As a result of significant strides in legislation and efforts from leaders during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, a new Black political class rose during the 1970s. 

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial and ethnic discrimination in activities receiving federal financial assistance, including restaurants and public facilities taking part in interstate commerce. The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited discriminatory voting practices, such as literacy tests that were often used in the South to prevent African Americans from voting.  

These acts—far reaching in their scope and impact – were important milestones in securing the rights of African American citizens and improving the state of democracy in the United States. Both were achieved in large measure by the determined efforts of student activists, including those of the Atlanta Student Movement.

Header Image: Supporters of Atlanta mayoral candidate Maynard Jackson campaign prior to the run-off election on October 16, 1973. Boyd Lewis photographs, VIS 101.475.014, Kenan Research Center at Atlanta History Center 

Black Political Power in the 1970s 

In the 1970s, middle class, college-educated African Americans were benefiting from expanding economic opportunities and growing political power that came as a result of comprehensive legislation. Lonnie King, Benjamin Brown, Julian Bond, and other veterans of the Atlanta Student Movement became active in local politics. In 1973, Atlanta elected Maynard Jackson as the city’s first African American mayor. Civil Rights Movement icon Andrew Young succeeded Jackson in 1982.  

Andrew Young Jr

On November 7, 1972, Andrew Young Jr. became the first African American elected to Congress from the Deep South since Reconstruction. Young served Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from 1973 to 1978. Young was later appointed Ambassador to the United Nations by President Jimmy Carter. Young was elected mayor of Atlanta in 1981 and served two terms.

John Lewis

John Lewis was present on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement throughout the 1960s. He was one of the leaders who organized the March on Washington in 1963 and led the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) from 1963 to 1966. He was Executive Director of the Southern Regional Council’s Voter Education Project from 1970 to 1977, calling it “a direct extension of the work I’d done all those years with SNCC.” He was elected U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th Congressional District from 1987 until his death in 2020.

Julian Bond

A former communications director of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Julian Bond was an active participant in the Voter Education Project’s voter mobilization in the early 1970s. An opponent of the Vietnam War, Bond was denied his elected seat in the Georgia General Assembly in 1966 because of his public stance against the war. He was eventually seated after the United States Supreme Court ruled in his favor.

Hosea Williams

Hosea Williams was a top aide to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and credited as the organizer and leader of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on March 7, 1965, a day known as “Bloody Sunday.” Williams was also an outspoken advocate of social justice and the poor. He also served on the Atlanta City Council and in the Georgia General Assembly.

A New Civil Rights Movement  

A new Civil Rights Movement of the 1970s formed with a new Black political class and leaders seeking to enhance political power and consolidate freedoms won in the 1960s. While the movement of the previous decade had success in areas related to segregation and voting rights, there were still significant strides to be made in housing, labor, police brutality, and other civil and human rights issues. 

Citizens demanding the ousting of Atlanta Chief of Police John Inman march down Auburn Avenue to city hall in May 1974

In May 1970, Reverend Ralph David Abernathy helped lead the “March Against Repression” to protest the shooting deaths by police of Black demonstrators and students in Augusta, Georgia, and Jackson, Mississippi, as well as four white students at Kent State University by the National Guard. The event culminated in a rally on the campus of Morehouse College as students gathered where Reverend Hosea Williams and other speakers encouraged voter registration and political involvement of young people to combat the Nixon administration and Southern conservatives.

people marching in protest

Between 1979 and 1981, 28 African Americans, mostly children, were murdered in Atlanta, sparking fear throughout the African American community. Despite an intense police investigation, many considered the city’s response tepid in proportion to the scale of the tragedy. In March 1981, Coretta Scott King helped lead a three-mile procession from the state capitol to the campus of Morehouse College. Over 1,500 demonstrators came to Atlanta from around the country in support of the community.

Ethel Matthews

Ethel Matthews on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol building in downtown Atlanta. Protesters rallied against Governor George Busbee’s refusal to increase state welfare assistance levels. Matthews was founder and first president of the Atlanta Welfare Rights Organization and was a persistent advocate for the poor, elderly, and children. Matthews served as chair of the Peoplestown Advisory Council, board member of Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Georgia Citizens Coalition on Hunger, and headed Emmaus House’s first welfare rights committee.