By Marian Wright Edelman
Founder and President
As the Children’s Defense Fund proudly reinvigorates its Black Student Leadership Network for Children for a new generation, the close of Black History Month provides one more chance to look back at earlier waves of activism that helped bring us this far on the way.
When my Spelman College classmate and fellow Merrill Scholar Roslyn Pope passed away earlier this year, it prompted many people to remember her key role while serving as Spelman’s student body president at a pivotal moment in 1960: drafting the “Appeal for Human Rights” that became the manifesto for Atlanta students in the Civil Rights Movement.
It is not often in a young person’s—or anyone’s—life when great leaders and great turning points in history converge and sweep us up in a movement, and my generation was blessed beyond measure to be in the right places at the right times to experience and help bring transforming change to the South and to America. Black students had been galvanized by the February 1,1960 sit-down demonstration by four Black North Carolina A&T (Agricultural and Technical) State University students at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Many Black students in Atlanta and elsewhere were equally ready to strike our blow for freedom. In March, student leaders and the student body president from each of the Black colleges making up the Atlanta University Center—Morehouse, Spelman, Clark, Morris Brown, Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center—came together to sign “An Appeal for Human Rights,” which was published in full-page ads March 9, 1960, in the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Journal, and Atlanta Daily World, reprinted in The New York Times and elsewhere, and read into the Congressional Record.
The Appeal stated that “every normal human being wants to walk the earth with dignity and abhors any and all proscriptions upon him because of race or color. In essence, this is the meaning of the sit-down protests that are sweeping this nation today. We do not intend to wait placidly for those rights which are ours already legally and morally to be meted out to us one at a time. We want to state clearly and unequivocally that we cannot tolerate, in a nation professing democracy and among people professing Christianity, the discriminatory conditions under which the Negro is living today.”
It detailed the gross inequalities and discrimination in education, jobs, housing, voting, hospitals, movies, concerts, restaurants, and law enforcement, and after calling on all the adults in authority of all races and on all leaders in civic life—ministers, teachers, and business people—“and all people of good will to exert themselves and abolish those general injustices,” we announced our “plans to use every legal and nonviolent means at our disposal to secure full citizenship rights as members of this great Democracy of ours.”
Students had carefully drafted the Appeal at the behest of our college presidents, who had gained a whiff of our ‘secret’ meetings where we were planning sit-downs like the highly publicized ones in Greensboro. While they were very mixed in their attitudes towards their students’ impatience and plans to protest against segregation, my college diary noted, “There was one place where we were all together: the need for clarity and purpose.”
Morehouse president Dr. Benjamin E. Mays told an Atlanta University audience years later, “Before the students did anything, we wanted to make it clear what they were striking about or grumbling about or protesting about.” The presidents not only provided the money to pay for the ads (a freedom that private, unlike public, colleges could exercise), but they also read it and were in full accord with it. The evidence for this is plain from a slip of paper with scribbled notes concerning the Appeal that also includes comments from Dr. Mays that fell from my college diary thirty-seven years after I’d put it there. Dr. Mays’ comments called it a “great document” that set forth a philosophy and made the case in a way that “nobody has said the same way.”
We students believed in the Appeal and the meaning behind it with our whole minds and bodies and souls and were prepared to go to jail and even to die for those beliefs. We followed up the appeal by sitting in on March 15, 1960 at seven white-only restaurants in Atlanta, and I and seventy-seven other students were arrested that day for our actions. As I wrote in my diary the next day: “SOMETHING WORTH LIVING AND DYING FOR!” Our series of demonstrations and boycotts eventually led to an Atlanta Compromise: seventy-five stores officially opened up 177 counters to Black citizens, and in September 1961 Atlanta became the 104th city to desegregate lunch counters after the student sit-in movement began.
Now a new generation of students is preparing to make the change we need today. As Dr. Carter Woodson, the founder of Black History Month, taught us, the purpose of knowing about those who have gone before us is always to help us to keep going in the future: “The world does not want and will never have the heroes and heroines of the past. What this age needs is an enlightened youth not to undertake the tasks like theirs but to imbibe [their] spirit . . . and answer the present call of duty.”