The Covington civil rights movement reached its peak in 1970 with the Black Easter march and the arrest of the Newton Six. And although discrimination is not as blatant and rampant today, many of the same local leaders who participated in those events feel Newton County still has a long way to go.
That's why more than 40 years after the local chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was first formed to fight the civil rights battle on the front lines, local black leaders are once again forming a SCLC group in Newton County.
"All those issues back in the past they still exist today," said Deacon Archie Shepherd, an active member in the local NAACP. "Racism is still alive and well and we still have people who look down on other people. All is not well and there are some people who still have so much hate."
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy formed the SCLC in 1957 with the mission of ending segregation absolutely and nonviolently. The SCLC grew out of the Rosa Parks' Montgomery Bus Boycott, which occurred in 1955. The local SCLC chapter was formed in 1968 as the civil rights movement reached Covington.
Deacon Forrest Sawyer Jr. said that while the NAACP was the legal defense arm of the civil rights movement, the SCLC was its direct action arm.
"It was the arms and legs of the movement, and there's a need for that," said Sawyer, who was part of the Newton Six, a group of six protestors who spent 45 days in jail in 1970. "It's time to reactivate the SCLC here in Newton County because they deal directly with the people having grievances and the people bringing complaints... you need organized, experienced leadership and the SCLC will bring that."
Joe Lightfoot, another one of the Newton Six, is heading up the effort to reactivate the local SCLC chapter. He said in addition to fighting discrimination, the group seeks to instill Christian values in the youth and help the underprivileged people in society.
"We want to keep the dream alive, keep Dr. King's dream alive - one nation, under God, with individual rights," Lightfoot said. "On the local level that includes education, community advancement and creating jobs."
Sawyer discusses many of these issues on his radio show "Thy Brother's and Sister's Keeper." He said empowering the black people in the community is important.
"The SCLC will be the voice for the voiceless in this town. There are a lot of people being lost in society and in the criminal justice system. They don't have jobs, and the suicide, drop-out, teenage pregnancy and incarceration rates are all high.
"Half the people in jail don't have a high school education, not because it's not available, it is available, but we have to band together. The SCLC will band neighborhoods, together and put the preacher with the young boy who has no direction and instill some sense of Christian behavior."
Over the years the SCLC and civil right movement faded and people became complacent, State Rep. Tyrone Brooks said.
On a national scale, many felt the SCLC had lost its direction and focus. But with Friday's national SCLC presidential election of Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, many hope the group will regain a prominent role in promoting civil rights.
"It's wonderful to have now Dr. King's daughter to serve, and I look forward to working with her to carry on tradition," Brooks said. "Hopefully, this will be a new day for the SCLC going forward, and we'll get back our message. If there are any two counties in the state that need to have SCLC chapters they're Newton County and Walton County."
Sawyer said the local leaders are ready to provide the support that Bernice King will need to be successful.
"If she has that she will do good and will be able go the masses of young people and get them involved," Sawyer said.
Sawyer and other local leaders are going around to churches and neighborhoods to get people involved so the chapter can be restarted. If anyone is interested in helping the reformation of the SCLC, they can contact Lightfoot by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at (404) 368-0835.