Locals reflect on 40-year anniversary of Civil Rights Act

By Justin Boron

In 1960, John Thomas Taylor hunkered down in an Atlanta post office, working as a mail distribution clerk.

He made the trek from Jonesboro to Atlanta because he said it was one of the few positions available for blacks in the sixties.

At the time, Clayton County was a predominantly white community and offered little opportunity to a black person with only some college, he said.

Taylor spent nine years digging through letters until 1969 when he was promoted to supervisor, coming on the heels of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA), which has reached its 40th Anniversary this year.

He attributes his rise to leadership at the post office, in part, to civil rights legislation because he said even in government offices, a level of segregation existed.

"There were no signs, you just knew what place to go," he said.

Taylor's memories about the emergence of equality are cloaked with examples of discrimination that gradually withered away after 1964.

But after 40 years, many of those examples are invisible today. Places like Davis' restaurant in Jonesboro, where blacks ordered from the back door, no longer exist, Taylor said.

Gail Davenport, the president of the concerned black citizens coalition of Clayton County, was able to put a physical location on the discrimination she suffered in the past.

She remembers Fountain High School, now W.A. Fountain Elementary School, as a place, which housed educational disparities between whites and blacks.

"We got old books while white children got new books," she said. "Also, the school superintendent rarely came to high school graduation."

The Civil Rights Act has proven to be a departure point for a 40-year long trajectory of equal rights progression, which heightened the nation's perception of inequality while it transformed community relations in places like Clayton and Henry County.

A seminar being held this weekend on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta will illustrate the landmark legislation's 40-year life span through commemorative speakers and seminars that aim to push civil rights action further.

However, the dynamic change occurring in Clayton and Henry counties needs no ceremonial conference to show the progression toward equality. Change is visible in the political and cultural fabric of Clayton and Henry Counties, black community activists said.

A demographic shift, which made blacks a majority in Clayton County, has adjusted the community's political representation and could give way to policy changes that, activists said, are more representative of the community.

"We have a voice and once you have one, you can express your dissatisfaction," said the Rev. Charles W. Grant, pastor of Mt. Welcome Missionary Baptist Church.

Hopes to shore up economic and political disparity in Clayton County rest in the new faces entering office in January, Davenport said.

"We have black judges, black district attorney, black sheriff, blacks on the commission, and blacks on the school board," she said. "We've been waiting for this for a long time."

The realignment of political representation with the demands of the majority black populist was spearheaded by grass-roots activism; however, those instrumental in that push are quick to thank the Civil Rights Act for the achievement.

"The number of African-Americans elected to office in Clayton County would not have been possible without the CRA," said the Rev. Joe Wheeler, former president of the Clayton County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"Without it, fair political representation would still be something to come as opposed to a reality that it is now," he said.

While the civil rights legislation has reached a milestone in its existence, community leaders today prefer to measure the law's progress by its impact on the future.

"It's like the old saying, we've come a long way, but we've got a long way to go," Grant said.

The success of civil rights ahead is hinged greatly on the willingness to use the tools provided by legislation, he said.

"I'm fighting lethargy in my people," Grant said. "A lot are still saying that their vote doesn't count."

Ozell Sutton, Friday's keynote speaker at the Atlanta commemoration, confirmed the waning passion of minorities.

"We've got a long, long hard road, and in my estimation, we're not fighting any more."

One area in Clayton and Henry County that activists said needs to be addressed is the representative disparity in minority employment in public institutions.

The Clayton County government employs 34 percent minorities despite the majority demographic presence of blacks.

"Clayton County has not changed with the rest of the country," Davenport said. "They continue to discriminate."

In Henry County, where a demographic shift toward a black majority is under way, the school system employs 18 percent blacks.

Thomas Hester, the vice president of the Henry County NAACP, said black newcomers to Henry County have met some problems with employment in the school system.

"Henry NAACP is in the process of going to the school board and making a case that they're employment procedures need to be more transparent," he said.

Hester said he anticipates a social change similar to what has happened in Clayton.

"The Henry County change will be profound," he said.