While Newton County may seem today to have smooth relations between the races, it was only 38 years ago that U.S. Highway 278 was lined with state troopers and the Covington Square was filled nightly with black residents protesting the county's segregationist policies.
While the civil rights movement in Covington didn't begin to heat up until the tail end of the national civil rights movement, in the spring of 1970, protestors in Newton County benefited from the experience gained during the earlier struggles of the 1950s and 1960s.
"Because of the marches of '70 and the way people stood up around here, and they're still standing up, we enjoy some freedoms around here," said Forrest Sawyer Jr., who became a leader of the city's civil rights movement while he was a senior at the then all-black R.L. Cousins High School.
According to Brandeis University Professor of Anthropology Mark Auslander, the Newton County civil rights movement was able to take advantage of the practices and tactics which had already been honed after nearly two decades of protesting.
"It was a sort of a textbook case of the use of non-violent resistance and mass meeting and really taking on especially the power of the sheriffs," Auslander said.
When integration of the county's public school system became mandatory in 1969 as the result of a successful U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the state, the Newton County School System was forced to begin planning for full system integration for the fall of 1970.
The Newton County Board of Education decided to adopt a "7-5" desegregation plan which would consist of seven years of elementary school and five years of high school. R.L. Cousins High School was to become a satellite campus of the then all-white Newton County High School and would house the eighth and ninth grades while NCHS housed tenth through twelfth grades.
After rumors began to spread in late February 1970 that black teachers and administrators at R.L. Cousins would be let go once the school was integrated, Cousins students spontaneously decided to walk out of class on Feb. 27 and march on the Board of Education.
According to Sawyer, the 500-person walkout and ensuing school boycott by Cousins students was instigated by a speech given by then School Superintendent Whitlow Richardson. While he was not in school the day Richardson spoke with black students, Sawyer said he was informed
"His delivery was wrong the way he said 'this school is going to be gone next year,'" Sawyer said. "I think if his delivery had been more cordial and courteous, I don't think any of this would have happened. That was really what led to the walkout."
Today, the owner of A & J's Bail Bonding Company, Richard Johnson in 1970 was well known locally for his civil rights lawsuit against the trucking company Georgia Highway Express, which he eventually won in federal court. Johnson, along with Sawyer, quickly became involved in leading the students' protests when he was called to the scene on Geiger Street on Feb. 27.
"I was called in because all of the students were in the street but had no leaders at the time to kind of control them and organize them and see what we could get done," Johnson said. "When I got there, they were already in the street and marching towards [Ga. Highway] 81 and the Board of Education."
According to Covington News archives, student leaders presented the BOE with a list of seven demands including a demand for a black supervising principal at Cousins, that Cousins not be absorbed into NCHS but remain a separate entity with its own name, school colors and mascot intact. The students rejected a compromise offered by the BOE that Cousins be renamed "The R.L. Cousins Division of the Newton County High School System."
The students also demanded screens for every Cousins classroom window, the replacement or repair of all Cousins equipment including typewrites, broken windows and electrical outlets and additional school buses to relieve overcrowding.
Johnson said the protest quickly took on wider dimensions when the march on the BOE changed into a march on the Newton County Sheriff's Office at its then location on Stallings Street and a protest against segregated stores in Covington's downtown.
Cousins students, joined by their parents and grandparents, marched on the Covington Square throughout March. While the vast majority of civil rights protestors were black, some white residents, especially white students at Oxford College, also took part in the protests.
Oxford [College] was always quite active in planning activities," said Auslander, a former professor of the college. "It was also a safe place for organizers and members of the movement to go and have meetings and hide out if they felt the need to."
The rallies, marches and pickets quickly caught the eye of Southern Christian Leadership Conference leader the Rev. Hosea Williams. At the request of several prominent black leaders in the county, Williams dispatched Tyrone Brooks, a young SCLC organizer, to Covington to help lead the protests.
"We'd gotten many requests from a lot of the students and some parents who were concerned about the problems at R.L. Cousins High School and the lack of diversity in the downtown business community," said Brooks who is today a state representative from Atlanta.
With guidance from the SCLC, black residents in Newton County took part in a three-month county-wide economic boycott which they named Black Easter to protest the lack of black front-end employees at white-owned businesses and the refusal by many white-owned restaurants to serve black customers.
The Buck-n-Kid Restaurant, the Cow Palace Restaurant and Mickey's Grill, all now long out of business, were protested "practically every day" because they refused to allow black customers to dine-in, according to Johnson.
"We would rally there on the square talking about the issues, frankly every night," Johnson said.
Black residents also protested an unspoken rule which barred any black Covington police officer from arresting white offenders.
"Black police officers could not arrest white people at that time," recalled Johnson. "We protested at the same time to put some blacks on the sheriff's department."
A particular irritant to the movement was then Newton County Sheriff Henry Odum.
Segregation and Jim Crow were really held together by the sheriff," Auslander said. "The movement really followed the playbook from Dr. King of targeting the sheriff."
According to leaders of the civil rights movement, Odum went to great lengths to stymie and harass protesters, bringing in hundreds of state troopers to arrest and intimidate leaders.
"When we would march at night onto the square, they would have the buses lined up," Johnson said. "Some of the protesters would refuse to go to jail ,but most would march onto the bus. I was arrested probably a dozen times or more."
According to Sawyer, the number of protesters arrested in one night would often overflow the county jail's capacity. Newton County protesters were sent to jails in Gwinnett, Henry and Butts counties Sawyer said.
"The next day down at the city hall we would have municipal court, and it would take about all day to bail people out," Sawyer said.
According to Johnson, bond for the protesters was usually set at $6. Since so many protesters were repeatedly arrested, raising the money to pay bond became difficult. At this time black business owners, including funeral parlor owners Dan Young and Lester Lackey, stepped up to pay many of the reconnaissance bonds for the hundreds of arrested civil rights protesters.
"The sheriff he would see them coming and arrest them for nothing," Johnson said.
It was around Easter time that the economic boycott really began to take effect. Rather than buying new Easter church clothes as was customary, black residents all across the county boycotted Newton County merchants and wore old clothes instead on Easter Sunday.
"We wore old clothes - everybody on that Easter Sunday wore old clothes," Sawyer said. "We didn't buy anything in this town for 90 days."
Sawyer recalled that black residents mailed in their electricity bills and joined in carpools to go shopping outside the county limits. Sawyer estimated that 80 percent of black residents in Newton County participated in the Black Easter boycott.
With the effects of the Black Easter boycott strongly felt by county merchants, Odum began to take stronger measures to curb the civil rights protests.
"Odum decided to take the law in his own hands after that march on Easter," Sawyer said. "When we were arrested, we were treated pretty rough going up those steps to be fingerprinted. I've had hair pulled out of my face by deputies who are still living in this city now who I still see now in this city."
In the spring of 1970, six of the civil rights leaders central to the movement were jailed without bond by Odum on the charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Newton County residents Forrest Sawyer Jr., Robert Johnson and Joe Lightfoot were all jailed for 45 days along with SCLC organizers Leon Walker, Tyrone Brooks and Lloyd Jackson. The group became widely known as "The Newton 6."
"We did a lot of praying," Sawyer recalled of the time spent in jail. "We talked to the sheriff once or twice. We witnessed a lot of stuff. We saw a couple of police brutalities up there. All of us saw one man being kicked up there real bad."
Eventually a writ of habeus corpus was issued by the federal government ordering Odum to release the six men Johnson said.
Once the six men were released, protests dropped off markedly, the R.L. Cousins protesters returned to school and the SCLC organizers returned to Atlanta.
Gradually it became apparent that the civil rights protests had an effect as black employees were promoted to front-end positions in white-owned businesses, black customers were served at formerly segregated restaurants and black deputies were seen patrolling the streets.
"We really didn't notice the changes until a year later," Sawyer said. "All of a sudden you see four or five people on the police force."
Nearly 40 years after the first marches in Covington, those involved with the movement all feel a shared sense of pride in what was accomplished.
"We see things that are coming to pass in this city," Sawyer said. "They're not coming to pass in Monroe, Social Circle and Conyers. We're getting along better; the race problem is better. We have representation. We didn't have any of that back then."
Added Johnson, "Some people haven't changed, but things have changed. Jim Crowism still rises up in individuals and that's going to always be I guess."
But there is also worry that all that previous generations fought for and struggled for will be lost.
"The morals today are totally different from back when it was segregated," Johnson said. "[Back then] it was demanded that you had respect for yourself, respect for the ladies and respect for your elders. That was just a way of life. Nowadays we don't have respect for ourselves or anybody else and that's sad."