A History of Georgia’s 1%: Why You Must Face Race to Occupy Atlanta

When Occupiers decided civil rights icon John Lewis was no exception to their process of ordering speakers, critics said it revealed the movement's blind spots on race. Kung Li explains how race defines the very space protestors occupy.

By Kung Li Oct 13, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots have been catching flak for being so white. Occupy Atlanta is no exception, getting off to a rough start last Friday when civil rights movement hero-turned-Congressman John Lewis stopped by to offer his support, only to be waved off by the mostly white general assembly, which is the Occupy movement’s collective decision-making group.

Congressman Lewis was extremely gracious. Others, less so.

In a town that is majority black, Occupy Atlanta moved quickly to make amends. The occupiers renamed their campsite Troy Davis Park on Sunday, in honor of what would have been Troy Davis’s 43rd birthday. They apologized, explaining that the democratic process of ordering speakers is crucial to the movement. They extended an invitation to John Lewis to return.

Getting it right about race is important for the Occupy movement everywhere, but especially here in Georgia, where there is nothing subtle about the relationship between race, corporations and the government. Georgia’s government was created by and for plantation farmers, the original 1 percent, running antebellum corporations. And that 1 percent has been using everything in its power, most notably the criminal justice system, to hold on to its centuries-old gains.

Occupy Atlanta is still braving the elements today in Woodruff Park, a green space in the middle of downtown Atlanta. Many in and around the Occupy movement have been asking how we can talk about corporate control of government, economics and race all in the same breath. Considering the history of Woodruff Park, we have to wonder how we can talk about it any other way. Here, I offer a crucial primer for the full history of this occupied space.

Occupied Atlanta, 1865

A month after the end of the Civil War, a train carrying Jefferson Davis pulled into the Atlanta depot two blocks from where Occupy Atlanta has pitched its tents. The president of the Confederate States of America had been caught in south Georgia as he tried to flee. The train stopped in Atlanta to pick up coal on its way to Virginia, where he would await trial for treason.

When the Georgia Legislature convened later that year, it dutifully ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, as it was required to do to reenter the Union. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, but with an enormous loophole. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, it read, shall exist in the United States, except as punishment for crime.

With the Amendment ratified, the all-white Georgia Legislature turned around and passed the Black Codes, effectively reinstating slavery in Georgia. The Codes required former slaves to enter into labor contracts, with wages to be paid by the master totaling–after deductions for food, shelter and penalties for days not worked–two cents an hour. That’s how Georgia’s antebellum 1 percent had rolled before the war, and that’s how they wanted to roll after it. The only industry had been cotton, so the Black Codes were written to keep freedmen working the same fields they had worked as slaves.

Many were trapped by the Black Codes, but not everyone. Atlanta was the destination for the men and women who walked off their plantations in south Georgia in defiance of the Black Codes and came to the city to live as free people. They gathered in downtown Atlanta–on the streets of what is now Woodruff Park–to look for work and to build a new life. They were confronted by a new vagrancy law; the enforcement of the Black Codes that made it illegal to "wander or stroll about in idleness" without a labor contract.

When the threat of arrest was not enough to drive black men and women back to the plantations, the real arrests began. Joseph Brown was arrested on Decatur Street in 1868, one of hundreds. Rather than picking cotton under a labor contract, he was in Atlanta without work. The charge: vagrancy.

Mr. Brown and other freedmen who were sentenced as vagrants were not sent to prison. Georgia’s prison had been burned during the war, and there was no money to rebuild. Rather, they were leased out to plantation owners, railroad companies and coal mines. Georgia’s first lease-off in 1868 was to a railroad company: $2,500 bought 100 black men, arrested for vagrancy or loitering and forced to work not as slaves but as convicts.

This was the start of the modern criminal justice system. It was started, you might say, right here where Occupy Atlanta will be sleeping tonight, in Woodruff Park, by the post-Civil War plantation owners intent on keeping the work of black men and women cheap and available.

By the time the practice of leasing out people convicted of crimes to private parties was abolished (by the Georgia Legislature, in 1908), convict leasing had turned the primary function of the South’s judicial system into the maintenance of white control over black labor.

Occupied Atlanta, 1906

In 1906, Decatur Street, where Mr. Brown had been arrested 38 years earlier, was now lined with saloons, hotels, a buggy repair shop and the post office.

In Spring of that year, the Chief of Police in Atlanta launched a campaign to rid the city of black men. He committed a full squad of officers to "arrest all loafers" and close down the "Negro dives" that lined Decatur Street in downtown Atlanta. The chief told City Council that in order to arrest and prosecute all the vagrants, he would need 50 additional policemen.

The police arrested dozens of black men through the summer, but were not satisfied. The chief of police stepped up the campaign in August. "Vagrant Negroes fill streets and saloons at all hours of day," read the Aug. 25 headline in the Atlanta Constitution. "Difficult to convict loafers of vagrancy after they are arrested." The editorial page the next day urged support for police efforts to "drive out the vagrants." And to clarify why, the next day: "For protection of white women."

The police campaign against "vagrants" in the "Negro dives" on Decatur Street, packaged as a way to reduce crime, was concerned only with black men and had little to do with actual violence or criminal activity.

On Sept. 3, for example, a white man stabbed another man to death in one of the white saloons on Decatur Street. Tommy Lucas’ escape was so leisurely that the newspapers were able to report his name, which morning train he took to Chattanooga, what he packed for the trip, and where he would be staying once he arrived in Chattanooga. There is no record of his arrest.

Pressure to "arrest and lock up all the negroes who were idling about the city" intensified. By the third week in September, coverage about the police campaign against "vagrants" and "negro dives" merged into sensational stories about white women around the city fending off sexual attacks by black men. Four such allegations turned into front page headlines in that week in September. On Saturday night, thousands of white men gathered in Five Points, sent there by the newspapers exhorting "good white men" to band together and take action to protect their women from "black beasts" and "animals."

By the time the sun set, over 5,000 white men were milling around Five Points. They were stomping their feet on the ground where Occupy Atlanta’s general assemblies sit. Their numbers doubled over the next two hours, men armed with rifles, pistols, long knives and clubs. They were ready to kill.

And kill they did. Groups of 20, 30, 100 burst forward in a sprinting chase whenever a black man or boy appeared. A footrace up Peachtree Street, another down Decatur Street, another across a bridge flying over the railroad tracks. Three bodies were dumped in a pile at the foot of the statue of Henry Grady on Marietta Street. A black man was strung up on a lamppost along Peachtree. The white mobs raged through the night, quieting in the early morning.

The governor called in the state militia, but rather than protecting black families from white violence, militiamen mostly stood at the ready to defend whites from retaliatory violence. No retaliation came. A second mob, smaller than the first, gathered at the corner of Marietta and Peachtree Streets–the southwest corner of what is now Woodruff Park. Whites ventured out in groups, more leisurely now, to look for another black man or woman to kill or maim.

Over three days, 25 black Atlantans were killed, maybe more. Another 50 or more had injuries serious enough to brave the streets to get to Grady Hospital. There is neither memorial nor mention of the dead among the commemorations in Woodruff Park.

Occupied Atlanta, 1960

Half a century later, the streets here around Woodruff Park had been scrubbed clean of any reminder of the race riot. Where the saloons had been were now office buildings–some modern steel frame, some red brick.

On Feb. 1, 1960, four black students in Greensboro, N.C., sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter and waited to be served. The police came, but could not arrest the students because they were not breaking any law. The next day, the students returned and again sat quietly at the Woolworth lunch counter. The media picked up the story, and the sit-ins spread. On Feb. 13, 500 students in Nashville sat-in at lunch counters across the city.

The Georgia Legislature responded with astonishing speed, passing a new trespassing law four days later–should the sit-ins spread to Atlanta, they wanted a law that would let the police make arrests. A small law would do. Cast in the same mold as the early-century vagrancy laws, the new trespass law made it a crime to remain on the premises after being asked to leave.

The fears of Georgia’s lawmakers were well-founded. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) held its first conference at the Atlanta University Center Oct. 14-16 of that year, and resolved to take direct action to desegregate Atlanta’s lunch counters. Three days after the close of the conference, Atlanta students staged mass demonstrations and sit-ins at the Rich’s Department Store in downtown Five Points and other counters across the city. Two blocks south of Woodruff Park, where Occupiers will sleep tonight, black students trained in nonviolent direct action took an elevator up to Rich’s 6th floor Magnolia Room, or down to the Cockrel Grill in the basement, then sat down and waited to be served.

The police came and used the new trespassing law to arrest 51 people, including Martin Luther King, Jr. In pleading innocent that afternoon, King announced that he would "sit in jail 10 years if necessary" rather than post the $500 bond.

The next day, the sit-ins and pickets expanded to 16 other downtown eateries. Twenty-six more protesters were arrested, this time on loafing and disturbing the peace charges. They were sentenced to 20 days in the city prison farm. The students insisted on staying in jail; the mayor insisted that they be released. The mayor got his way, but the students won the day.

Occupied Atlanta, 1996

Atlanta changed. Rich’s downtown became Macy’s. A slain King made a final journey through the streets of Atlanta in a wooden farm wagon drawn by two mules, before being laid to rest in South View Cemetery. The students who had been arrested for trespassing became fathers, nurses, elected officials.

Then in 1996, the Olympics came to Atlanta. The city built a new jail in record time; it was the first facility completed for the Games. The city also closed down Woodruff Park and renovated it. The city took its time–it was their best chance to move out the homeless men and women who slept in the park–and when the park was reopened, it had been landscaped with a wide open slope to make it easier for police to keep it clear of the visibly poor.

Should the Atlanta Police decide to evict Occupy Atlanta from Woodruff Park, they will likely use one of the ordinances banning overnight sleeping or camping on public space, passed before and immediately after the 1996 Olympics.

Officials with the Atlanta Olympic Committee insisted the police were not used to clear poor black people out of downtown Atlanta for the Games. Yet, the visibly poor–nearly all black–disappeared from Woodruff Park for the duration of the Games. The county jail’s population shot up from 2,200 to 4,500 before and during the Olympics. Officials insisted: just a coincidence.

Occupied Atlanta, 2011

Five days before the execution of Troy Davis, thousands of Atlantans gathered at Woodruff Park to march to Ebenezer Baptist Church for a part-vigil, part-protest that recalled the civil rights movement’s most raucous mass meetings. The protest was majority–an overwhelming majority, if you include those already seated in Ebenezer Church–African American. The State of Georgia was not moved, and killed Troy Davis by lethal injection.
Occupy Atlanta is majority–at times an overwhelming majority–white. It is trying to figure out how to do right by race.

But being anti-racist in this place–that is, in Woodruff Park, in Atlanta, in Georgia, in the South–is not mainly about getting more people of color to pitch a tent and sleep out there. Truth be told, I’m kind of OK with having mostly white people sleeping out there, because when the junta that runs downtown Atlanta decides it has had enough and people get carted off to jail, there’s no need to have more black or brown people in the Atlanta City Detention Center.

Being anti-racist is, if you are going to set up camp and take Five Points as your center point, acknowledging that the corporate forces at play around there are totally about race. This is true currently, and it is true historically–no surprise. When Occupy Wall Street declared, "We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments," that was old news here, friends. The plantation owners have always run Georgia’s government.

But they have not always run the street. In 1960, the students won. Was it because they were one sit-in among dozens of sit-ins happening around the country, much like Occupy Atlanta is one of dozens? Was it because they had both strong process and direct action? Was it because they confronted the criminal justice system head on, demanding to be arrested and refusing to post bail? Maybe, maybe, maybe.

Now that John Lewis has been invited back, maybe he will sit down and give some insight. He wasn’t just a good soldier in the Movement. He was, in my unbiased-notwithstanding-lifelong-crush-on-John-Lewis opinion, the catalyst that turned a series of actions into this country’s greatest freedom movement.

So I am suggesting that, in addition to questions of logistics and process during Occupy Atlanta’s committee meetings and larger assemblies, the questions of why and how race and racism figure into this fight are, I think, worth trying to think through and understand together. Because this is Georgia, after all. And because what happens in Woodruff Park Troy Davis Park in 2011 is being written now.

Kung Li is a human rights attorney and lifelong Southerner living in East Point, Georgia. This essay was originally written as an open letter to Occupy Atlanta.