How housewives and the 'Atlanta Nine' integrated Georgia's public schools
(CNN) -- My great aunt Muriel Lokey passed away August 27, 2012, at age 90. Family and friends gathered recently in Atlanta, more to celebrate her being and her attitude toward life than to mourn her passing. During her rich life, Lokey explored the world with her husband, Hamilton (Ham), climbing the world's mountains and rafting down America's rivers.
Decades before those accomplishments, Lokey was a force for justice and social change in her home city of Atlanta.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in the now famous case Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, that all public schools must desegregate. Soon after, Georgia passed a series of laws, in defiance of the court, to bolster segregation. Ham Lokey, Muriel's husband and my great-uncle, was in the state legislature and he and six or seven of his fellow representatives were often the only votes against these measures.
By 1958, the state of Georgia mandated that if any public school integrated, its school district would be shut down.
The Lokeys had five children and they believed in public schools. Muriel Lokey began to talk about the issue with other Morris Brandon Elementary School parents, over coffee or when dropping off or picking their children up from school in the daily carpool. Later, she told the Atlanta History Center, "The school crisis came to a head in 1958, and I had a front row seat in watching the amount of changing in our society and I climbed on the stage and played a role in the drama."
Lokey helped galvanize Georgia's opposition and hosted the first meeting of Help Our Public Schools Inc., known as HOPE, in December 1958. The group stated its purpose was "to give factual information to those citizens of Georgia who want to keep our public education from being destroyed by the closing of public schools."
HOPE did not declare a position on segregation, or on state's rights versus federal rights, or on the Supreme Court's landmark decision. "From the beginning we felt that our best strategy would be to stress the one issue of preserving public schools. And to maintain a neutral position in arguments over integration," Lokey said. "I do think that those of us who worked the hardest were very much concerned about the integration issue," Lokey also acknowledged.
Through grass-roots efforts, Lokey and HOPE began to galvanize opposition to segregation across the state, and the group even made national news. An Associated Press photograph of Muriel Lokey and HOPE President Fran Breeden planting bumper stickers that declared "We WANT public schools" was plastered all over national newspapers: a 1950s way of going viral.
HOPE itself was not integrated, causing internal strife and costing the group at least one key member. Lokey explained that HOPE's exclusion of blacks was pragmatic, not racist. "We chose not to be a biracial organization but rather to be white people persuading white people. It was seen as a tactical necessity."
Founding member Nan Pendergrast knew that an integrated group couldn't crack Atlanta's business community. "My particular job was talking to the Kiwanis and the Rotarians and the Civitans who at that time would never have allowed a black person in their door and probably not allowed anybody who was known to consort with those people," Pendergrast told a historian.
In January 1960, HOPE presented to the Georgia Legislature a statewide petition with 10,000 names of people who wanted to keep Georgia's public schools open. The group pasted all the names together on one roll and took it to the third floor of the state Capitol building and unfurled it over the railing until it reached the first floor. "And of course we had all the press and everything taking pictures of it," said HOPE member Frances Pauley years later.
By January 1961, the statewide support for HOPE eventually caused Gov. Ernest Vandiver, who once famously said "no, not one" black student would integrate a Georgia school under his administration, to ask the state legislature to adopt a new bill allowing for some integration in Georgia.
Now that integration was a forgone conclusion bound by law, HOPE began to work with the Organizations Assisting Schools in September, or OASIS, a group of black and white leaders that would define how the city schools would integrate. All sides were in agreement about one thing: The racial violence over integrated schools in cities like Little Rock, Arkansas, had no place in Atlanta. For one thing, the Atlanta business community would not support a policy that could harm the city's growing economy and its reputation.
Atlanta schools screened 132 students from black high schools for possible integration at white high schools. The district selected 10.
On Wednesday, August 30, 1961, 15 minutes after schools opened citywide, nine black students -- Thomas Welch, Madelyn Nix, Willie Jean Black, Donita Gaines, Arthur Simmons, Lawrence Jefferson, Mary James McMullen, Martha Ann Holmes and Rosalyn Walton - integrated four Atlanta public high schools. The 10th student, Damaris Allen, elected to attend Spelman College instead.
Other Southern cities had experienced massive protests and violence while integrating schools. On this historic day in Atlanta, five arrests were the extent of the unrest on the city's streets, as reported by the daily papers.
Welch, who integrated Atlanta's Joe Brown High School, said the scene was quiet; he and Nix were escorted by police and arrived after all the other students were in class. "That was deliberate on the part of Atlanta Public Schools." He did see a few protesters, but police kept them at bay.
Once inside Brown, reactions varied. "Some students were welcoming, other students were openly hostile, but for the most part the students acted like students," Welch said.
Jim Martin (no relation to the author), junior class president at Northside High School when it was integrated, said Simmons, Black and Gaines probably had similar experiences at Northside. "The black students weren't treated badly, but they weren't embraced and they didn't demand that. They were just going to school," Martin said.
Martin said that at Northside, Principal Weddington Kelley's attitude made all the difference. "He was bound and determined that Northside wasn't going to look bad."
At Brown, Welch found that teachers had various attitudes toward his presence. "Some teachers were very standoffish, while other teachers were actively making sure we were treated as equals," Welch said. "There were some incidents, both my first and second year there," Welch said.
Welch's mother occasionally received hostile phone calls late at night, sometimes even death threats. It didn't deter the family.
Welch recalled that in one class, the teacher would have the students move as far away from Welch no matter where he sat. "If I sat in the front, they moved to the back. If I sat in the middle, they moved away around me ... there were one or two students who tried to, and did, resist that." In another classroom, the students started to pull the same prank. The teacher scolded them, "Are you crazy? You're not doing that in here!" and forced the students to move back in rows.
Welch said teachers at his original school, Booker T. Washington High School, were as motivated and intelligent as his new teachers at Joe Brown. "Booker T. had an excellent reputation," Welch said. But there was an ROTC program at Joe Brown, and there wasn't one at Washington, so Welch filled out the transfer forms.
In ROTC, Welch eventually became a squad leader and won the respect of his peers. Most of them, anyway. Once, while waiting in line during a drill, a white student spit on Welch and yelled, "I spit on the n*****!" Two student officers grabbed the other student, took him into a nearby room with the U.S. army sergeant in charge and yelled at him. "I couldn't hear what they said. The sergeant came out and said, 'He won't bother you again,' and this kid never came near me ever again," Welch said.
Welch said he understands why Atlanta undertook only token integration at first: Little Rock was still on everyone's mind. "It was very deliberate on the part of the political and business establishment to minimize any kinds of disruptions. As I think back on it, even though it was gradual, it was probably the best way to do it without creating the negative uproar that would have been very difficult to control," Welch said.
Martin, the white Northside alumnus, agreed. "A lot of the violence [elsewhere] occurred because good people allowed that to happen. In Atlanta they weren't going to let the demagogues and hate take over," he said.
With the peaceful integration of the four high schools, HOPE's goals were obtained. No one was threatening to shut down public schools anymore, and HOPE folded in 1961.
In the decades since Welch and the others of the "Atlanta nine" integrated the city's high schools, "white flight" has taken over much of Atlanta. Neighborhoods have shifted, some have integrated and some completely turned over. "I've been told now you'd be lucky to find two white students at Brown," Welch said.
The four high schools are still around; Brown is now a middle school. Around 85% of Atlanta's current students are black, and around 3/4 of the city's students are eligible for reduced-price or free meals.
Decades later, the local public school Lokey fought so hard to keep open for her children is also still around. Her Buckhead neighborhood's demographics haven't changed much. Around 86% of Morris Brandon Elementary students are white and only 7% of its students are eligible for reduced-price or free meals.
Martin, who ran for several statewide offices in the 2000s, said segregation in Georgia has evolved. "What you do see is not racial segregation, but real economic segregation even among people of the same race. The economic segregation is almost as startling as the racial division," Martin said.
In 1961, nine students enrolled in four white high schools in Atlanta, Georgia. And the city didn't burn.