Elizabeth, born in Greensboro, Georgia, was here in Decatur in August, 1963, and remembers sitting in Rosetta Williams’ front room, watching the march on television. She wanted to attend the march so badly, but she had a 9-month old baby (Leslie) and 3 other children to care for, and that prevented her from going. Elizabeth, who was a member of the founding committee of the newly organized chapter of the DeKalb County NAACP, met at Rosetta’s house that day – what was then a little street with a few houses, and is now the Callaway Building and parking lot in downtown Decatur.
Many of Elizabeth’s friends wanted to attend the march, but couldn’t. Among them was the head of the local NAACP chapter who couldn’t go under threat of losing his job – which came true. He eventually did lose his job due to his activism.
Elizabeth remembers how exciting it was to see that sea of people gathering in Washington, D.C., and to hear Dr. King’s speech. She and her friends had been going to see Dr. King when he was in Atlanta, preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church or at organizing meetings at Wheat Street Baptist Church, and then bringing his message back to their own community in Decatur.
Elizabeth has lived in Decatur since 1949, but Decatur and DeKalb County were not friendly to the civil rights movement. The KKK met on the square in downtown Decatur, and paraded through the African American neighborhoods, trying to scare black folk with shouts and name-calling. But, she says, Dr. King taught them to face these obstacles without fear. She went to the Decatur square to face the KKK, and in 1962 (as a very-pregnant activist) she took a bus to downtown Atlanta to see the face-off between civil rights supporters and the KKK in front of the downtown Atlanta Rich’s store.
Growing up in Greensboro, Elizabeth experienced the separate but unequal school system: the white schools had nice brick buildings, the blacks schools had outdoor toilets. The white schools had gyms and basketball courts, the black schools had open fields and red clay. The white schools had buses, the black kids walked to school. All of the school books were handed down from the white schools, sometimes with many pages missing.
Elizabeth didn’t want her children to have the same experience, and worked to desegregate the Decatur school system and the Decatur/DeKalb library. Basically nothing was integrated in DeKalb County by the early 1960s. As she listened to Dr. King’s message and became more active, she became a member of the Georgia Council on Human Relations. They decided to start testing the waters by integrating the public library. Accompanied by 2 white women who would help them out (and drive the “getaway car” if anything went wrong!), Elizabeth and one other woman entered the Decatur library, went to the children’s section and selected a couple of books. Of course they needed a library card to check books out, and the white clerks seemed so startled by their presence that they actually provided the application and let them fill it out. Elizabeth thinks they probably scared the library folks just by showing up.
While Elizabeth says it didn’t seem “courageous” at the time, looking back we would certainly call it that. She does admit to being very relieved when she came out of the library and saw that her friend with the “getaway car” was still there waiting for her!
Elizabeth and her family continued to break down the dividing lines of race. Her son Richard was the first African American to play basketball on an integrated team in Decatur and in DeKalb County. Elizabeth, Carter and Angela (baby Leslie was too young to join them) loyally attended the games to support Richard, where the crowds (and other players) weren’t friendly at all. They rarely had trouble finding a seat in the bleachers, because as soon as they showed up, all the white folks moved aside and sat elsewhere.
Elizabeth’s work in desegregating not only the Decatur school system but the city as a whole has continued over the years, with her election to the Decatur City Commission in 1984, and her election as the first African American female mayor of Decatur from 1993-1998.