Athens’ Black Vanguard: 150 Years of Protest in the Classic City

In Athens it’s so often believed that our history is in the buildings: the magisterial grandness of our academic halls, the planters’ mansions, all the columned monuments to aristocratic wealth. There is history in the magnificent homes and halls. Our history is in our buildings. 

But our history is also in the streets

Athens Protest History Week
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The streets are where justice lives. The streets are where Athens comes out to demand a better world—and a better Athens. If the winners of history resist behind stolid columns, the other half of history owns the streets. The buildings sit still, but the streets are for movement—and movements. Every moment of liberatory progress in our city, and in our country, from Black rights to women’s rights to LGBTQ progress to economic justice, has found expression in protests in Athens. When that power is sufficient on the streets, the grand antebellum palaces are suddenly little more than bunkers. If Athens is unique it is unique because of its duality, this dialectic of power. We make a mistake to tell a story of Athens located entirely in the architectural relics of inherited power. How that power has been challenged at every turn is also what has made our city. Let us celebrate that story as well.

Howell Cobb
“African slavery is a punishment, inflicted upon the enslaved, for their wickedness,” wrote Cobb in his Scriptural Examination of the Institution of Slavery in the United States.

The story began more than 150 years ago, when the end of the Civil War made the Athens area into a remarkable microcosm of the Southern social and racial hierarchy. At the top were Confederate-era leaders like the Vice President of the Confederacy Alexander Stephens, Howell Cobb, one of the founders and the first leader of the Confederacy, and other politically and economically powerful men of the defeated slave state. Most political leaders passed through the college. Joseph Henry Lumpkin was the Chief Justice of the Confederate Supreme Court in Georgia. T.R.R. Cobb was a drafter of the Confederate constitution and the first Secretary of State of the rebel government. Jefferson Davis’s final presidential cabinet meeting was even in the area, near Stephens’ estate in Washington, Georgia. It might be that no other region in the South featured a denser collection of Confederate power than the area around Athens after the war. 

On the bottom of this steep hierarchy were the great many Athenians newly freed from slavery, a massive population equal in size to the white population. Thus, the population of free Athenians doubled suddenly upon emancipation: one half committed to freedom for all and the other equally dedicated to a continuation of brutal oppression by other means. It was said that fewer than ten white progressives joined the freedmen in fighting for liberal governance in the first years after the war. It was an almost perfectly delineated population in conflict: freed black Athenians who looked forward to an America living up to its founding ideals, and the whites who acted effectively in lock step to return to their savage state before the South’s defeat. White resentment and fury soon birthed a wave of terrorism the likes of which the country has never known, before or since. The Ku Klux Klan soon formed into an armed wing of the whites’ conservative political project, using brutal terror tactics to combat black liberation. Dozens of mass terror attacks and literally hundreds of other instances of terrorism left a wake of thousands killed in just the first ten years of the Klan’s existence.    

Meanwhile, the most progressive elements within the Georgia Black “Radicals,” as they were often called in the local press, fought for justice, even pushing for women’s suffrage and economic policies that would lift Georgia’s many poor white farmers out of desperate subsistence. If allowed to succeed, the project of Black democracy in Georgia would have accelerated the state toward greater freedom for all Georgians. It is difficult to find a moment in our history, with the exception of the nation’s founding itself, so full of promise. It is with good reason that many historians refer to the historical moment after the Civil War as the nation’s Second Founding. But black political and economic gains would necessarily have meant an abrupt end of the aristocratic wealth and power represented by the Athens area and reproduced by its university. 

It was in Athens’ streets that freed Black Americans courageously challenged the entrenched power of the elite. Shortly after the war’s conclusion, Black aspiring students approached the university demanding their right to the same educational opportunities whites had. The first attempt was met with violence by the white students, many (or even most) being Confederate veterans. The second attempt brought those white men out in something like military formation, with their Confederate arms trained on the great many Black men seeking education. It was said that the white men, led by an eventual chancellor of the university, were prepared to slaughter the Black men if their advance on the college continued. 

Black Athenians again took to the streets again during this time when white students assaulted a freedman for alleged “insolence” at the post office. This time, the Black group of more than 100 protesters brought their own arms into downtown Athens to protect themselves against white mobs. A garrison of U.S. military occupiers stationed in Athens prevented downtown from becoming a scene of bloody battle. 

The streets of Athens also saw processions of the Union League, whose meeting hall was located at the corner of Hancock and Hull Streets. The Union League was the home for Black political struggle in the years after the war, giving men like eventual legislator Alfred Richardson their start. The League processions were a projection of their power, if only power in numbers, parading through the streets of downtown led by a man astride a horse, in ceremonial “sash and sword,” according to historian Augustus Hull. The procession apparently terrified white Athenians, as white accounts describe “coffins, skulls, and crossbones, and the brandishing of swords and pistols,” all commenced with “an awesome sound at night emitted from the deep-toned horn, blown about the streets summoning the members.” Yet another white historian painted a picture of “the deep blast from a horn which reverberated through the still streets of the town in the evening hush.” 

Those battles for Black freedom inaugurated a century and a half of protests in Athens. Historic Athens has documented nearly 120 actions, and there are surely more that escaped coverage by an often inimical press. Occasionally the reactionary forces of Southern apartheid erupted into protest, as in 1961, when upwards of 1000 white students raged against the integration of black students into the university, but the vast majority of the protests have followed in the spirit of those courageous battles for liberation after the darkness of slavery. 

We find echoes of the protests of today and the inaugural protests of 150 years ago in the fights for progress in between. When a white supremacist eugenicist was invited to speak by campus conservatives in 1974, the Black Student Union and the Young Socialist Alliance teamed up to disrupt the event. During the turbulent Sixties, the leftist, mostly white group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) allied with Black groups to fight white supremacy. UGA’s chapter of the SDS led the fight against the Vietnam War in Athens. ERAthens was an umbrella organization coordinating nearly ten women’s rights groups in town fighting for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. 

During the 1980s, students held rallies and protests against imperialist interventions in Granada, Nicaragua and El Salvador. UGA students formed “No Nuke” groups to protest for nuclear disarmament. Campus groups fought against South African apartheid and for a holiday celebrating the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Students even traveled to Forsyth County, the home base of Ku Klux Klan activity in the state, to stage counter protests of Klan parades. When the US military set its sights on the Middle East as the next theater of battle in 1990, students began what was then an unpopular movement against imperial adventurism in the Middle East. 

A Black Lives Matter protest in Athens earlier this year.
Photo / Gabriella Audi

Protests against racism, police violence and imperialism continued through the 1990s. Protests and actions by environmental activists picked up steam. The beginning of the 21st century saw a rising wave of protests, parades, direct action and vigils for progress against war, racism, sexism, poverty, and discrimination of virtually every sort. Campus activists joined community organizers to finally effect much higher wages on campus to try to remedy Athens’ deep poverty. The era’s rising anti-immigrant sentiment found sharp rebuke from protesters. And in recent years, with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement and the far-right turn by the Republican Party, Athens’ protest community has become perhaps as strong as it’s been since those original freedmen climbed the hill to seek an education and a fair shot. Seemingly every local election now brings protest veterans into positions of political power. 

This is our history. The ephemerality of protests belies their permanence. Each protest comes and goes but is yet like a brick, each one building on the last. Each return to the streets is part of a tradition established by the brave men and women of the Black vanguard that began the fight 150 years ago. Some protests have been joyous, others have been angry; some have relied on the masses, while others have been individual acts of defiance. But each protest for progress has shaped our city and contributed to the larger march toward justice. It is only right that we celebrate this part of history, too. 

For more on the history of protests in Athens, check out our article “Do protests change anything?” or you can follow Historic Athens on Facebook or Instagram.

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