Atlanta Student Movement
“We want to state clearly and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate, in a nation professing democracy and among people professing Christianity, the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is living today in Atlanta, Georgia—-supposedly one of the most progressive cities in the South.” –An Appeal for Human Rights, released March 1960 by the Atlanta Committee on Appeal for Human Rights
After reading about the Greensboro sit-ins in the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s Black daily newspaper, Morehouse college student Lonnie King knew Black people in Atlanta faced similar oppressive conditions and thought that what took place in Greensboro should happen in Atlanta. At a campus hangout he told fellow students, Joseph Pierce and Julian Bond, “Let’s make it happen here.” The three of them began to organize Atlanta students. They formed the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR).
On March 15, 1960, Spelman students Ruby Doris Smith and Gwen Isles along with Bond and other students organized the first sit-ins. Over two hundred students sat in at eleven stores in downtown Atlanta; 83 of them were arrested. Six days earlier, their ad, “An Appeal for Human Rights,” had been published–an opening salvo in what would be a sustained campaign of sit-ins and boycotts by COAHR demanding an end to segregation and racist practices.
The Atlanta University community was ripe for mass political engagement. It included six Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)–Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, Spelman College, Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center. Although four out of the six presidents encouraged students not to sit-in, encouraging them to focus on their school work and “let the NAACP fight the racial battle,” the students had support from faculty like Howard Zinn who was chair of the History Department at Spelman College. Annette Jones remembered, “Dr. Zinn often protested with the students and took his classes to trials and legislative proceedings.” This support from faculty made student efforts to challenge segregation possible. In fact, some adults formed The Student-Adult Liaison Committee to build a coalition of two important resistance groups.
Although COAHR challenged segregation in the local Atlanta community, they also had organizing ties to SNCC. Julian Bond and Lonnie King were delegates to SNCC’s founding conference. The Atlanta students would go on to play an important role in SNCC’s work. Ruby Doris Smith became one of SNCC’s most important leaders and ultimately its program secretary. Julian Bond became SNCC’s Communications Director.
And it was in Atlanta where SNCC transitioned from the temporary student nonviolent coordinating committee to a permanent organization during a conference in October 1960. SNCC’s national headquarters in Atlanta served as a vital resource center supporting organizing efforts across the South. Those early efforts of COHAR laid the foundation for SNCC’s future work, as well as laid the framework for the Atlanta project in 1966.
Charles E. Cobb, Jr., On the Road to Freedom: a Guided Tour of the Civil Rights Trail (Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 2008), 163-175.
Annette Jones White, “Howard Zinn: Remembered and Missed,” 2016, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
Julian Bond, “Interview/Oral-History,” 1999, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
Lonnie King Jr, “Remembering the Atlanta Student Movement of 1960,” 2014, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.
Lonnie King Jr, “Atlanta Student Movement Timeline Committee on Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR) 1960-1964,” 2013, Civil Rights Movement Veterans Website, Tougaloo College.