Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement

Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement

Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement

Courage to Dissent: Atlanta and the Long History of the Civil Rights Movement


The Civil Rights movement that emerged in the United States after World War II was a reaction against centuries of racial discrimination. In this sweeping history of the Civil Rights movement in Atlanta--the South's largest and most economically important city--from the 1940s through 1980, Tomiko Brown-Nagin shows that the movement featured a vast array of activists and many sophisticated approaches to activism. Long before "black power" emerged and gave black dissent from the mainstream civil rights agenda a new name, African Americans in Atlanta debated the meaning of equality and the steps necessary to obtain social and economic justice.

This groundbreaking book uncovers the activism of visionaries-both well-known legal figures and unsung citizens-from across the ideological spectrum who sought something different from, or more complicated than, "integration." Local activists often played leading roles in carrying out the integrationist agenda of the NAACP, but some also pursued goals that differed markedly from those of the venerable civil rights organization. Brown-Nagin discusses debates over politics, housing, public accommodations, and schools. She documents how the bruising battle over school desegregation in the 1970s, which featured opposing camps of African Americans, had its roots in the years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Exploring the complex interplay between the local and national, between lawyers and communities, between elites and grassroots, and between middle-class and working-class African Americans,Courage to Dissenttells gripping stories about the long struggle for equality that speak to the nation's current urban crisis. This remarkable book will transform our understanding of the Civil Rights era.


Austin Thomas (“A.T.”) Walden, the son of illiterate former slaves, graduated with honors from the University of Michigan Law School in 1911. Walden established a law practice in Georgia in 1912, while Thurgood Marshall, who one day would be known nationwide as the man who slew Jim Crow, was still in high school. Walden—one of the South’s first African-American attorneys— charted Atlanta’s path toward racial equality in the years before and after Brown v. Board of Education. He fought for black advancement through activism in civic, social, church, and political organizations, as well as through his work at the bar.

Walden, the president of the Atlanta branch of the naacp for many years, became Thurgood Marshall’s “man” in Atlanta once Marshall took the helm of the NAACP’s legal committee. in public, at annual conferences and at meetings of the legal committee, Walden dutifully pledged allegiance to Marshall’s strategy. Walden’s alliance with the naacp and his activism on behalf of African Americans landed him on the hit list of the Ku Klux Klan. Walden was “living on borrowed time,” declared a Klansman who confronted him on the street one day during the 1940s. in the Klansman’s view, Walden, an ally of the naacp, unquestionably threatened the racial status quo.

In practice, the story was more complicated. Rather than obediently follow the NAACP’s strategy, Walden and other leaders in Atlanta, the thriving metropolis of black education and culture, exercised considerable agency and independence. Reflecting the perspectives of the band of middle-class blacks that W. E. B. Du Bois had called the “Talented Tenth,” Walden added his own designs to Marshall’s blueprint for achieving equality through law. He fashioned a brand of socially conscious lawyering that fit local circumstances, and deviated in crucial ways from the model of legal activism of the naacp Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Walden did not oppose elements of the NAACP’s strategy because he and his clients lacked an affirmative vision of racial justice. Rather . . .

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