Mayor Steve Tumlin, who was a student while Cox was principal of the high school, declared May 10 to be Loyd and Marjorie Cox Day in Marietta after the former educator and his wife.
Cox said the integration of the school district was a smooth process because of the plans he took to alert the community in advance.
“They knew every move that we were going to make that first week,” Cox said. “And we had met with the chief of police and his staff. And the principals and their staffs.”
Cox said he also had the 30 children on the student council over to his house for a three hour talk about what was to occur.
“When we got them settled and everything we asked questions and so forth and we told them that this was the law of the land and that’s what we went by,” Cox said.
The preparation paid off and there was little incident, Cox said, describing it as “smooth, smooth, I would say smooth, smooth, smooth. We worked the community. That took us about three or four weeks. We had night meetings at these local elementary schools where they could come and they could ask questions and everything else. And of course some opposed it and so forth, but in a democratic society the majority prevails.”
At a previous luncheon in Atlanta last month attended by Cox and former Govs. Carl Sanders and Roy Barnes, Sanders described how he grappled with the same topic at the state level.
Sanders said he was president pro tem in the Georgia Senate at the time when Gov. Ernest Vandiver appointed him and state Rep. Frank Twitty of Camilla to tour the state with the Chamber of Commerce and find out what Georgians thought about admitting African-Americans to the University of Georgia.
“Well, Frank Twitty was opposed to it to begin with, and I took the position that we’d have a generation of illiterates if we shut the school system down, so I took the middle position,” Sanders said.
A federal district court ordered the admission of two black students, Hamilton Holmes and Charlayne Hunter, to the University of Georgia in 1961.
“Vandiver, who had run on a ticket of segregation and was strongly supportive of that position, called a meeting at the mansion, had about 50 people there,” Sanders said.
Vandiver told the group that he had to decide whether to shut down the university, asking for the opinions of the various politicians and businessmen who had gathered for the occasion.
“Forty-eight of them said they would close the university system,” Sanders said. “Frank Twitty had become convinced because we had toured the state that we couldn’t do that, so we said, ‘Don’t do that. Don’t close it. Leave it open.’”
Vandiver said he would think about it.
“Several days later he came back and said he would not close the university, and that’s when Hamilton and the other girl got admitted,” Sanders said. “Otherwise, the University of Georgia would have been shut down.”
After Sanders was elected governor in 1962, he said Leroy Johnson, a black lawyer and state senator, came to visit him.
“The Capitol back then had signs at every water place and every toilet, ‘black’ and ‘white’ as to whether you could use it,” Sanders said.
Johnson complained that the segregated water fountains and restrooms were offensive and asked what Sanders planned to do about it.
“I said, ‘I don’t know, but I’ll find out,’” Sanders said. “Well, what I did about it is I got a state employee and they pulled every damn one of those signs down. The next morning Leroy went around, there wasn’t a black water fountain, black bathroom, and that convinced him that I was trying to do the right thing.”
Integrating the Commerce Club, with help from Coca-Cola
Sanders shared another story about Johnson involving the prestigious Commerce Club in Atlanta. A group of senators had gathered for a committee meeting there and Johnson, who arrived late, was denied admittance.
“He called me up and said, ‘Governor, they won’t let me in the Commerce Club to go in and meet with the other senators, and if they don’t do something about it I’m going to raise so much hell that nobody will ever go to the club,’” Sanders recalled.
Sanders said he told Johnson to wait 15 minutes.
“I called Bob Woodruff with the Coca-Cola Company, who back in that time was probably as powerful as the governor, and I told him the story,” Sanders said.
Woodruff told Sanders to give him a few minutes.
“He called me back and said, ‘Sen. Johnson is welcome at the Commerce Club,’” Sanders said. “When he walked in the dining room all the black waiters got up and cheered and clapped. That’s how we integrated the Commerce Club. But those were dicey days.”
Barnes said when he arrived at the University in Georgia in 1966, Holmes and Hunter were studying there. South Cobb High School, from which he graduated, had not yet been integrated.
“You have to remember, there were not many blacks in Cobb County at the time,” Barnes said. “When I was first elected to the Senate in ’74, my senate district was about what the county was, about 3 percent black.”
That district of south Cobb and most of Marietta is now represented by state Sen. Steve Thompson with a registered black vote of about 50 percent, Barnes said.
“Cobb County has about 25 percent African-American registered voters,” Barnes said.
The increase, Barnes said, is all about economics.
“If you look at how African-Americans have changed in just really two generations, how they have increased in economic influence, and what’s done it is education,” Barnes said. “Education is the key to social mobility and economic independence, and so what happens is they got educated and they finally had the access to education thanks to people like Carl Sanders. And so it’s changed and when they made more money they moved like everybody else to the suburbs.”
The Cobb School District is now a majority-minority school district, as is Gwinnett Schools, Barnes said.
Sanders said the state came awfully close to shutting down the public school system in his time.
“The Legislature was just full of bills to shut it down,” he said. “Finally they got me cornered one day, and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do.’ I said, ‘I’m a segregationist. But I’m not a damn fool. And we’re not going to close the entire school system because some of these people want to do that.’ So that saved the educational system of Georgia because they were going to go to private schools, and hell, nobody would have been educated.”
Closing the school system would have created a generation of illiterates, Barnes said.
Atlanta vs. Alabama as the capital of the New South
If there is ever any doubt that elections matter, look at who was elected governor of Alabama the same time Sanders was elected in Georgia, Barnes said. At that time, Birmingham had an edge on Atlanta economically with its steel industry.
“The conventional wisdom was that Birmingham was going to emerge as the capital of the New South, but that just goes to show you how one election makes the difference. George Wallace gave that speech at his inauguration that says ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,’ and everybody roared, and he was on the front cover of Time a few weeks later, and Carl Sanders said just what he said right now, he said ‘We’re not going to close the public school system, we may not agree with the Supreme Court, but we’re going to abide by it, we’re law abiding people,’ and what happened was business does what it always does, business seeks safety and security, and they fled from Alabama to here, and so if you want to know what all these tall buildings that are around and the prosperity we’ve enjoyed for well now over a generation, I give the credit to Carl Sanders and I’ve said that,” Barnes said.
If Sanders hadn’t beat Marvin Griffin in the election for governor, Barnes said the school system would have been closed and there would have been violence.
“We did not have the violence that they had in Selma and Montgomery and Jackson and all of those other places through the South,” Barnes said.
Celebrating a changer of lives
Among those in attendance at the birthday luncheon for Cox at Vinings Bank on Friday were former Cobb Schools Superintendent Kermit Keenum, former Marietta Schools Superintendent Harold Barnett, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Georgia), Marietta Superintendent Emily Lembeck, former Cobb Board of Education Chair Betty Gray and current chairman Randy Scamihorn, Kennesaw State University President Emeritus Betty Siegel, Georgia Superintendent John Barge, former Chattahoochee Technical College president Harlon Crimm, and Stephen Cheshier, president emeritus of Southern Polytechnic State University, among others.
Isakson presented Cox with a U.S. Flag specially flown over the U.S. Capitol in his honor.
As the various education leaders toasted Cox, the event ended with Barnes noting that with a father with a seventh-grade education and a mother who never went to college, Barnes didn’t think he would go to college either. Attending the University of Georgia changed his life, he said.
“And all of you have similar stories that you could tell,” Barnes said. “Loyd Cox has one. Betty Gray has one. It changed our life, particularly those of us who are first generation of college graduates. And we could not have done that unless we had the public schools to support us, both in the city of Marietta, and in Cobb County. Those who would condemn the public school system don’t know what they’re talking about. They don’t realize that it remakes lives. It remade mine and it’s folks like Loyd Cox that made all of that possible.”