October 2017

The Road to Charlottesville Runs Through Americus, Georgia

While the response of the president was certainly unprecedented, the inclination to highlight violence on the Left, and especially violence from black Americans, is not. In the mid 1960s, as black activists engaged in a decidedly nonviolent struggle for justice, that same tactic appears.

by Ansley Quiros

When white supremacists and neo-Nazis rallied in Charlottesville in August 2017, a gathering that led to the tragic death of Heather Heyer, initial responses, even in conservative circles, were of widespread condemnation. And yet, in the intervening hours and days, a counternarrative brewed that painted the Left as equally violent and threatening. This narrative, of course, was stoked by President Trump’s false equivalency. While the response of the President was certainly unprecedented, the inclination to highlight violence on the Left, and especially violence from black Americans, is not. In the mid 1960s, as black activists engaged in a decidedly nonviolent struggle for justice, that same tactic appears.

In Americus, a small city in Southwest Georgia, tensions had been running high for weeks. That summer of 1965, nonviolent Christian activists had been organizing Americus’ black citizens, holding mass meetings, planning a grocery store boycott, registering people to vote, and marching down the streets. State troopers, Klansmen, and concerned white housewives watched nervously as ministers led thousands of black citizens through the streets. The city felt like a tinderbox. Then, on the night of July 28, 1965, it exploded.

That night peaceful protesters, many of them kids, assembled in front of the Sumter County courthouse in downtown Americus. They gathered in solidarity with the wife of a local minister, Mamie Campbell, who had been arrested the previous day trying to vote. Led by the Rev. J.R. Campbell, Mamie’s husband, and other clergy, as well as some volunteers from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the group had conducted a mass meeting at Allen Chapel AME, marched to the courthouse, sang, prayed, and planned to spend the night on the lawn in protest. Around midnight, it started to rain. Then, cutting through the humidity and drizzle and cicada chorus, the sound of a shotgun.

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Rev. J.R. Campbell marching in Americus. Courtesy crmvet.org.

“Between twelve and one in the morning,” the leader of the movement, Rev. Campbell recounted, “the news media came to me and said, ‘Rev. Campbell, I don’t want to get you all upset, but we got trouble.’” When the informants told Campbell the news, he replied, “oh my, it gonna be the Devil. Oh my God.”[1] A couple blocks away, there had been a murder. A twenty-one-year-old man named Andrew Whately had been gunned down by a .38 caliber pistol at a corner filling station as he made his way home from work at the local drive in movie theater. He had been shot by two black males driving by, Willie Lamar and Charlie Lee Hopkins, who, many thought, had mistaken Whately for some “white youths’ who had been throwing rocks and bottles at passing cars.[2]

Neighbors and friends described Andrew Whately, known as Andy, as an “energetic, quiet, friendly youth.” He had grown up in Americus, attending school and the First Baptist Church, and working two jobs, one at the Manhattan Shirt factory and another at the Sunset Movie Theater, where he was returning from at the time of his murder. The industrious Whately had also recently enlisted as a Marine.[3] Some surmised that Whately suffered from some slight developmental disorders, what his mother described as “slight retardation,” making his work ethic all the more remarkable.[4] By all accounts Andy Whately was a reserved, good kid who worked diligently and kept out of trouble. Most importantly, though, Andy Whately was white.

A random, heartrending act of violence, the murder of Andy Whatley, gave opponents of the civil rights movement an opening they had not had.

Although neither Andy Whately nor his murderers were associated with the civil rights movement, his tragic death became a turning point for the struggle in Americus. The tensions building throughout that summer exploded with that .38 caliber weapon. Rev. Campbell was right, it was going to be the Devil. A random, heartrending act of violence, the murder of Andy Whatley, gave opponents of the civil rights movement an opening they had not had. Having been largely silenced, even paralyzed, by the moral demands and peaceful actions of the movement, the opposition now found its footing, invoking arguments that would become the hallmark of conservative racial politics for years to come, namely the inherent violence of black protest.

The backlash began almost immediately. The death of an innocent white citizen both petrified and enraged the white community. As Tom Brokaw, then a young reporter sent to Americus to cover the protests, recalled, “all hell broke loose.”[5] Women kept their children indoors while men primed their weapons. The local newspaper, The Americus Times-Recorder, ran a headline declaring “Americus is Armed.”[6] Though Whately’s death frightened many, it galvanized others.

Whatley’s funeral was held at the First Baptist Church, where the altar was adorned with flowers, some sent by the self-proclaimed “proud” segregationist and later Governor of Georgia, Lester Maddox. Maddox recognized the political opportunity presented by an innocent white victim, making several trips to Americus in the weeks following Whatley’s death to hold rallies where he condemned the civil rights movement as “against the Constitution,” “unchristian” and “ungodly.”[7] Even the minister of First Baptist felt compelled to speak out about the incident, remarking that Whatley’s death was “the sheer product of hate, indifference and pressures on mind and heart—such as distrust and greed.”[8] Though Rev. Collins did not specify the individuals or groups to which he was referring, his implication was clear; the murder had resulted from black activists and their demands for freedom.

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Frame of Lester Maddox speaking at a gymnasium on behalf of segregation from a WSB-TV newsreel covering the aftermath of Whatley’s murder. Courtesy Civil Rights Digital Library.

In the days following Whatley’s murder, Americus’ municipal leaders began to lambast the civil rights movement, blaming it squarely for Whately’s death. Americus Mayor T. Griffin Walker, in a statement regarding the “present racial situation,” called protests “completely unwarranted and irresponsible.” “For two weeks now” he stated, “this community has been subjected to uncalled for actions that would have tried the patience of a Job.” Not only did the Mayor undermine the legitimacy of the movement’s demands, he characterized the white citizens of Americus as victims, equating them with the afflicted biblical character of Job. Georgia Governor Carl Sanders likewise blamed the civil rights movement for violence. “The proper way to implement the law,” Sanders claimed, “is through the courts and not through a brawl in the streets.”[9] The moral tide had shifted. Calling upon the black leadership to cease demonstrations, Mayor Walker remarked, “one death is enough.”[10]

A murder was something the opponents of racial justice could work with. They could accuse the activists of being out of control, paint black people as inherently threatening to whites, and… assert that the civil rights movement was not really nonviolent.

It did not matter that Andy Whatley’s murderers were not even tangentially involved in the civil rights movement. It didn’t matter that black activists were committed to peace and nonviolence. It didn’t matter that the shooting was as terrifying and shocking to the black community in Americus as to the white. Though the murder had nothing to do with movement; it had everything to do with it. The Americus Times-Recorder gave it such “great and extensive coverage” that it became “inseparably related” to the Americus and Sumter County Movement.[11]

A murder was something the opponents of racial justice could work with. They could accuse the activists of being out of control, paint black people as inherently threatening to whites, and, most significantly, they could assert that the civil rights movement was not really nonviolent nor was it moral. And in truth, the civil rights movement itself was grappling with the efficacy of nonviolence in the face of violent white supremacy at that time. Some, like Stokely Carmichael, had begun to weary of nonviolence and advocate “black power” and armed self-defense. Less than two weeks after Whatley’s murder, the infamous Watts Riots broke out in Los Angeles. Perceptions of black violence and criminality, though long present in the American imagination, spiked, stoking white anger and white fear.

Willie Lamar and Charlie Lee Hopkins were quickly apprehended, eventually tried, and convicted. No connections to the civil rights movement were ever discovered. But the damage had been done. Black leaders were forced to declare a moratorium on marches at a moment when they had been exerting tremendous political pressure on city authorities. Fearful of retribution for Whately’s death, many parents forbade their children from participating in activities. State and national volunteers who had come to Americus to help local protesters were castigated as ‘outside agitators’ and forced to leave. Governor Sanders claimed that these activists, “so-called apostles of goodwill,” sought to “stir up emotions and perhaps cause more violence,” adding, “I would like to see those outsiders leave.”[12] Whately’s death limited the nonviolent movement for racial justice in Americus and offered its opponents an opportunity to recast black protest as inherently violent.

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Frame of Tom Brokaw interviewing Lyda Whately outside her home from a WSB-TV newsreel covering the aftermath of Whatley’s murder. Courtesy Civil Rights Digital Library.

For her part, Andy Whatley’s mother, Lyda Whately, did not blame the civil rights movement for the death of her son. When asked by Tom Brokaw about the community’s threat to lynch or shoot any black American who marched, she replied that that “made no sense.” Quietly, she added, “it won’t bring back my son.” This struck a young Brokaw. “I found her statement, in its simplicity, tremendously powerful,” he later remembered, “an antidote to all the hate-filled rhetoric of the Klan.”[13] It was never really about Andy Whately or his grieving mother. It was about stifling black protest and preserving white supremacy.

In this way, 1965 Americus offers important historical context for 2017 Charlottesville. The strategy on the Right of subverting the moral legitimacy of protest movements by highlighting black violence is nothing new.  Rather it is a time-tested tactic that preys on racist ideas of blackness and on white fears to promote stereotypes and subdue calls for racial equality. Knowing this, we must even more forcefully condemn false equivalencies and continue to call for racial justice in our nation. For without it, there cannot be lasting peace.

LT HeadshotAnsley Quiros, an Atlanta native, is an Assistant Professor of United States History at the University of North Alabama. Her work centers around questions of race, the South, and Christianity. She can be reached at aquiros@una.edu.

Notes

[1]  “Murder Charges Filed Against Negroes in Death of Youth, 21,” Americus Times-Recorder, July 29, 1965.

[2] “Nightriders Gun Down Georgia Youth,” The Delta Democrat-Times (Greenville, MS), July 29, 1965.

[3] “Whatley Had Just Joined Marine Corps, Americus Times-Recorder, July 29, 1965.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tom Brokaw, Boom! Voices of the Sixties (New York: Random House), 2007, 15-16

[6] “Americus is Armed,” Americus Times Recorder, August 2, 1965

[7] Americus Times Recorder, August 2, 1965; WSB Film Clips, Hargrett Library, University of Georgia.

[8] “Negroes Beaten in Americus, GA,” New York Times, August 1, 1965; Interview with Isabelle Collins.

[9] “Sanders Says Killing of Local Youth Tragic Result,” Americus Times-Recorder, July 29, 1965.

[10] “Mayor Issues Statement; Press Headquarters Set Up, Americus Times-Recorder, July 30, 1965.

[11] State of Georgia vs. Charlie Hopkins, “Motion for Change of Venue,” Sumter County Superior Court, March 1, 1966. Interestingly, this point is made by the attorney for Charlie Hopkins, who argued that this link between the murder and the movement would prevent his client from receiving a fair trial, so deep was the animosity to racial justice in Southwest Georgia.

[12] “Keep Outsiders out of Americus, Sanders Urges,” Americus Times-Recorder, August 2, 1965.

[13] Brokaw, Boom!, 46.

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