The more Norris Freeman listened to Superintendent Whitlow Richardson present his plan for school desegregation, the less he liked what he heard. By the end of Richardson’s speech, Freeman and the others were nearly in a fury.
"It was a bitter feeling. I was a senior at the time, and they were just going to shut R.L. Cousins down. We walked out of the auditorium and started pounding on the lockers. The teachers asked ‘Are you all going to take that?’ and we said no and took to the streets," Freeman said.
Around 500 students made the 2-mile march from Geiger Street to the Newton County Board of Education on Feb. 27, 1970, singing "freedom songs."
The students were upset over the terms of Newton County’s integration plan, nicknamed the "7-5" plan. The plan called for the county’s two high schools, R.L. Cousins and Newton County High School, to be combined. NCHS was to become the high school, while R.L. Cousins would be brought underneath NCHS and converted into a satellite campus. The county’s black students wanted to protect their heritage and were afraid their black teachers and administrators would lose their positions.
"They were going to take away the only black school in the county; disband it. We would have no mascot, no colors, no history," former student Forrest Sawyer, Jr. said.
The students weren’t granted a meeting with Richardson that day, and so they came back the next day — and the next day. They kept coming back until they were granted a meeting with Richardson and other county leaders. When that didn’t lead to change, they promised to keep coming back until their demands were met. They also began a boycott of the school system, and hundreds of students stopped attending R.L. Cousins.
The students wanted R.L. Cousins to retain its name and remain separate from NCHS, and they wanted the promise, in writing, that the black faculty would have the same rights and powers as their white counterparts.
"These demands must be met without compromise," Sawyer was quoted in a March 7, 1970 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article. "Each day of delay will bring new demands. We will march, we will stay out of school until these demands are met."
The students did just that and were soon joined in their marches and peaceful protests by other black community members; they became ever more emboldened. They began demanding that integration be applied to the Covington Police Department, the Newton County Sheriff’s Office, the hospital and even to the businesses of local merchants.
The path and time of the marches shifted and soon the square began to be filled each night by black protestors.
Blacks protested the unspoken rule that no black city policemen were allowed to arrest white residents and that there was not a single black sheriff’s deputy. They were also upset that white businesses refused to employ any blacks in front-end jobs, like cashier. The protestors decided to hit the merchants where it hurt and started an economic boycott.
The protests and economic-boycott lasted for three months and culminated in a 5,000 member march on Easter Sunday, known now as Black Easter. Famous Atlanta civil rights leaders Hosea Williams and Tyrone Brooks joined in the battle, placing statewide attention on the small town of Covington - the local civil rights movement was in full swing.
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; because students were not attending school.
Eventually, a writ of habeas corpus was issued by the federal government, which ordered that "The Newton 6" be released. Changes were made and the protests ended. 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, who was the first black employee to work the cash register at a store called the Freezer Locker. The following September the schools were integrated, followed shortly by the hospital.
For the 40th anniversary of the local marches and Black Easter, the R.L. Cousins class of 1970 will be the honored guests at the annual commemoration. That was the last senior class to ever graduate from R.L. Cousins High School.
The 1970 class is meeting Sunday at Grace United Methodist Church. The annual Black Easter celebration will be on April 4 at 3 p.m. on the square; this is also the anniversary of King’s death.
R.L. Cousins was eventually converted into Troy University and a variety of other businesses and governmental institutions. However, Cousins Middle School was built across the street and Wolverine Field was recently renovated — the old Cousins Gym is soon to follow.
Despite all of that, Freeman said he would love to see another R.L. Cousins High School sometime in the future. With the NCSS planning to close down Newton High School sometime in the next few years and build a new high school; Freeman might get his chance.
"We still recognize R.L. Cousins as our high school. I still have my class ring and wear it proudly," said Freeman, who was senior class president. "Because the thing that hurts is that we never got exactly what we asked for. If they have a new school I would like to see it be a R.L. Cousins High School. It would touch a lot of hearts."