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In August 1971, in an extremely uncharacteristic decision for a paper that so often gave into the biases and beliefs of its white editors, the Rome News-Tribune attempted to reach out to leaders of the disgruntled black population of the Northwest Georgia City. [INSERT DOCS: Rome News Tribune – August 29, 1971, “More opportunities goal of Rome Blacks” – Split piecemeal into three screenshots] The paper ran a full-length, two-page interview with Jimmy Hardy and Jeffrey Jackson, two twenty-year-old activists representing the Rome Black Coordinating Committee. The city’s black community had elected Hardy and Jackson to the committee to represent them in the presentation of grievances to city leaders, and the two also discussed these grievances with a reporter from the News-Tribune. The interview was a remarkable publication for the paper, as it did not redact Hardy and Jackson’s critiques of the city’s businesses, police, schools, and even the paper itself.
Neither did the paper redact the two activists’s response when asked a question about the use of violent protest. “Personally, I don’t really like violence,” said Jackson“If you’re speaking of this all-out violence, just going out and shooting and looting and raising hell, I don’t think that’s a good solution.” Both men agreed that they did not support the open use of violence, believing that listening to grievances and testimony from both sides could resolve the deep, structural problems still plaguing the city’s black population. That said, they also issued a warning. The Committee wanted to be heard, but feared that if the city continued to ignore their demands, violence was inevitable. “We would accomplish something if we ran down Broad Street, throwing bombs in windows and looting,” Jackson said, “because that would wake the people up to what’s happening.” It wasn’t an open threat, but rather an acknowledgement of what could happen if the city leaders continued to ignore the black population. The Black Coordinating Committee had submitted grievances, but feared continued suppression could trigger an outbreak of violence. As Hardy presciently concluded, “Back a person against the wall, and he’ll come out fighting.” (“Young Spokemen Say: More Opportunities Goal of Rome Blacks.” Rome News Tribune, August 29, 1971.)
Less than a month later, as negotiations between the Black Coordinating Committee and the Board of Education faltered, the city of Rome, Georgia erupted into violence. The outbreak proved to the city’s white population, and stands as an example to modern historians, that the issues of racial injustice were not solved in the 1960s. Most city leaders assumed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 removed any structural barriers and policies limiting Rome’s black population. In reality, economic opportunity in 1971 was mostly available only to the city’s white population Integration of businesses, schools, and many civic facilities had stalled, or never even started in the first place. Nevertheless, the grievances of the black population still surprised some white citizens in Rome, who assumed that the country had achieved racial justice in the previous decade.
Too often, modern observers can fall into the same pattern of thinking, ending the historiography of civil rights at the assassination of MLK or the end of the 1960s, and assuming race relations were significantly improved if not resolved completely. Such thinking follows the same logic as analyses of the integration of white and black schools following Brown v. Board, and take the perspective of white students, ignoring the social strain and interpersonal biases black students encountered every day after implementation of the landmark decision. Such thinking, when applied to economic justice, can likewise ignore the realities of continued bias, both structural and interpersonal, that held back African Americans even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Through an analysis of the race riots that occurred in the fall of 1971, this work attempts to better understand the daily lives and realities of African Americans in Rome following the Civil Rights Act. An analysis of the oppressive realities of school and work in Rome for many black students can place the 1971 riots into perspective, while also understanding the significant changes and dialogues that ensued between the black community and city leaders afterwards.
Information about the riots can be found using the following primary sources:
INSERT DOCS: BROWN MEDIA ARCHIVE VIDEO CLIPS OF STUFF ON FIRE AND PEOPLE MARCHING
INSERT DOCS: THE FOLDER ON GOOGLE DOCS