Georgia's Role in the Civil Rights Movement

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Georgia has played an important role in Southern history across the years. In this lesson, we'll look at Georgia's place in the Civil Rights Movement and see how Georgians impacted desegregation.

Georgia in the Civil Rights Movement

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. That was a big deal. The Civil Rights Act, and the entire Civil Rights Movement that prompted it, was focused on getting rid of racial segregation in the United States. However, the story isn't quite that simple. In every American state, civil rights meant something slightly different. It was especially divisive in the American South, were racial differences mattered a great deal to many people. In Georgia, traditionally one of the epicenters of Southern culture, civil rights represented both a challenge and an opportunity.


To understand civil rights in Georgia, we need to quickly recap the history of race relations in this Southern state. Georgia was one of the strongest slave-holding states prior to the Civil War, and among the states to secede from the Union in 1861. After the Civil War, the Confederacy's vice president was actually elected as a Congressman representing Georgia. Racial tension and national conflict became almost inseparable in the state, and the state government found other ways to keep Black and White populations separated, even without slavery. Across Georgia, and across the South, Jim Crow laws institutionalized segregation. As America moved from the 19th into 20th century, Jim Crow laws came to define expectations in Georgia, as Blacks were routinely denied the right to vote and other opportunities.

Segregation was the law of the South


While Black populations fought segregation as soon as it began, the modern Civil Rights Movement really began with the advent of World War II in 1941. Many Black Americans signed up to fight in World War II, and served with such distinction that President Truman formally desegregated the military after the war. Black war heroes returned to their homes in places like Georgia, full of pride and accomplishment, only to find strict racial segregation still in place. Unwilling to accept these conditions any longer, Black Georgians registered to vote in droves, defying the traditional threats and prohibitions that had prevented them in the past. In fact, by the end of 1946 Georgia had more registered Black voters than any other Southern state.

Black soldier from Georgia

As the Civil Rights Movement grew, Black leaders in Georgia organized around churches and other community-based institutions. They organized protests, rallies and other events to fight segregation. However, this cry was not met unchallenged. White supremacy flared in the 1950s as supporters of segregation rallied. Governor Herman Talmadge, who was elected by the state legislature after his father died in the governorship, strengthened Jim Crow laws, restricted the rights of Blacks to vote, and attempted to outlaw pro-civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Nevertheless, civil rights marched on. In 1954, all public schools across the country were formally desegregated. While many people in Georgia fought this decision, others took desegregation as an opportunity. The city of Savannah achieved the most recognition for this in the early 1960s when a massive campaign led by local NAACP leader W.W. Law forced widespread desegregation. Savannah soon became a national leader in voluntary desegregation, even gaining recognition from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as the most desegregated city in the South.

Georgia After 1964

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act banned all forms of racial discrimination across the nation. Another act in 1965 strengthened prohibitions against policies designed to prevent Blacks from voting. Unfortunately, there were many who still found ways to maintain segregation in all but name. Many banks would not give loans to people from certain parts of town where traditionally Black communities lived. Education and employment opportunities for Black Georgians was still limited. So, the fight for civil rights continued in Georgia, as in the rest of the South, beyond 1964.

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