The Atlanta Student Movement 

On February 1, 1960, four North Carolina A&T State University students entered a Woolworth department store, sat down at the lunch counter to be served, and changed the course of history. Their simple act of nonviolent, direct action launched a movement that helped end segregation and pave the way for civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965.

Lonnie C. King, a Morehouse College student, took note of the actions in Greensboro and convened students from the colleges and universities that comprised the Atlanta University Center (AUC): Atlanta University, Clark College, Morehouse College, Morris Brown College, Spelman College, and the four seminaries represented in the Interdenominational Theological Center.

Nineteen students founded the Committee on the Appeal for Human Rights (COAHR). Hershelle Sullivan, a Spelman student, later joined Lonnie King as its co-chair in establishing what is now known as the Atlanta Student Movement.

Header Image: Spelman student Marion Wright and classmates study at the Fulton County jail during their incarceration for violating Georgia’s anti-trespassing law during a sit-in. Courtesy Getty Images 

We, the students of the six affiliated institutions forming the Atlanta University Center – Clark, Morehouse, Morris Brown, and Spelman Colleges, Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center—have joined our hearts, minds, and bodies in the cause of gaining those rights which are inherently ours as of the human race and as citizens these United States.

“An Appeal for Human Rights,” March 9, 1960

COAHR and “An Appeal for Human Rights” 

On March 9, 1960, COAHR outlined their grievances in a paid advertisement titled “An Appeal for Human Rights” and published it in the Atlanta Journal, Atlanta Constitution, and Atlanta Daily World. It later appeared in the New York Times, elevating awareness of the students’ activism and struggle for change.

The “Appeal” addressed inequalities in seven sectors of life: education, jobs, housing, voting, hospitals, law enforcement, and access to public spaces, which included movie theaters, concert halls, and restaurants. It concluded by calling on government officials and civic leaders to abolish these inequalities.

The “Appeal” drew criticism from local whites and prompted Governor Samuel Ernest Vandiver to dismiss the document as “anti-American.” 

COAHR 1960 paid ad

On March 9, 1960, COAHR outlined their grievances in a paid advertisement titled “An Appeal for Human Rights” and published it in the Atlanta Journal, Atlanta Constitution, and Atlanta Daily World. 

Lonnie King, Marilyn Pryce, and Martin Luther King Jr.

Lonnie King, Marilyn Pryce, and Martin Luther King Jr. are arrested during a sit-in demonstration protesting lunch-counter segregation in downtown Atlanta, October 6, 1960.


Six days after “Appeal” was published, students began orchestrating sit-ins at downtown Atlanta lunch counters and cafeterias, most notably at Rich’s department store, the largest department store chain in the South. Marches, picketing, and arrests of students, coupled with opposing demonstrations by the Ku Klux Klan, punctured the façade of Atlanta’s well-maintained image as “The City Too Busy to Hate.”

The efforts of Lonnie King, COAHR, and Atlanta University Center students garnered the support of most members of the Black community, including the presidents of the Atlanta University Center schools and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Though most of the white community was outraged or indifferent, some white students at Agnes Scott College, Georgia Tech, and Emory University became participants in the Atlanta Student Movement.

The student activities culminated in September 1961 when “four well-dressed Negro young women” desegregated the Magnolia Room at Rich’s. 


Leaflet handed out by student protesters at the downtown Atlanta sit-ins during the summer and fall of 1960.

An unidentified student hands out flyers in front of Rich’s department store

Demonstration at Rich’s Department Store, November 25, 1960. An unidentified student hands out flyers in front of Rich’s department store. Segregation at lunch counters was just one example of injustice the authors identified in the “Appeal,” but it was their initial focus.

man holding sing in protest

Heightened anti-segregation activities in the summer and fall of 1960 let Mayor William B. Hartsfield to call for a 30-day halt in demonstrations to give merchants time to work out an agreement with the students. Negotiations stalled and students resumed their efforts as the Thanksgiving holiday arrived.

woamn holding sign for protest

Lunch counters in Woolworth, Grant, Kress, and McCrory-McLellan stores in 112 other cities in the South had desegregated, but not in Atlanta. The student efforts depended upon cooperation from the community not to purchase from stores who discriminated against Black customers.

the KKK marching

Ku Klux Klan members march down Marietta Street in Atlanta in August 1965. The far-right KKK members, dressed in robes and conical hats, carry Confederate flags and banners.

Continuing Protests 

Despite the limited victory in September 1961, demonstrations for civil rights continued throughout the spring of 1962 and into that fall’s academic year. This led to negotiations between student leaders and white businessmen. As a result, in June 1963 they reached an informal agreement with dozens of restaurant owners to desegregate their facilities.

Nevertheless, students heightened their activities to push for complete desegregation of all public accommodations and advocated similar reforms in employment, education, health care, housing, and law enforcement. 

Nonviolent Direct Action 

Over the course of the next three years, participants in the student movement challenged segregation at several public buildings and facilities, including public parks and pools, Grady Memorial Hospital, and in restaurants and hotels.

Participants in the movement were active in voter registration and members of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights helped with organizing protests in other Georgia cities, including Albany, Moultrie, and Savannah. The student-led coalition of Atlanta University Center students, Black business leaders and clergy, and white citizens was successful in forcing the hand of Atlanta’s white business and political leaders to end segregation in public facilities.

Many of these students continued to participate in the national Civil Rights Movement, culminating in the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In doing so, the members of the Atlanta Student Movement not only advanced their goal of social equality, but they also thrust the city of Atlanta and the South into the mainstream of American life. 

Herschelle Sullivan

Herschelle Sullivan | Spelman College, 1961

Spelman senior Herschelle Sullivan co-chaired the Committee on “An Appeal for Human Rights” with Morehouse student Lonnie King Jr. An Atlanta native, Sullivan was a Merrill Scholar who was arrested along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and dozens of other Atlanta University Center students during a sit-in demonstration in October 1960. After graduation, Sullivan earned her Ph.D. from Columbia University and became director of the United Nations Educational Science and Cultural Organization in 1978. In 1993, she became Dean of Clark Atlanta University’s School of Public and International Affairs. 

Lenora Taitt

Lenora Taitt | Spelman College, 1961

Lenora Taitt was also arrested with Dr. King during demonstrations in October 1960. Taitt visited dormitories with other Spelman seniors to encourage classmates to become involved and, if necessary, to be arrested. She was instrumental in planning demonstrations and later recalled how students confounded police by their presence at nearly every lunch counter on Peachtree Street: “You could hear the police calling in over the paddy wagon radio: “They’re all over the place; we don’t know what to do!”  

Brenda Hill

Brenda Hill | Spelman College, 1963

As an incoming sixteen-year-old freshman, Brenda Hill’s parents warned her not to get involved in the Atlanta sit-ins. Despite their warnings for her safety, Hill became involved by printing flyers and later joined her colleagues on picket lines. The Spelman English student went on to earn a law degree from Emory University in 1977 and was appointed State Court Judge in Atlanta in 1988. Hill married Thomas Cole Jr., President Emeritus of Clark Atlanta University since 2002.  

Ernestine Brazeal

Ernestine Brazeal | Spelman College, 1963

Brenda Hill’s roommate at Spelman was Ernestine Brazeal whose parents were Brailsford Brazeal, academic dean at Morehouse College, and Ernestine Brazeal, the director of alumnae affairs at Spelman. The Brazeals also warned their daughter against becoming involved in the student movement. Nevertheless, she participated in several sit-ins, including one at the downtown Woolworth’s where she and her classmates sat at the lunch counter while white waitresses poured ammonia across the counter in a futile effort to make them leave the property.   

Julian Bond

Julian Bond | Morehouse College, 1971

Julian Bond’s commitment to the Civil Rights Movement began during his junior year at Morehouse College in 1960 when he helped organize COAHR and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He remained with SNCC until 1965 when he won a seat representing the city of Atlanta in the Georgia General Assembly.   

Alton Hornsby Jr.

Alton Hornsby Jr. | Morehouse College, 1961

During a visit to the Georgia State Capitol for a history course, Alton Hornsby Jr. and his white professor took seats together in the assembly’s balcony.  Disturbed, the legislators called for their removal. While being ejected from the building, legislators hurled racial epithets. This experience, as well as a lifetime of segregation in Atlanta led Hornsby to participate in the Atlanta Student Movement. Hornsby later became a professor of history at his alma mater and a noted author.