Many baby boomers were swept up in the tides of change beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, marching, protesting, meeting, boycotting, organizing, letter-writing, petitioning – getting arrested. It was a heady time but as the years passed with marriage and family and career, attentions shifted. Today, some recall the exhilaration and some the trauma of those early years. And with age, engagement is different. It’s more likely to include activities such as running for office, donating money, applying for grants, manning telephones, with a little marching thrown in, and hopefully no jail time.
Stand your ground
When Alvin Sheats’ family moved from Atlanta to Athens in 1972, he was 14 and the total integration of the Clarke County school system had finally and recently been enforced and implemented. Two new high schools had been built, Clarke Central, previously named Athens High School, was built in the early 1950s, and Cedar Shoals in 1972. Previously, black students had attended Burney-Harris High School and white students Athens High. With the rezoning of school districts, Sheats decided he wanted to enroll in Cedar Shoals.
“The climate in Athens was challenging,” he reflects. “There were cultural/ethnic adjustments.” But the kids mostly got along, he says. In fact, in 1977, his senior year, Tamara Weaver, of a prominent family, was elected the first black Homecoming Queen. The sticking point was the choice of the music for the Prom – black students wanted a band to suit both cultures. Their suggestion was an Atlanta-based band that later became famous as Mother’s Finest, blending R&B and hard rock. When the white principal wouldn’t budge, a group of students began meeting at the Weaver’s house to decide what to do.
“I hadn’t paid much attention the homecoming queen situation,” recalls Sheats. But when the students decided they would boycott the prom, Sheats was elected to meet with the principal. He threatened that Sheats wouldn’t graduate in June, that he’d never hold a job in Clarke County.
“I was a struggling student,” so when Sheats walked out of the principal’s office, he was visibly shaken.” Dr. Walter Allen, one of the three vice principals, and African American, was standing nearby and called to Sheats. “Stand your ground.” And later he called Sheat’s father, who also was supportive, advising his son, “Just be careful.”
In the end, one of the matriarchs of First AME Church, Ms. Florence Diggs, called Sheats and said, “Have your prom right here.” Which is what they did.
Sheats continued a leadership role in the Navy, which he joined right after high school. “The Navy was going through a racial transition also,” he says. When Klan stickers were found plastered around the ship, Sheats organized the first MLK Day program on board the USS Moinester. “The command supported it because you don’t want unrest on a ship out at sea.”
After returning to Athens, joining his father’s construction business, and marrying (his prom date, Brenda), Sheats eventually ran for school board in 1993. Losing, he decided he was “through with politics.” But not for long. He was encouraged to run for the county commission and served from 1995 to 2003. Today, Sheats continues his social justice work in his role as executive director for the Hancock Community Development Corporation.
A connector of people and causes
Pat Priest says her maiden name is Joyner, and she believes that moniker helped set the course for her life. She loves being a part of groups and organizations and, with a heart for inclusion, she has spent her energies working to bring people together.
“I want to scoop up the person who doesn’t know anyone and say, ‘Come here, we’re talking about this.’ I think that comes from being in a military family and learning skills of sociability. I’m interested in helping people find a sense of place and belonging,” says Priest.
It is this passion for people that motivated Priest, 60, to become a social activist. For her, activism typically takes the form of education and fundraising. While she does believe that there are benefits in attending rallies, Priest devotes most of her effort to making people aware of resources.
Her first endeavors in activism were in 1990 as a volunteer at the Rape Crisis Center, now known as the Sexual Assault Center. One encounter at the time solidified in her mind the need for widespread information and awareness. An older man who was helping at the center asked a question that stunned her: “Are there rapes in Athens?”
“I realized, then, the importance of getting information out there,” Priest says of that experience.
At one time Priest was on the front lines dealing with rape crises, often taking calls in the middle of the night. Today she works behind the scenes for a variety of causes, supporting other people in the trenches, organizing events and hosting awareness classes for everything from domestic violence to environmental issues.
Athens, says Priest, is a wonderful town whose citizens have a lot of interest in social issues. But it can be challenging to stand out. “I try to use a lot of creativity in activism. So many cool things are happening here, it can be hard to get attention.”
Among the creative projects in which Priest has participated or helped found are Dancing with the Athens Starsand Stomp Out Domestic Violence. Stars has been going strong for 11 years, raising over a million dollars. In its ninth year, Stomp raises money by teaching stomp dancing. Both events help support Project Safe, a local women’s shelter.
“I like to start new things,” Priest says. “I think, ‘What can somebody teach other people that others want to see?’”
Although protests and rallies have never been Priest’s major focus, she says there is value in showing up to support significant causes. “I try to go to rallies,” she says. “I believe it’s important to put your body out there to show concern – that can matter to press coverage. And you meet people that share the same concerns.”
Racial justice is at the top of Priest’s concerns. Currently her passion is Athens in Harmony,an organization she founded that works with local musicians, pairing African Americans and whites for a night of music across the color line. Likewise, Priest supports the Artist-in-Residence programs that raise money for WUGA, and she is one of the organizers of Rabbit Box, a monthly storytelling series. “There are so many talented people in this town, I’d like everyone to meet everyone else in Athens.”
Does she believe the world is becoming a better place due to activism? She answers “Yes. By meeting and getting to know each other we can find resources that help improve quality of life.”
Arrested at 14
Hattie Thomas Whitehead began her activism at age 10, attending NAACP meetings with older friends. By age 14, she was marching with other young blacks on downtown Athens’ sidewalks. Growing up in one of Athens’ segregated neighborhoods, she says she and her friends were taught by their parents “what we should and should not do.” That would include not entering a downtown store by the front door. Don’t walk by yourself. Be home before the street lights come on.
“If somebody drove through our neighborhood and threw something at us, we knew we couldn’t call the police,” Whitehead explains. “We had to take care of ourselves.”
But in the summer of 1963 when she was 14, NAACP organizers came to town to show Athens residents how to create change. It fell to the children to march and protest inequality, because their parents had to work, many as maids or cooks in white households. It was also part of the civil rights strategy throughout the South.
“We always felt there could be a change – there was hope,” recalls Whitehead.
The children met at Ebenezer Baptist West on the march days that summer. “We had to dress a particular way. We had to carry appropriate signs, and it was all about nonviolence.”
Most of the protests were in downtown Athens or the Varsity on Broad. Whitehead remembers vividly those terrifying times. “Buses and cars would unload us near the Methodist Church downtown, and then we would line up single file, walk down Lumpkin and turn left at the corner by the drugstore that’s still there.”
That’s when they would encounter a gauntlet of screaming men on both sides of the line of children – not just yelling, but spitting, pushing, calling names. They had been instructed to stare straight ahead and keep walking up Clayton and back, with women hitting them with pocketbooks if they happened to pass.
On some days, the police rounded them up and took them back to the old jail where Boulevard Ave. dead ends and which is now the Leisure Services maintenance facility.
“They locked us up in the yard for a while, then let us go home for dinner,” she explains. When they came home on protest days, “We couldn’t tell our parents the details.” Parents had to work, and it was a fight that had to be fought, even by children.
Whitehead says she didn’t really heal until she went to the 50thanniversary of the Selma March in 2015 with the predominantly white Unitarian Universalist fellowship. That’s when she allowed herself to cry.
“Crossing the [Edmund Pettis] bridge was a kind of re-enactment. Instead of being pushed and surrounded by meanness I felt embraced by the whole bus load of people. They understood how I was impacted.
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