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Today marks 55th anniversary of integration of Atlanta Public Schools

Thanks to Atlanta Board of Education member Matt Westmoreland for reminding us what happened 55 years ago today:  Nine black students --- Thomas Welch, Madelyn Nix, Willie Jean Black, Donita Gaines, Arthur Simmons, Lawrence Jefferson, Mary James McMullen, Martha Ann Holmes and Rosalyn Walton --- integrated four all-white Atlanta public high schools.

Atlanta didn't integrate its schools until seven years after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education. Segregationists in the state called for closing the schools rather than allow black and white children to learn together. But a judge finally stepped in and integration began.

The country watched to see if there would be a replay of  Little Rock, Ark., where federal troops enforced integration in the face of violent and racist protests. Atlanta appeared to rise to the occasion. At the time, Time magazine cheerfully reported:

Last week the moral siege of Atlanta (pop. 487,455) ended in spectacular fashion with the smoothest token school integration ever seen in the Deep South. Into four high schools marched nine Negro students without so much as a white catcall. Teachers were soon reporting “no hostility, no demonstrations, the most normal day we’ve ever had.” In the lunchrooms, white children began introducing themselves to Negro children. At Northside High, a biology class was duly impressed when Donita Gaines, a Negro, was the only student able to define the difference between anatomy and physiology. Said she crisply: “Physiology has to do with functions.”

But that sunny account minimized what students endured. In 1991, the AJC wrote about the 30th anniversary and spoke to some of the nine students.

(See the history of Atlanta school integration in photos. )

The AJC reported:

Madelyn Nix-Beamen, now a corporate lawyer in Pennsylvania, remembers a lonely year at Brown High, with no more than three white students ever acting friendly toward her.

Ms. Nix said that, from the spring of that year, when she and the others were chosen after two sessions of standardized achievement tests and personal interviews, people immediately began schooling them on how to conduct themselves. They essentially had to become different people, model black citizens at white high schools. For Madelyn, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became watchful guards of her physical safety. Robert Coles, a Harvard psychology professor, became guardian of all of their emotional health.

"We took a rehearsal on before school ever began, because Atlanta didn't want the same reputation that Little Rock had, " Ms. Nix said.

Georgians picket for school integration outside Atlanta Public Schools headquarters in 1967. (AJC File)

Ms. Nix, with a chuckle in a phone interview from her home in Lancaster, Pa., explained that they did have options. "We could elect to participate in the senior class activities, which meant everyone [else] would stay home, or if we didn't participate, everyone would go."

Newspaper accounts of Aug. 30, a Wednesday, and the rest of the week said there were no racial incidents within the schools, but childish pranks by white boys against her carried some racial overtones. A cup of Coca-Cola was splashed on her and a white lab mouse was stuck in her face in the hallway. This didn't run her away, but only strengthened her sense of humor and her need to press on, she said. "We as a race have incredible coping skills and that's what helped to get me through."

Donita Gaines-Ball, who entered Northside High School as a part of the group, was the only one that chose to return to her home school, Turner High. "I felt torn, as if it was up to me to prove all blacks were equal. That creates a lot of stress for a 16-year-old."

Mrs. Ball, who is now lives in Somerset, N.J., said not being able to participate in extracurricular activities and feelings of not really belonging to any community forced her to leave. "There were many people who said I was being selfish to come back and said that many people would say I failed. And some said I couldn't take it, and I should have stayed for the betterment of everyone. But then others welcomed me back."

Martha Ann Holmes-Jackson, now a third-grade teacher in the Atlanta school system, didn't realize until reminded by a reporter that today is the anniversary of her integrating Murphy High 30 years ago. "[It] will be just another day, but I will think back on what we did and the progress we made to our race . . . I will smile, maybe just a little brighter."

I hope these nine students knew they were heroes. We sent children to tear down barriers adults could not themselves lift.  And they did. But not without a personal cost.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.