Cities: Atlanta

Students for a Democratic Society & Atlanta's Fat Cats

In October 1969, Atlanta held mayoral elections for candidates Rodney Cook, a moderate Republican, and Sam Massell. Horace Tate, the only African American who entered the race, did not stand for election during the primaries. When electors tallied the votes, Massell triumphed as Atlanta’s first Jewish mayor with Maynard Jackson, who in 1973 would become the city’s first African American mayor, as vice mayor.

In this WSB clip, filmed on the eve of the 1969 election, members of the organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) hold a press conference to denounce candidates for what they viewed as unfair participation in the democratic process. The commentator targeted his criticism towards Cook, whom they accuse of catering to the needs of the white business owners that provided the financial backing for his campaign. Although Cook is named specificially, the spokesperson makes clear that he feels Atlanta's business elite influenced both candidates. Rather than being chosen by the people, the SDS member argues that "the only choices you have are the people the fat cats put up."  

Wearing a button depicting a raised fist, and speaking with confidence, the SDS representative evokes the militant rhetoric of such organizations as the Black Panther Party. SDS held its first meeting in 1960, and expanded across the nation’s colleges and universities to include over one thousand members by its last convention in 1969. Like many other protest organizations of the 1960s, SDS members operated under the philosophy of nonviolence, but soon became jaded about this strategy and frustrated with the slow pace of change. Like Civil Rights Movement activists, SDS protested the involvement of the United States in the Vietnam War, the influence of the wealthy on national politics, racism, and socio-economic disparities among all types of Americans.

Unlike civil rights demonstrators, however, SDS members were largely products of the Establishment they claimed to protest. They were mostly white, middle-to-upper-class college students. Bernadine Dohrn, who worked as a lawyer, and her husband Bill Ayers, were both leaders of SDS who broke off from the organization in the 1970s to form a militant faction called the Weather Underground. Although the two had been featured on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for bombing the Pentagon and the Capitol building, authorities dropped all charges against them when they turned themselves in 1979. By the 1990s, the two had established successful careers. 

The ultimate collapse of SDS and the nation’s subsequent forgetfulness of the organization may represent the commoditization of dissent in recent American history: how American liberalism, while seeming to act against capitalism, ultimately perpetuates capitalism. Integration has, since 1969, been labeled by many people as a success in Atlanta. While SDS did not survive, its spirit, arguably, has been successful to the extent that the project of integration continues in America. Its influence can also be seen today in Atlanta’s racial and ethnic diversity.  

Suggested Resources (click here)

Discussion Questions

1. What is Marxism? How did this theory influence the SDS members?

2. Why do you think SDS collapsed in the late 1970s? Do you think that student organizations still play influential roles in American society? Can you provide examples from outside the United States of the prominence or impact of student organizations?

3. How did the image and rhetoric of the Black Panthers influence the white student members of the SDS? Do you think that the white students were justified in their imitation of Panther style?

Take it to the Streets!

In American popular music, white artists such as the rapper Eminem (Marshall Mathers) and the singer Elvis Presley have been criticized for copying the lyrical and gestural styles of African American artists.  However, both of these singers grew up in multicultural environments (Detroit, Michigan, and Tupelo, Mississippi) alongside African Americans, Native Americans, and/or Latinos. So, how do we determine who has a legitimate claim to forms of American music?  Is the question of legitimacy or authenticity even relevant? Choose one of the musical forms in the list below, and research its history, including its appearance in literature, film, and other popular media.  Then write a brief essay about whether the form you have selected is multicultural or monocultural.

Jazz
Blues
Bhangra  
Country-Western 
Filmi Music (Bollywood Films)
Go-Go
Hip-Hop 
Punk  
Rai
Reggae   
Rythm and Blues (R&B)
Salsa   
Swing

Writers: Mark Anderson, Lee Fletchall, Sarah Hong, Chris Houck, and Erik  Smallwood in Professor Barbara McCaskill's AFAM/ENGL 3230 class (Survey of African American Literature) at The University of Georgia, Spring 2007.        

Editors and Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Christina L. Davis, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill     

Web Site Designer: William Weems 

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