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Mayor Thompson and Macon's Black Community

In this WSB clip from July 6, 1971, the reporter Jim Whipkey covers a meeting between Macon Mayor Ronnie Thompson, Police Chief J. F. Flynt, and representatives of the local branch of the NAACP. The leaders of the NAACP in attendance include the Reverend Julius C. Hope, the state president for the organization. Also in attendance are members of a biracial committee, which has been created in response to a list of demands the NAACP presented to the mayor. The purpose of the committee is to objectively review evidence from an incident that resulted in the death of a black citizen. The NAACP has called the meeting to ease racial tensions that have resulted from the death.

As Andrew Michael Manis writes in Macon Black and White: An Unutterable Separation in the American Century (pp. 265-66), on June 24, 1971, police officer John R. Beck arrived at the home of Sanders White to place him under arrest on disorderly conduct charges. While attempting to detain Sanders, Jimmy Lee White, Sanders’s brother, reportedly attacked Beck. In response, Beck emptied all six rounds of his gun, killing Jimmie Lee instantly. The black community immediately responded to the shooting, stating that the incident was a case of police brutality. Conversely, white witnesses claimed that the shooting was justified, and alleged that Jimmie Lee attacked Beck with a large flash light. Mayor Thompson agreed that the shooting was necessary. Beck was arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter, yet maintained his position on the police force.

By June 28 the NAACP had requested a meeting with the mayor and presented their list of demands. The demands included:

1) The suspension of Beck.

2) The removal of white officers from black neighborhoods.

3)  The creation of a biracial review board to examine the evidence in the case.

Mayor Thompson refused to suspend Beck and continued to assert that the shooting was justified. Early on July 3, a group of black citizens under the title of “Concerned Citizens” met briefly with Thompson in what they described as an “unsatisfactory” meeting. By the Independence Day holiday race relations were at their worse and several firebombings had occurred.

In response, a mass meeting of over 150 black citizens met at a local church. Mayor Thompson declared an impromptu curfew for the city, which began at 9:30 p.m. and would end at dawn the next day. Thompson claimed that the curfew was necessary because he had received evidence of threats by a certain group operating in the city, and because there were a series of firebombs against local businesses.

The curfew upset both the black community and many of the white City Councilmen and local businessmen. Mayor Thompson claimed that the city was in a “state of emergency” and planned to repeat the curfews as often as necessary. His executive order initially included a span of thirty-six hours. A few days before, Thompson set a curfew for businesses, restricting them from selling alcohol, guns, and ammunition after five o’clock.

On July 15, the Bibb County Grand Jury cleared Beck of charges, and angry black Maconites clashed with police. On July 18, the NAACP led a march of over 250 people through downtown Macon to the City Hall in order to protest against police brutality and the consequential disrespect towards black citizens. The NAACP also led a rally to increase black voter registration and participation. A week later, the NAACP scheduled a series of meetings with city officials to end job bias and discrimination against black citizens. These culminated on July 26 with plans to create a biracial committee to address issues of discrimination. 

The follow-up to the integration of physical facilities and the passage of laws eradicating Jim Crow policies and protecting African American voters and lives was a much longer, protracted battle to change individuals' attitudes about black people. The confrontations between Macon's white city officials and members of its black community revealed suspicions and assumptions that would repeat across the country as state after state moved to institute the legal and social changes that the Civil Rights Movement had wrought. 

The essay, Mayor Ivan Allan and Peyton Wall, on the Freedom on Film Atlanta page discusses real estate blockbusting. As it indicates, residential neighborhoods in particular became staging grounds in the late 1960s and early 1970s for both positive interactions among members of different races and tensions between them.  For some African Americans during the civil rights era, the Movement's philosophy of nonviolence had never been appealing or satisfying, and those who considered change dangerously slow in coming did not rule out violence as a means of gaining attention and concessions.   

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1. Speaking in Birmingham, Alabama, on December 31, 1963, shortly after the successful Birmingham Campaign to catalyze passage of the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King remarked that "A riot is the language of the unheard."   The 1960s were peppered by riots among "the unheard," among African Americans living in poor urban communities, such as in the Watts Riots in South Central Los Angeles (August 1965) and in inner-city Detroit (July 1967). How do you think the rioters justified their actions?  What did the riots reveal about the relationship between black communities and predominantly white law enforcement and city officials, and between black communities in the cities and white communities in the suburbs?  

2. Read the brief Eyes on the Prize discussion of law enforcement officers' responses to Civil Rights Movement demonstrators during the early 1960s.  The Albany overview story in the "Freedom on Film" Albany pages will lead you to specific information on Police Chief Laurie Pritchett's restrained response to activists. Compare these responses to Mayor Ronnie Thompson, who earned the nickname "Machine Gun Ronnie" for his tough talk against looters and rioters.  During the curfew, Mayor Thompson advised his police officers to test fire machine guns and broadcast them over their police radios in order to discourage rioters, and he was also responding to rumors of snipers in the black community.  Do you think Thompson's methods were effective and appropriate or not to stop violence and improve race relations in Macon during the early 1970s?

3. Discuss how the following quotation by Dr. King from his 1967 book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? applies to the Macon NAACP's attempts to work with city officials for better race relations:

"In a real sense all life is interrelated.  All men are caught in an inescapapble network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one affects all indirectly.  I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the inter-related structure of reality."  

4. Read about the Deacons for Defense and Justice, a group of African American men in Louisiana and Mississippi who carried armed themselves in order to protect their communities and the Civil Rights activists them from violence.   Like the black Panthers (see the essay on the Panthers in our Atlanta pages), the good the Deacons accomplished was often overshadowed by menacing images of their members toting guns.  Do you agree or disagree with their decision to carry arms? Was this an effective strategy to gain equality and justice? Why or why not?   

Take it to the Streets!

On April 29, 1992, a jury acquited four white Los Angeles police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King, an African American man of charges of assault and use of excessive physical force. Angry at the jurors' decision, and what they considered tacit support of police brutality and racial profiling, residents of the South Central Los Angeles community began six days of rioting.  Spend a week working with a group of students to clip articles from your local newspaper that report on crime and law enforcement. Pay attention as well to photographs that accompany these news items.  Focus on reports that involve members of one of the following groups: African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, inner-city residents, suburban residents, teenagers, college students, celebrities, athletes, or professionals.  At the end of the week, make a oral presentation with your group (about ten to fifteen minutes) on the patterns you have found, and explain what these patterns demonstrate about attitudes towards race, age, gender, and/or class in your community.

Writer: Delila Wilburn
Researchers: Stacie Walker and Professor Barbara McCaskill
Editor: Professor Barbara McCaskill
Web Site Designer: William Weems

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