As a student leader of the Covington civil rights movement, who once spent 45 days in jail for protesting segregation, watching President Barack Obama take the oath of office at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. was a seminal experience for Forrest Sawyer Jr.
"It was one of the best feelings I ever imagined because it let me know then that the dream of Martin Luther King and for all of us was coming true, where people are being judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin," said Sawyer, a resident of Covington.
Though the civil rights movement didn’t really get going in Covington until the early 1970s, there were a few preliminary skirmishes in the late 1960s. Sawyer recalls one instance when a small group of black residents unsuccessfully attempted to desegregate the city’s sole movie theater, located on the square. At the time, blacks were only allowed to sit in the theater’s balcony.
Sawyer became actively involved with the civil rights movement as a high school senior at the county's segregated black high school, R.L. Cousins. In early 1970 the Newton County School System was forced to integrate its two high schools as the result of a successful U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against Georgia.
In complying with the new law, the BOE adopted a desegregation plan that would have integrated the county’s two high schools into a single large one, with R.L. Cousins acting as a satellite campus for the formerly all white Newton County High School.
When rumors began to circulate at Cousins that black teachers and black administrators would not have jobs at the integrated high school, 500 Cousins students spontaneously decided to walk out of class on Feb. 27 and march on the BOE. From that first march, the protest movement quickly grew to include protests on the Newton County Sheriff’s Office and the businesses of segregated merchants.
"When the school boycott started, integration really came to this county after all of the mass meetings and night marches," Sawyer said.
The students were soon joined by older black residents. A handful of white college students from nearby Oxford College also participated in the protests. The economic boycott, rallies and marches, drew the attention of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which dispatched several members to Covington to aid in organizing the movement.
"All of them banded behind this march," said Sawyer, listing famous names in the civil rights movement such as the Rev. Hosea Williams and Ralph Abernathy.
The grievances of black residents were many at the time. They protested the unspoken rule that no black policemen were allowed to arrest white residents and that there was not a single black deputy at the sheriff’s office at the time. Businesses that refused to employ any blacks in front-end jobs, such as working the cash register were also protested.
"We picketed a couple of 5 and 10 stores. They weren’t letting black people run the registers," Sawyer said adding, "It was a long time before black people [worked] in anything but menial jobs."
The protests and economic-boycott lasted for three months in 1970. They culminated with a 5,000-member march on Easter Sunday, a date that has since become known locally as Black Easter. Sawyer and five other leaders of the Newton County civil rights movement were arrested and held for 45 days in the old Covington jail on the charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Eventually, a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the federal government, which ordered that "The Newton 6" be released. After that the protests died down and it appeared that things had returned to normal in Covington, but with a few notable exceptions: the sheriff’s department finally hired a black deputy and blacks began to be promoted to front-end positions in local stores-- most notably Ocie Franklin, now a Covington councilmember, was the first black employee to work the cash register at a store called the Freezer Locker.
Today Sawyer contents himself with running his own Sunday radio show, "Thy Brothers and Sisters Keeper" -- which he hosts with his wife, Sharon -- and with duties at his church, Early Hope Baptist Church, where he is a deacon under the Rev. Kenneth Williams.
"My faith is what sustains me," Sawyer said adding, "All of the marching is not in vain because we are trying to make things better for our young folk: black, white and yellow and brown."