Eatonton, Georgia: Rural Black Community Organizes for Change
By Alice Swift
Vol. 1, No. 7, 1979, pp. 22-23
The days of White mobs gathering to lynch a Black man simply because he is Black are gone, but there are still some occurrences with the same level of hatred behind them. What happened in Eatonton is a case in point.
Until recently, Eatonton, Georgia, had a curfew which forbade anyone from being on the streets or in a public place between the hours of 11:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m. This curfew was in the city records, but not to the knowledge of many people, especially the Black community. It had never been enforced. As one local citizen of Eatonton said, “I have been here most of my life and I’ve never heard anything about a curfew. We always came and went as we pleased, anytime we pleased.”
But, late one night, a White town policeman killed a young Black man, while he was taking a walk, and the only excuse the policeman offered was a never-before-used curfew. Moreover, the policeman knew the young man and knew that he had the habit of taking late night walks.
However, according to a reliable source, “On that particular night, the policeman tried to stop the victim, but he simply kept on walking. So, at the next corner, the law enforcer’ shot the young man through the ear lobe; the bullet lodged in his skull.” The town policeman, who had killed a Black man before, shot the man for no apparent reason. The victim had no weapon, nor was he committing a crime. One of the witnesses reported that the “policeman tried to put a knife into the victim’s hand, but didn’t have chance to do so.”
“We had a tough time getting that policeman to trial,” said Willie Bailey, a respected community leader in Eatonton. The town officials appointed Bailey as the first and only Black bailiff in the town’s history “to shut me up.” Bailey is very influential in the Black community. Nevertheless, the policeman was acquitted by a jury of eight White men, three White women and one Black woman. The policeman was dismissed from his duties as an on-the-street policeman, however, he was given a higher paying position behind the desk.
This incident led the small Black community of Eatonton, Georgia, in the red clay hills of Putnam County, to unite and fight against unjust practices in their hometown. They formed the Putnam County Improvement League, open to anyone in the Black community “that is serious about making Eatonton a just place for Blacks to live.”
One of their most recent accomplishments was in having the dormant curfew removed from the town’s records. The league sued the town of Eatonton to have the curfew abolished. The lawsuit resulted in a ruling that the ordinance containing the curfew was unconstitutional. Had the league not put forth its efforts, the dormant curfew would probably still be on the books.
A temporary curfew was again established during the year when, due to arson, three of the largest and most prominent churches in Eatonton were burned. However, this time before the final decision was enacted, the town officials checked with the Black community and requested their approval.
The league has also been instrumental in bringing political change to Eatonton. After the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Blacks in Eatonton were still losing races. The elections in Eatonton were held on an at-large basis. The league filed a suit against the city in 1977 alleging that the atlarge elections decreased the strength of the Black vote, since all the voters elected each council member. Black candidates from the community would systematically go down to defeat because of the town’s majority White vote. Bailey, one of the main plaintiffs in the case, recalled that it didn’t matter how many Blacks were registered as long as more Whites than Blacks voted or as long as “race made a difference in the White community.” Without any substantial support from the White community, a Black could not get elected.
As a solution, the league asked the court to reapportion the city council, the school board and the county commission into single member districts. Hence, a fair number of districts would have Black majorities. With the single member districts, each district elects its own member of city council. Even though the solution does not guarantee that Blacks will automatically win the majority Black districts, it does guarantee that they will not automatically lose.
Due to the efforts of the league, in 1977, Eatonton elected its first two Black town officials. The two members of the city council are working very hard to improve the situation for Blacks in Eatonton. George Williams, one of the newly elected officials, said that “We are still very much in the minority since it’s only 2 out of 7, but we are learning. We are almost 200 years behind and it is a slow learning process.” The city council works together for the entire community while, at the same time, trying to teach the entire community a few things about the Black community.
Another area of concern for the league is the upkeep of the community itself. It sponsors numerous clean-up campaigns street by street in the Black community. It wants to upgrade the community’s living conditions and help the community realize that dignity should be very much a part of their lives. Fannie Farley, a vice-chairperson of the league, stressed that sometimes “our people feel that since they are getting welfare, they can be excused for not maintaining their living conditions properly.”
According to Neal Bradley of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, “Proper cleaning of sewers and proper playground facilities are not always provided by the city in small rural towns.” Situations such as-this make it even more difficult to keep the Black community upgraded. Hence, small towns with groups such as the league are important in that they help show the city the Black community will survive despite city inattention.
One of the league’s pet projects is one designed to inspire the Black child academically. Farley pointed out that the Black child “lacks motivation. He has got to be exposed to areas other than football and basketball!” The league tries to get the schools to encourage the children to believe in themselves. However, Farley said, “The school officials and teachers don’t care, so it is all up to the Black community.”
Although Eatonton has been a model of the new strength coming forth from small town Black communities, there are other Black rural counties that are just as active and involved as Eatonton. In Wadley, Georgia, for instance, a suit is pending because of fraud in a recent city election. A Black candidate lost the election to a White candidate by only four or five votes. The voting officials contacted Whites concerning errors on their absentee ballots but did not contact Black voters.
Blacks in small rural towns are beginning to fight back. They have gone unrecognized and underrepresented by their city governments for too long. Now some small Black communities are coming into focus demanding their rights.
A freelance writer, Alice Swift lives in Athens, Georgia.