Rome, Georgia, is located in the state’s upper Piedmont region, sixty-five miles northwest of Atlanta and thirteen miles east of the Alabama state line. It was a busy, mid-sized city in 1960. Jim Crow segregation of blacks and whites defined race relations. Established earlier in the twentieth century, cotton and rayon mills provided employment for most working-class whites. Most African Americans made livings as domestics or laborers in restaurants, schools and other institutions, foundries, factories, or private homes.
Founded in 1834 at the confluence of three rivers, Rome had grown to become an economic, social, cultural, educational, and medical center. Boosters of the “City of Seven Hills” sought to promote an Appalachian identity for Rome--an identity that has too often been misunderstood as meaning poor and white yet proud. This misperception contrasts to some degree with Floyd County’s history of commercial success and wealth production based on the cotton trade.
For forty-four years, the history of the Civil Rights Movement in Rome has remained largely untold. On July 5, 2007, former student activists convened at The Rome Area History Museum to document this history. Through the efforts of contemporary Rome residents who recognize the importance of historical preservation and commemoration, the student demonstrators of 1963 reunited in this celebration to recognize and share their untold civil rights stories. These adults offered themselves as living proof in place of missing or incomplete records about Movement activities in the city from the 1960s through the 1970s. The Rome stories on these pages are an introduction to an underemphasized civil rights history currently being researched by local historians.
During Jim Crow, African Americans could not attend either all-white Berry or all-white Shorter colleges. The small numbers of black men and women from the Rome area who did attend college before the 1960s usually graduated from historically black colleges or universities, such as Morehouse and Spelman colleges in Atlanta, or Tuskegee University and Talladega College in Alabama. Berry College students and administrators took a lead in integration efforts by initiating goodwill conversations about race relations with students from the Atlanta University Center.
The 1963 integration of Rome's Carnegie Library occurred without demonstrations of civil disobedience. When an African American public-school student won an art contest announced by the Carnegie staff, library administrators faced an unforeseen problem because they had broadcasted that the winning piece would be on display at the library. Since the library still did not admit African Americans, the staff decided to showcase the art in the small foyer leading to the double doors of the main library.
The desegregation of downtown lunch counters, on the other hand, happened only because of the efforts of local high-school students. Aided by Jewish Americans who worked with faculty from Shorter College, these activists paved the way for African Americans in Rome to break color barriers in employment opportunities, housing, city government, and education.
As early as the 1950s, Rome residents had challenged Jim Crow laws by forming biracial coalitions to address civil rights. In the wake of the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, an interracial group of ministers formed to address the ongoing debate about school desegregation. Using their pulpits and prayers, white clergy proved that they were not afraid to dialogue with African Americans about relationships between the races. Romans turned again to biracial committees in the 1970s in order to improve race relations among city residents.
Labor unions that had grown strong in Rome during the 1930s held their own in the 1960s. Despite conflicts through the decades with owners and local management of mills and factories, many members of the white working class were active in local unions. Potentially destructive pressures began to build within these unions during the crisis over school desegregation in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when southern organized labor resisted the social changes that national organizations embraced.
In honor of those who had worked for opportunities previously denied to African Americans, City Manager John Bennett approved a proclamation to publicly commemorate the 1963 demonstrators . On December 8, 2007, City Commissioner Anne Regis dedicated the name "Freedom Garden" to a landscaped space adjacent to Rome's historic Carnegie Library. The new Rome Area History Museum showcases these stories in its “Civil Rights Era” exhibition. Additional details about the Movement in Rome will be available in the book entitled The Civil Rights Movement ’63, Rome, Georgia researched and written by Laura Caldwell Anderson and Lavada Dillard, respectively.
Writers: Lavada Dillard and Laura C. Anderson
Editors and Researchers: Ruta Abolins, Janet Byington, Laura Caldwell Anderson, Christina L. Davis, Lavada Dillard, Mary Boyce Hicks, Professor LeeAnn Lands, Russell McClanahan, Professor Barbara McCaskill, and Pat Millican.
Web Site Designer: William Weems
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