Historic Structures

Segregation Practices and the Civil Rights Movement Rich's Downtown Department Store, Atlanta Georgia

Modern advertisements hail Rich's as "All About The South," and it always has been a peculiarly southern institution. Morris Rich brought to Atlanta the form of the department store, first established by the northern retail pioneers, to the South. However, this form transmuted and settled itself into the southern environment of racial segregation and strict social behaviors between the white and black races. So in the "democratized" department stores of the South, separate facilities existed to serve whites and blacks, and not always equally. Strict rules of racial etiquette governed modes of behavior and social interaction between whites and Blacks. Rich's was no exception. Separate employee cafeterias and restrooms existed for each race, and even separate Christmas parties were held on the roof. Each year the employee newsletter honored workers who had been with the company for 10 and 20 years. Each issue had the white and black 10/20 year dubbers in separate sections, it was not until the 1962 issue that the employees were pictured all together in alphabetical order.

Some evidence exists that salespeople treated black customers courteously. Facilities, however, were distinctly unequal. Black patrons here, as elsewhere, could not eat in the same facilities as whites. Restrooms for black c:Jstomers were in the subbasement, right next to their snack bar. Both were in deplorable condition. In the early spring of 1958, a number of black women's clubs got together and agreed to write letters to Richard Rich and make him aware of the situation. One woman wrote the following:

We have always been impressed by the high caliber of service accorded us by sales personnel. We feel, however, that the facilities provided for customer convenience are also indicative of the management's wish to accommodate those who patronize your store. Quite frankly, unless an emergency arises, we do not use the rest room or eating facilities because we feel that for reasons of comfort, sanitation, and self-respect, the token facilities which you provide for us do not reflect the spirit of "welcome" accorded us in other areas; nor do they reflect a desire on the part of management that we share in the "comforts" provided by the store.

As mothers, we have found it depressing and embarrassing to take our children across the bridge en route to the Children's Department, amidst the smell of food and to have to answer their question, "Where can we eat?" Before beginning a shopping trip we always have to caution our young ones to "go to the bathroom because you won't have another chance until we come back home."

We realize that it is difficult for those who do not have to face these prodding questions and humiliating experiences to realize what it must be like. We ask, however, that in keeping with your policy of fairness, some steps be taken to provide for all customers' facilities which in some degree say, "We are glad you came."

In response to these letters Rich's immediately built a new restroom "for colored ladies" on the Fifth Floor of the main building, next to the Crystal Bridge. Renovation of the sub-basement facilities was underway by the summer to "provide a larger, more attractive, and complete Luncheonette and a separate Ladies Lounge in this area," and would also separate the eating and restroom facilities.

Less than two years later, patrons were asking not for better facilities, but an end to segregation altogether. When four black college students sat down for service at the lunch counter in Woolworth's in Greensboro, North Carolina on February 1, 1960, they sparked the sit-in movement that rapidly spread throughout the country. In response to this growing movement; the Georgia General Assembly unanimously passed a bill on February 16 that made it a misdemeanor for someone to refuse to vacate the premises of a place of business after being asked to by the management. The first sit-in in Atlanta occurred March 3rd, 1960. On March 4th, 5th, and 7th a group of students went to Rich's and were served. However, when they came on the 8th and the 9th, they were refused service. Students and members of CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) became more organized and on March 15th, they came as a group and targeted ten different eating places downtown at the same time, including the State Capitol and City Hall. They found the downtown establishments ready for them, however, and 77 were arrested.

Action was stalemated for the summer, as the Black community tried to reach consensus on a course of action. Meetings were held between Rich's and the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, the students' organization. Richard Rich maintained his position of favoring continued segregated facilities. Not long after these meetings, Lonnie King, Chairman of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, wrote Richard Rich on August 8th and asked for another meeting. Richard Rich responded with the following:
It is our feeling, at this time, that a meeting such as you suggest in your letter would not be productive. You will recall that we had a meeting rather recently on the subjects enumerated in your letter, and we made our views perfectly clear to you. We cannot see how a repetition could be fruitful to either party.

Jesse Hill, Jr., Actuary of the Atlanta Life Insurance Company, also wrote Richard Rich on August 30 and asked for a meeting prior to registration at the Atlanta University Center colleges on September 30. He stressed that the general aims of the student movement were the same as those of the adult black community. "Certainly now, as never before, it is up to all of us as Atlantans to show that this city of one million people can solve its problems in a manner which will do credit to a progressive modern metropolis." Mr. Rich responded, saying that past meetings had been fruitless, but stated, "My relations with you over the years have been most pleasant, and I should be glad to have a personal chat with you on any subject, at any time, if you will call my office for an appointment."

Rich's was in important target because blacks in the community had shopped there all their lives. Now, as a symbol of protest, blacks were turning in one of Atlanta's "most prized possessions," the Rich's Charge-Plate. One of those to do so was John Wesley Dobbs. He and the Rev. M.L. King, Sr. had held meetings with Mr. Rich, and Mr. Dobbs was frustrated by the outcome. In a letter of September 16th, he sent the balance due on his account and his Charge-Plate. "I find that my Conscience and Self-Respect will no longer allow me to support a business that shows so much unfairness to its Colored Patrons.

After the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) Conference in Atlanta October 14-16, a sit-in demonstration, under the leadership of the Committee of Appeal for Human Rights, was planned for downtown on October 19th, two department stores and eight variety stores were to be hit at precisely 11:00 a.m. and Rich's was to be their chief target. It was important to the students that The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. be a part of the planned demonstration, though he was reluctant to join. "Rich's was a symbol of Atlanta, which was a symbol of the hopes of the South, and King was a symbol of the hopes of the Negro people." Asked by student leader Lonnie C. King to join the sit-in, Dr. King agreed to meet him on the Crystal Bridge.

When Dr. King and the students were refused service at the snack bar on the bridge, they moved to the Magnolia Room. There they were arrested under the state anti-trespass law passed in the beginning of the year. Richard Rich was confronted with a problem, he wanted to accommodate both races. Fearing that if he gave in, he would lose his white clientele, he "broke down in tears on hearing that his board chairman could get King and the demonstrators out of the Magnolia Room only in handcuffs." In all, 51 demonstrators were arrested, including Dr. King. When he refused bond, Dr. King spent the first night of his life in jail.

Subsequently, a series of events unfolded that involved the aspirations of Georgia Governor Ernest Vandiver, Atlanta Mayor William Hartsfield, and presidential hopeful Senator John F. Kennedy. Racially moderate Mayor Hartsfield was determined to get Atlanta quickly through these embarrassing birth pains of integration. Governor Vandiver, however, represented the rest of the state in his conservative, segregationist stance. Hartsfield offered to begin negotiations to desegregate the downtown stores, if the demonstrators came out of jail. However, Dr. King and the students refused to come out until the charges were dropped. Hartsfield was in a tricky situation, he had no control over their release. Only Rich's or the state prosecutor could drop the charges. Since Mr. Rich was not willing to do so, Hartsfield, a consummate politician, found his solution, announce that Senator Kennedy had asked him to release Dr. King from jail. With that kind of backing, Gov. Vandiver and other state democrats wouldn't dare go against him. Attempting to convince an aide of the Senator's to ask Sen. Kennedy, Hartsfield said:
"Now, Harris [Wofford], I'm just so certain that his taking a position will help him with this doubtful Negro vote all over the nation that I'm going to take it on myself to tell this group that Senator Kennedy is asking me to intervene. That he has asked me to turn Martin Luther King loose. Why should he be ashamed of that? I'm going to turn him loose anyway."

Before the aide or Hartsfield could reach Sen. Kennedy with the idea, Hartsfield dropped Sen. Kennedy's name at the bargaining table with Martin L. King, Sr. A reporter overheard, and soon the news was out. Apologizing to the aide, Hartsfield said, " ... I needed a peg to swing on and you gave it to me, and I've swung on it." In the end, the charges were dropped and Sen. Kennedy became linked to Dr. King's plight in the eyes of many black voters, perhaps giving him the extra votes he needed to win.

Rich's was flooded with telegrams, postcards and letters, registering shock and outrage at Rich's treatment of Dr. King and their segregationist policies. The following telegram came from Louisville, Ky.:
THE MEMBERS OF ZION BAPTIST CHURCH ARE HORRIFIED THAT THE MANAGEMENT OF YOUR STORE CAUSED THE ARREST AND IMPRISONMENT OF DR MARTIN LUTHER KING JR AND OTHERS SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY SAT DOWN FOR EA TING ACCOMMODATIONS IN YOUR PUBLIC LUNCH ROOM IT IS INCONCEIVABLE THAT ANY HIGH CLASS ESTABLISHMENT WITH RICH'S REPUTATION WOULD DENY PEOPLE SOMETHING TO EAT EVEN IF YOU DIDN'T SERVE THEM YOU SHOULD ALLOW FREEDOM OF PROTEST WE SINCERELY PRAY THAT YOU AS OWNER OF RICH'S WILL USE YOUR POWER TO CORRECT SUCH UNDEMOCRATIC UNAMERICAN AND UNCHRISTIAN PRACTICES REV D E KING PASTOR

Mayor Hartsfield and black leaders agreed to a 30-day truce on October 22, and the jailed students were pardoned and released. During this truce, a joint negotiating committee was formed, representing the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights and the Student-Adult Liaison Committee, with Jesse Hill, Jr. as the chairman. Meetings between the negotiating committee and the downtown merchants were attempted, but "the majority of the downtown merchants had flatly refused to participate in such meetings," stated Mayor Hartsfield.

Thirty-two days after the truce, organized demonstrations resumed. Fourteen department, drug and dime stores were targeted on Friday, November 25 and continued every day. The two big downtown department stores, Rich's and Davison's, immediately closed their seated dining rooms, and offered only take-out or stand-up food service. By Wednesday, only the lunch counter at Walgreen's at Peachtree and Ellis Streets remained open. A memo was sent from the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights and the Student-Adult Liaison Committee to all the targeted merchants on November 29, explaining their position and stating that the joint negotiating committee was ready to meet on the issues. Mayor Hartsfield maintained that "many smaller merchants ... and chain stores would be willing to go along with us if Rich's would." Rev. W. H. Borders, Chairman of the Student-Adult Liaison Committee, felt that both sides were mainly in agreement, but that the students wanted integration immediately, while the merchants wanted to tie it with the school desegregation scheduled for the Fall of 1961.

In a letter from Mrs. Eliza Paschall, Chairman of the Greater Atlanta Council on Human Relations, to Richard Rich on December 21, she said that she had heard reports that other stores would desegregate their eating facilities if Rich's would. She states further:
Rich's has contributed immeasurably to the development of the Atlanta community. Leadership brings with it responsibilities which weigh heavily. At the same time it brings unique opportunities for service. I believe it is not exaggerating to say that at this time Rich's has the power to grant, or withhold, the gift of peace and good will to the people of Atlanta.

In late November, Rich's removed their segregated signs from their restrooms, and 1,600 whites turned in their Charge-Plates in protest. Picketing and sit-in demonstrations continued through to the new year, and by February 11th, 1961, a total of 82 students were in jail, refusing bond. On February 20 and 21, the remaining students agreed to come out for negotiations between the Student-Adult Liaison Committee, Rev. M.L. King, Sr. and downtown businessmen, represented by the president of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Ivan Allen. A news release was prepared by the Chamber of Commerce on March 7 announcing what came to be known as the "compromise" agreement. Merchants agreed to desegregate their facilities in "the same patterns" as shown by the rulings to desegregate the schools, and the black leaders agreed to stop demonstrating. This agreement, however, was vague. Lunch counter desegregation was tied to the successful integration of schools, but was not a definite statement. Students felt betrayed by the black leadership, but went along for the sake of unity after an impassioned speech by Dr. King, Jr. The merchants who signed the agreement were: Rich's, Davison's, Woolworth's, McCrory's, Grant's, Walgreen's, Jacob's Pharmacy, S.H. Kress and Co., Sears, Roebuck and Co., Kresge's, H.L. Green Co., Newberry's and Lane's. The black leaders who agreed were: Dr. W. Holmes Borders, Chairman of the Student-Adult Liaison Committee; A.T. Walden, attorney and Chairman of the Atlanta Negro Voters League; Dr. M.L. King, Sr.; Leroy R. Johnson; Q.V. Williamson; Jesse Hill, Jr.; Mrs. P.Q. Yancey; Rev. O.M. Moss; Dr. Rufus E. Clement, Pregident of Atlanta University; Lonnie C. King, student and Chairman of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights; and Miss Herschell Sullivan, student and Vice-Chairman of the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights.

A seven-week strike was held by over 10% of Rich's black employees in April and May, 1973. Charging discrimination in hiring and promotion practices and a lower wage scale, 350 employees walked out on April 3, 1973. Demonstrations and picketing followed, including a thwarted march from Rich's to Harold Brockey's home, until strikers accepted mediation by the Community Relations Commission.