representatives of the African American community, but many in attendance felt the board members only gave excuses for ongoing and unresolved inequities. On September 15, an estimated two hundred activists marched down Broad Street to demonstrate their frustrations about a lack of black cheerleaders, high percentages of black students tracked to classes designed for the mentally challenged, and the absence of a merit-based hiring system for teachers. About three hundred African American students boycotted East and West Rome High School until the student body agreed to elect black cheerleaders to the football and basketball teams. Police arrested sixteen of the protesters, and Lucas issued a city-wide curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. This did not end the unrest in Rome.

The tense racial climate in Rome during the early 1970s mirrored that of urban centers and towns across the United States, and not just in the South. A growing sense of dissatisfaction with and anger about the slow pace of social change, particularly since the late 1960s, characterized many American youth. The inner-city riots that had followed the assassinations of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy--on April 4 and, two months later, June 5, 1968--had announced an increased preoccupation by the Civil Rights Movement with neglected or mishandled social issues: urban poverty and hopelessness, tokenism vs. substantive changes in hiring practices, the browning of American jails by black and Hispanic inmates, the escalating American casualties in Vietnam. Civil rights activists differed over whether to emphasize strategies of mediation and negotiation in boardrooms, or marching and nonviolent civil disobedience in the streets. The fissures and divisions that became more pronounced in 1960s-era civil rights organizations were indicative of a national period of turmoil and soul-searching.

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Discussion Questions

1. Read our story in the Freedom on Film Rome pages entitled 1963 Student Sit-Ins. In what ways did the grievances of Rome's black residents shift between 1963 and 1971, and why?

2. Rome was not the only city in Georgia that formed biracial committees to resolve discrimination. Watch the clip and read the story entitled The NAACP and the Bibb County Commissioners from our Macon pages. What complaints do black community members present to the Bibb County Commissioners? What reasons do Bibb County officials give for the dearth of black representation in higher positions? How is the use of "qualified blacks" in this clip different from that in the Rome clip?

3. Read NOW Calls for Women's Strike on the Freedom on Film Macon pages. How does the battle for equality in the workplace by women of the 1970s compare to that of African Americans during the same decade? Do you think that blacks and women have made equal progress since the 1970s, in terms of employment, education, and visibility in public and private institutions? Why or why not?

4. Dr. King once said that "violence is the voice of the unheard." SOURCE On April 29, 1992, south central Los Angeles endured several days of rioting precipitated by the Rodney King trial. After the first trial, white police officers who had been accused of beating King, and African American, were acquitted of all charges. Discuss the effectiveness of public violence such as the King riots or the urban unrest of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Take it to the Streets!

Education remains one effective way of combating generational gaps between older activists and their younger followers. Read the USA Today article entitled "Boomer Course Closes Generation Gap." Choose three adult baby boomers whose race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or religious background differs from yours. Using the article as a guide, interview them about their most memorable activities or moments as youth. Consult the list below to prompt your interviewees to discuss their experiences:

The Assassination of Dr. King
The Bombing of Birmingham's Sixteenth Street Baptist Church
Neil Armstrong's Moonwalk
The 1973 Siege at Wounded Knee
The Beatles' American Tour
The My Lai Massacre
The 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games
The 1972 Munich Olympic Games
The Kent State Massacre
The Presidential Campaigns of John and/or Robert F. Kennedy
The Presidential Campaign of Shirley Chisholm

Writer: Christina L. Davis                                                                      Editors: Kamille Bostick, Christina L. Davis, Mary Boyce Hicks, and Professor Barbara McCaskill                                                                   Researcher: Christina L. Davis                                                              Web Site Designer: William Weems

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