The beginning of the end of racial segregation in Rockdale County schools came 49 years ago this month, in August 1965. A new "freedom of choice" plan allowed Rockdale's black students to attend the whites-only school system for the first time.
A group of students from the all-black J.P. Carr School chose to become pioneers, attending the all-white Rockdale County High and the Main Street elementary school.
Rockdale was behind the curve on segregation, finally being forced to change by the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The black school was grossly underfunded compared to the white system, and the mayor of Conyers at the time reportedly likened desegregation to drinking castor oil. The county's plan came 11 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared school segregation to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, and four years after Atlanta Public Schools used the same "freedom of choice" tactic.
Just four months before Rockdale enacted "freedom of choice," a federal district court in Atlanta ruled the tactic to be an unconstitutional stalling tactic. Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed in a case that forced full desegregation of Rockdale schools in 1969.
Nonetheless, "freedom of choice" was a landmark step in Rockdale desegregation. It required courage from the students. And it took political savvy from the Citizens Progressive Club, the local black community organization already known for working productively with the county's white leaders, and quiet leadership from the community's white leaders and institutions.
The Board of Education made the plan sound as neutral and uncontroversial as possible, simply publishing a bland-looking school transfer application form in the newspaper. Theoretically, any student could attend any school, but in reality, no whites applied to attend J.P. Carr. And the Progressive Club actively recruited black students who seemed sharp and resilient enough to succeed under the pressure of transferring into the white schools.
While some desegregation efforts in metro Atlanta and across the South saw riots and National Guard deployments, Rockdale's version was especially quiet and smooth. Rockdale is among a minority of Georgia counties that was never sued or placed under federal court supervision for desegregation. In part, that was because local black and white leaders alike viewed such national organizations as the NAACP as outsiders and were determined to have a homegrown version of desegregation. A transcript of a July 19, 1965 meeting between the Rockdale Board of Education and local black leaders, published in that week's Rockdale Citizen, illustrates the tone:
"It was agreed by everyone that there will be problems, but that these will be met in a wholesome, Christian, and cooperative manner, and that the people of Rockdale County will be able to solve their own problems in their own way for the best interest of our children."
The desegregation plan also retained some quiet segregation. In the early years, the senior prom was replaced by private versions so they could remain segregated. In a legendary incident, racism reared its head at the 1969 prom when a black boy danced with a white girl, causing chaperones to kick him out.
On the other hand, integration of Rockdale High's sports teams turned out to be one of the successes of racial understanding.
A big strategy for calm desegregation was simply not talking about it. There was little news coverage, and no big announcement to Rockdale High students. It appears that no one kept an official list of the J.P. Carr students who transferred. Even the exact number is unknown, though most people involved recall 17 students going to either Rockdale High or the Main Street School. This momentous time in Rockdale is now remembered largely as oral history.
To record some of those memories, the News recently spoke with four of those "freedom of choice" students who attended Rockdale High and still live in the county, as well as one of their white classmates. All had different experiences and memories. But they all generally agreed the experience made them stronger and, after some initial bigotry and discomfort, led to some lasting friendships and better racial relations in Conyers-Rockdale.
One of two black seniors to attend RCHS that year, Webb later became an engineer at AT&T and a Navy intelligence officer.
Rockdale was a much smaller place in that era. While segregation was a fact of life, blacks and whites were generally friendly to each other in the small-town environment, Webb said.
"Most of the people knew each other as kids," Webb said. "Back in those days, black and white people lived on the same streets."
That communication helped the desegregation of the schools go more smoothly than it did elsewhere, Webb said. He recalled the Board of Education and the Citizens Progressive Club working together to seek volunteer students from J.P. Carr.
"The Rockdale County school board was always very progressive," Webb said, adding that his father knew BOE chairman James Miller. And the Progressive Club made sure "sparks wouldn't fly and cooler heads would prevail."
Webb said he closely followed the news of the Civil Rights movement and desegregation battles elsewhere, including the 1963 assassination of Mississippi activist Medgar Evers. But, he said, he was not concerned about similar violence in Rockdale.
The J.P. Carr School often got hand-me-down school supplies from the white-only schools, such as textbooks missing their covers. Students were aware of this separate and unequal status, and that played a role in some of the reaction to the "freedom of choice" plan, Webb said.
"I had a lot of people saying, ‘If I was you, I wouldn't sacrifice my senior year. You might not make it,'" he said. "[We] heard the senior year at Rockdale was like freshman year of college."
But he already planned to attend college, so he decided, "I might as well see what it's like."
Webb recalled a single protester attempting to ruin the first day of school until he was confronted by Principal James Hudman.
"We had only one gentleman who was going to stand in front of the door and not let us go in," Webb said. "Mr. Hudman's reply to him was, ‘They're citizens of Rockdale County and of Georgia. We made this decision. This is what we're going to do.' [Hudman] asked him to go on and have a great day, and he basically said, ‘Yes, sir.' From there, we went on into the school."
But Webb also recalled a white student, senior Regina Neibert, going out of her way to welcome the black students that day. The yearbook shows that she was voted one of the class's two friendliest students that year.
Aside from one bully who Hudman dealt with, the white students and staff were usually respectful, Webb said. "I didn't have any real bad experiences, nobody treating me bad," he said. "I was treated fairly [by teachers] "I was respected in my classes." He recalled some students telling him, "We admire you for your courage."
RCHS was "well-equipped compared to J.P. Carr, which was much smaller," and it was in a brand new building, too.
Webb said he got an excellent education. And, he said, so did his six children, all of whom graduated from Salem High.
"I still think we got one of the best education systems in the United States," he said. "I thank God for the community and men and women of Rockdale County, Georgia and the United States of America for the opportunity afforded to us. I love the people of Rockdale who made me who I am."
Wendell Broadwell Jr.
Broadwell was among the white majority at RCHS and entered his senior year in 1965. Today, he is a professor of political science at Georgia Perimeter College's Newton County campus, where he teaches about the segregation era.
He recalled the mindset of that time and how it led Rockdale to a last-minute, very quiet form of desegregation.
"We generally had a pretty peaceful relationship between the races...One on one relationships with white and black people were good," he said, noting that was partly because the county was heavily majority-white and that almost everyone came from a similar lower-income background.
"There wasn't any kind of hatred between blacks and whites, just more or less the idea that things were supposed to be kept separate. You almost felt it was like a rule of nature, like the law of gravity."
"I had the sense [segregation] was not right and shouldn't be that way," Broadwell said. But, he noted, the entire culture was built around it, making it hard to question. Everything from water fountains to the movie theater was segregated.
He said segregation also tied into the "mythology created about 20 years after the Civil War," romanticizing the Confederacy and downplaying its racism. One icon of that, he noted, is how the Rockdale County courthouse has a Confederate soldier statue out front, even though the county didn't exist during the Civil War.
Broadwell remembers local white adults frequently talking about the push for desegregation. "Particularly, they talked about this as something being brought on by outsiders," he said. "[The idea was that] people in the area were satisfied [with segregation]...but were being stirred up by outsiders. That was the attitude of the whites, because they were on top and the ones benefiting from it."
The federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 forced Rockdale leaders to accept desegregation, he said.
"Rockdale was what we in political science call a traditionalist political culture. Political elites made decisions for everybody else," Broadwell said. When the local business leaders decided desegregation was too expensive to fight, everyone fell in line quickly and quietly.
School desegregation was one of those quiet moves, Broadwell said. While students were aware it was happening, Rockdale High students got no formal announcement or orientation, he said. That left white students to formulate their own reactions, which often retained the segregationist attitude.
"We were going to accept them, but we wouldn't-I don't want to use the word ‘mix,' but we wouldn't join them," Broadwell said, recalling white students' thoughts. The black students, he said, were "generally shunned or ignored."
Today, Broadwell uses his personal experiences to teach the history of desegregation. But he has been surprised to see that many students, black and white, have "no comprehension and very little interest in it." He said he sometimes wonders how much has really changed.
"If you look at schools today, they tend to be informally segregated by where people live," he said. "That's still with us. It hasn't totally disappeared."
Veronica Lester Flanigan
Flanigan was a senior that year and was literally the first black grad of Rockdale High, just before Webb, thanks to alphabetical order in handing out the diplomas. She went on to become a real estate agent, and recently earned her doctorate in theology.
Her parents learned about the "freedom of choice" plan at a J.P. Carr PTA meeting, and left the decision up to her.
"I thought about it. I prayed about it. It was hard pulling away from JP Carr and all of my friends," Flanigan said. But she knew she would be leaving town for college the next year anyway, so she was in an experimental mood.
"I just wanted to see why [Rockdale High] was so different. That's my personality, venture out a little bit," she said.
At first, the white students were not very welcoming. "When we first started, there were little slurs in the cafeteria, but nothing to cause disorder, nothing you couldn't overlook," she said. "I can't blame anyone for not being friendly. It was new for their race and our race as well."
Today, she regularly meets some of those former peers around town. "They're really nice friends and acquaintances. As of today, we've all become real friends," she said. "It was just part of our lives that we had to go through. Sometimes you have to go through hard things to become a stronger person."
School kept her so busy, she had little time to hang out with the 16 other black students beyond offering a "smile and words of encouragement" in the halls.
She recalled being welcomed by Rockdale High teachers while still seeking tutoring from former J.P. Carr teachers. She still remembers some of her favorite Rockdale High teachers: Helen Archer for government, Charles Cope for literature, Linda Carter for French.
"We had excellent teachers at JP Carr and excellent teachers at Rockdale High. Everybody worked together," she said.
Of course, the schools were not the only local institutions marred by racial injustice.
"Everything was completely segregated. The water fountain would have ‘whites only' on it," Flanigan recalled. The former Clay movie theater on Main Street forced blacks to use a side door and sit only in the balcony-and even had a separate popcorn section with fewer choices. For Flanigan, who spent summers with her grandparents in integrated Detroit, the injustices were especially clear.
"We knew it was wrong, but somehow in that situation I felt in my heart, ‘Things are going to change,'" she said, adding she knew that "once you got your education, no one can take that from you."
Today, Flanigan has three daughters, two of whom graduated from Heritage High.
"They cannot even visualize what we're talking about" with segregation era memories, she said.
Willie Lamar Gilstrap
Today, Gilstrap is the road superintendent for Rockdale County, in charge of paving projects. Back then, he was a ninth-grader too young to know exactly how he got signed up to attended the former all-white school.
He does remember his impression of Rockdale High, which had just moved into a new building. "Just the facilities and books-everything was a lot nicer," he said.
He also remembers the reception from fellow students. "You still had people who didn't want you there, and people staring you down. But we kept good composure," he said.
But then he joined the basketball team, and "We started winning. They had never won before."
By his junior year, the team went 28-3 and lost the state championship by 1 point.
"That pretty much turned things around. Everybody at school started treating me different," he said. "We stopped getting all the negativity."
Gilstrap became captain of the basketball team and co-captain of the football team. He lost his old J.P. Carr friends, but made many news ones, both black and white, at Rockdale High.
However, Gilstrap's class prom was marred by the most infamous incident of the "freedom of choice" era, when a black student named Ronnie Peters was thrown out for dancing with a white girl.
"That was one of the first incidents that was really polarizing," Gilstrap said.
He recalls other ways Rockdale was a different place at that time. The black population was a small minority-7 percent of the population, he guesses. And in the lower-income black community, there were other obstacles to education. He remembers how many black kids would take the fall off to join cotton-picking work crews, with a company bus driving around to pick them up.
Times have changed. Gilstrap's son graduated from Salem High and now studies music at Alabama State. And after 45 years, Gilstrap and some of his old Rockdale High teammates "still go to football games on Friday nights and sit together."
Jerome Levett is well-known today as owner of the decades-old family funeral home business and as father of Rockdale County Sheriff Eric Levett. In 1965, he was entering his junior year.
He recalls the Citizens Progressive Club, the homegrown civil rights organization, recruiting J.P. Carr students to attend Rockdale High.
"Most everyone who went over, their parents were members of the Progressive Club," he said.
"I guess [it was] a new challenge, try something different," he said of his decision to volunteer. Also, "they had a lot of things we didn't have," including a football team.
Levett recalls the first day of integrated classes drawing a lone protester to the school, a local man rumored to be a KKK member.
"He didn't say anything, just walked up and down the street with a Confederate flag," Levett said.
Disturbing as that was, Rockdale's desegregation never drew the kind of violence, even riots, that some other Georgia counties suffered, he said. In part, he said, that was because the Progressive Club took the lead on local organizing, not letting outside civil rights workers come in. And the Conyers police were proactive in forming a group of "monitors" from the black community to coordinate with them.
"Everybody tried to work together with the county to make it peaceable as possible," Levett said.
Still, the school was cautious. It did not hold a prom that first year. "They were afraid," he said. But in his senior year, they had the prom. "It was real nice. Blacks and whites danced together," Levett said, apparently with spurring the controversy that later marred Gilstrap's class prom.
Levett recalled two teachers, Henry Gibbs and Nell-Ann Walters Plunkett, who went out of their way to welcome the black students and walk them to their classrooms on the first day.
In general, all the teachers "made us respect each other," he said.
Of course, that didn't always work. In one incident, Levett found that "somebody had spit in my book." And there were racial taunts, which the black students learned to ignore.
"During that time, if you fought back...it would be an all-out fight," he said, while remaining nonviolent made bullies "really look back at themselves."
"If I had to do it all over again, I would. It was probably one of the best experiences of my life," Levett said. "It was the first time a lot of white kids had any relationship with black kids, and same for us."
As adults, some of those former classmates have approached him and thanked him for the "kinship." Levett said one of those white students, now a friend of his, once told him, "I tried to give you a hard time, but you never tried to change. I respected that. I was wrong. I apologize. You were a champ."