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McKibben opened way for integration

By Greg Gelpi

His dedication to teaching led to the nearly overnight acceptance of black students and teachers in what had been white only schools.

Fresh out of college, George McKibben was one of the first black teachers in Clayton County to teach at a white school.

Walking down the hallways of Jonesboro Junior High in 1967, he heard the letter "k" said repeatedly under students' breath in an attempt to instill the fear of the Ku Klux Klan.

In his first months, McKibben, 22 at the time, found "KKK" written on his chalkboard and even a letter with the name of the racist group written on it.

"Even though there were some negative things, I was happy," McKibben said. "I should have some bitterness in me, but I don't."

One student even made up a story about him paddling her, McKibben said, just to get moved from his class.

"By the end of the year, they were begging to be in my class," McKibben said. "Things just changed overnight. They just welcomed me with open arms."

Quickly, his students became his family, family he continues to keep in touch with today, he said. They recognized his as a good teacher, regardless of his skin color. They write and call, crediting McKibben with their successes as a nuclear physicist, an assistant district attorney and a professional wrestler.

"I believe they love me as much as I love them," he said.

Born and raised in Forest Park when blacks and whites used separate bathrooms, separate water fountains and separate schools, he was accustomed to the division.

"I came from an entirely segregated environment to a segregated environment," McKibben said. "We were new to them, and they were new to us."

McKibben taught alongside former Clayton County Superintendent Dan Colwell and was hired by then Assistant Principal Bob Livingston, who is a member of the Clayton County Board of Education now.

Fellow teacher Gene Miller said only a couple of teachers complained about the desegregation of the schools. No black students were placed in those classrooms, but those teachers were later upset for not having the opportunity to teach minorities.

"To me, it went smoothly," Miller said, explaining that the school system had practiced "separate but equal," although nothing was equal particularly when it came to buildings. "We did our best to make them welcome. Other states had (integrated), so we figured it was time for us too."

Colwell said the school system has nearly reversed itself demographically since the start of desegregation.

According to statistics from the school system, the percentage of black students has steadily increased each year since 1980, while the number of white students has steadily decreased each year.

In 1980, there were 90.51 percent white students and 7.25 percent black students. For this school year, there are 11.83 percent white students and 70.97 percent black students.

"It has almost resegregated again," Colwell, who began teaching in Clayton County in 1969, said.

Although Jonesboro Junior High began with a trickle of diversity, with a "handful" of black students in 1967, Jonesboro Middle has 59.87 percent black students for this school year.

Miller said there were 11 black students in 1967, nine in 1968 and the school system became completely integrated in 1969.

"I think it took longer for the workforce to become integrated that for the student population," Colwell said.

McKibben taught for 11 years at Jonesboro Junior High, now Jonesboro Middle, and helped open Mundy's Middle School, where he drew the razorback mascot on the hallway wall that is still seen today. He taught there from 1967 to 1978, before taking a job with MARTA. After retiring from MARTA, he returned to education from 1988 to 2001 and retired from the Atlanta Public School system.

McKibben and his former coworkers from Jonesboro Junior High continue to meet regularly at Chick-fil-A in Jonesboro.

About 37 years later, the school system will mark a new milestone in black history, as the system's second black superintendent and first female superintendent, Barbara Pulliam, begins work Feb. 9.