Marching toward the Newton County School Board in 1970, local black students knew they needed to be treated fairly.
Heading up the stairs of the Newton County jail, with troopers on almost every step, black protestors knew they were going to be hit, spit on, kicked and worse.
Sitting in a jail cell Forest Sawyer thought he was going to get out the next day, but knew what would eventually be his 45-day stay was something he had to do.
That was the climate of Newton County in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the thoughts of some of the players in a pivotal time in the Civil Rights history of the area. In 1970 local civil rights organizers asked black citizens and visitors to boycott Newton County businesses, and stage marches toward the Square.
When the students of R.L. Cousins School found out they would be joining with the white school but their teachers and principals would not, thousands marched in protest. Their administrators should be treated as equals, they felt. It was enough that R.L. Cousins School didn’t have screens on the windows or other accommodations, but African Americans needed the same opportunities.
A photograph in The Covington News in March of 1970 shows a line of hundreds of students with the R.L. Cousins gym in the background, headed toward the Covington Square and toward what they hoped would be equality.
“People came from all over,” Sawyer said
Desegregation of schools was made official in the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 but it would be 16 years before it would reach Newton County.
By that time African Americans had been made to feel like second class citizens for generations, according to Newton County resident Leon Walker.
“Back then they had black people thinking they weren’t nothing,” Walker said. “But some people thought ‘I’m better than that,’ and I was one of them. I thought they were not going to control me. I’m better than that. That’s the attitude I had.”
Walker wasn’t the only one. Five others had the same opinion, and they formed what is now known as the Newton Six. The Newton Six helped spearhead the march, from their “headquarters” at St. Paul AME Church.
For their efforts the Newton Six — Newton County residents Joe Lightfoot, Walker and Sawyer , along with Tyrone Brooks, Lloyd Jackson and Robert Johnson — were honored by the Newton County NAACP at its annual Freedom Fund and scholarship gala on Sept. 27 at the Turner Lake Complex.
They helped organize the march from R.L. Cousins that was modeled after the peaceful ways of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. With police buses ready to transport some marchers to jail, the top floor of the now old Newton County Jail became full of people. The first floor was the Sheriff’s living quarters and held the cells for white prisoners. African Americans, at the time, were even arrested in separate patrol cars, by African American police officers.
Sawyer said African American prisoners were typically taken up the back steps to the second floor, but after the march from R.L. Cousins, were taken around the building to the main staircase. There, he said, awaited troopers on every other step.
“When you first come in up the steps to the jail it was a bad trip,” Sawyer said. “It was a beating trip, a kicking trip a spitting trip.”
Lightfoot knew the troopers, some who grabbed his hat, which had a strap and others who grabbed at the opposite end, chocking him, had a reason for the abuse.
“They thought they would kill the movement,” Lightfoot said.
The officers picked Lightfoot, Sawyer, Walker, Jackson, Brooks and Johnson as the leaders, and were determined to try to kill the movement. While many of the other marchers were released on bond the next day, the Newton Six were not allowed to go free.
“They came to us and said ‘Are you going to march again?’ Walker said. “All we had to do was say we weren’t going to march again and they would let us out. We said ‘No, we’re going to march again if you let us out tonight.’”
For 45 days the Newton Six stayed in jail, as protestors came by and chanted for their release. The jailers even had to close the windows, after people would communicate back and forth with them through the open second-floor window.
“People were around the Square picketing during the day,” Sawyer said. “People would come from all over the country.”
After a month and a half the six would be released. It took longer than that for things to equal out, but 44 years later Sawyer, Lightfoot and Walker freely walked in and out of the jail, still leaders but with equal stature in the community they helped form.
“We have changed a lot here in Newton County: an African American Sheriff, half the city council is African American, we have an African American assistant police chief and two African American commissioners,” Sawyer said. “We got a lot of things changed with this march. It wouldn’t have happened; it would have never happened if this march hadn’t have taken place.”