Fighting Discrimination in Macon: A Return to the Streets

Fighting Discrimination in Macon: A Return to the Streets

By Yvette Sparks

Vol. 1, No. 4, 1979, pp. 4-7

During the height of the civil rights movement when the call for integration resounded throughout the country, Macon, Georgia heard the reverberating echo. The calls for equal access to lunch counters and front seats on buses were sounded there, too.

Blacks in Macon and elsewhere marched, sat-in, picketed, boycotted and went to jail in the name of equality. They fought against the White power structure for rights that had long been denied them. Some concessions were made some gains were won.

But today, another call is ringing throughout Middle Georgia’s major metropolitan city. It is a call painfully reminiscent of an era gone by. Civil rights activists in the conservative Southern city still are pleading for an end to discrimination in the city’s hiring and promotion practices.

“In Macon we still aren’t even n the tokenism phase, and we are approaching the 80s,” says the head of a civil rights organization which is currently waging a battle to end alleged discrimination.

The city’s newly formed Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) has taken up the battle cry and has caused governmental and business leaders to take notice. Both governmental officials and businessmen have denied that discrimination exists, saying they have worked to insure that “qualified” Blacks move up on the employment ladder.

In other areas of life in Macon, they readily point out that Blacks have achieved significant gains over the last few years. Five of the city’s 15 City Council members are Black. Three of the 10 members of the Bihh Board of Education are Black. A Black judge sits on the Municipal Court Bench. And a few other Blacks hold appointive positions on quasi-influential boards.

Herbert Dennard, executive director of the Macon chapter SCLC, does not deny the fact that Blacks in Macon have conic a long av in terms of meshing into the

Page 9

total fabric of life there. But he hastily adds, they still have a long way to go. Dennard and others also fear that the gains Blacks and poor people made in the 1960s are being threatened today, because of a “rightist resurgence.”

The nation is faced with a dramatic philosophical shift to the right, Dennard believes. And to emphasize his point, he cites the Supreme Court’s Bakke decision and the recent sentencing of Tommy Hines – a mentally retarded Alabama man convicted of raping a White woman.

And because of this shift away from Blacks and the plight of Macon’s unemployed and underemployed Black population, the SCLC has picked up some of the tools of the past. The group strongly believes that “die hard discrimination” prevails in local governmental units and with private employers, some who have historically refused to hire Blacks, the group says. So to fight the discrimination it sees, the SCLC has decided to resort to the effective tactics of its founding fathers.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others rallied masses of people together with fiery speeches, marches, pickets and boycotts. Recently, the SCLC began using those same tactics in their struggle to end the alleged unfair hiring and promotion practices in Macon. Many in the White community and some in the Black community scoffed at the idea of returning to the days of the 60s. Fifteen years ago, some said, nonviolent marching measured the height of the human spirit. It’s not necessary now.

Other avenues of change exist. Work for change within the system, use of voting power, filing of suits, some have suggested. But Dennard and some others feel that while they are using the modern redresses which take longer, they can call attention to their cause by “placing their feet in the street.”

“We shall march as many marches as necessary. We will picket and will file suits and boycott until we win appropriate concessions,” the group has declared. And in the month of November, an estimated 2,000 people marched through downtown Macon, singing and calling for an end to discrimination. Pickets followed and later meetings with business and governmental officials.

The group has also involved the U.S. Justice Department in its fight against alleged discrimination. Federal officials are monitoring the charges of discrimination lodged by the group, which point out that Blacks are not being hired or promoted fairly to managerial positions.

Earlier in the year, a federal agency cited the City of Macon for discriminating against Black and female employers. The Office of Revenue Sharing (ORS) warned that Macon could lose more than $2 million in revenue

Page 10

sharing funds if it doesn’t take steps to promote more Blacks and women to supervisory positions.

The ORS study found that only 2.4 percent of Macon’s supervisory personnel are Black, while Blacks make up 39 percent of the workforce. Only 1.6 percent female supervisors were found in the 11.4 percent work force that they comprise.

While the report said that the city’s promotion practices are not “inherently discriminatory,” it added that procedures have resulted in “Blacks and females occupying a disproportionate percentage of nonskilled, lower-paying and traditionally clerical-type jobs respectively.” Blacks and females have all but been excluded from supervisory positions, it continued.

Macon’s Mayor Buckner Melton defended his city’s affirmative action efforts by saying that the city administration has made a “dramatic increase” in the number of Black employees in nonlabor positions. However, he also admitted that Blacks still hold most of the unskilled jobs.

The investigation of the Office of Revenue Sharing started about one year ago, as a result of a discrimination suit filed by 16 police officers two years ago. The suit of the Black officers combined with a more recent federal suitled by two city electrical workers will put the city’s romotion policies on trial.

The joint suit is scheduled to be heard in February. The police officers are charging that the city’s police department is biased against Blacks in promotion and evaluation practices, denies training opportunities to Blacks and fails to maintain a working atmosphere free from racial intimidation. The two electrical workers charge they were passed over for promotions in favor of a less qualified White worker.

Other suits are also pending. One involves a deputy in the Bibb County Sheriff’s office who alleges that the county uses unfair testing and promotion practices. Both county and city officials are taking close looks at their departments and at their affirmative action plans.

Macon is being watched because of what you, the Blacks, are doing.”

Macon is being watched, one business official told leaders of the SCLC, “because of what you, the Blacks, are doing.” He cautioned them against allowing their efforts to dissuade industry prospects from coming into Macon. It would hurt the very cause for which they are working, more jobs and fair employment for Blacks, he said.

And the SCLC gave the assurance that the group would not do anything to block the flow of new industries into the Middle Georgia town. But neither did it intend to let unfair employment practices prevail. “It is our position that in an effort to keep peace and harmony in any city, it is necessary to gain and maintain fair employment opportunities for all citizens,” said SCLC president Henry Ficklin.

Yvette Spark is a Macon, Georgia free-lance writer.