Discrimination in Athens A New era of civil rights

- Mokah Johnson, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement

Athens, the eclectic Northeast Georgia town, home to the University of Georgia and bands like R.E.M. and the B-52's, has long been considered one of the South's most progressive small towns. Yet on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2016, over 50 years after the federal Civil Rights Act was passed, Athens will vote on its own anti-discrimination ordinance. While the fight for civil rights continues across the United States-for the LGBTQ community, between police and minority communities, for women in the workplace-the city has spent the last year formulating a plan to address rising concerns about discrimination in many of its own business establishments. Follow this timeline to trace your way along the path of this anti-discrimination ordinance:

THE LEAD UP

January 9, 1961: The two first African American students enrolled at the University of Georgia.

July 2, 1964: The Civil Rights Act was enacted. It outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended unequal voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, the workplace and public accommodations, such as restaurants, hotels and movie theaters. However, it did not specifically outline rules for “bars”.

FLASH FORWARD

October 2015: A menu featuring a racist drink at the downtown Confederate-themed bar General Beauregard's surfaces. The bar temporarily closes.

An employee at an Athens print-and-copy shop posted this photo of an alleged General Beauregard's bartender menu on social media.

IS ATHENS RACIST?

November 2015: The UGA Student Government Association sends out a survey to gather student testimony about discrimination at downtown bars. It gathers hundreds of anonymous student accounts of racial and LGBTQ discrimination. Some of that testimony can be read in reports from Flagpole Magazine and The Red & Black.

This dress code notice is posted outside of the downtown Athens bar 100 Proof. There is no specific list of dress code requirements or restrictions posted.

December 2015: As a result of the SGA survey, three Athens-Clarke County commissioners write a letter to Mayor Nancy Denson and fellow commissioners urging for an anti-discrimination ordinance. They plan for a Jan. 2016 vote on the resolution.

The Human Rights Campaign releases its 2015 Municipal Equality Index, which evaluates a city's equality based on a number of criteria, including the existence of non-discrimination laws and a Human Rights Commission. Athens scored 19 out of a possible 100 points.

Athens For Everyone and other local organizations propose a plan for an Athens Civil Rights Committee, similar to commissions present in the cities of Atlanta (which scored 100/100 on the index) and Columbus, Ga.

FIRST STEPS

January 5, 2016: Mayor and Commission unanimously pass a resolution directing the Attorney and the Manager of the Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County to make "a violation of local, state or federal anti-discrimination or civil rights ordinances or laws a basis for the denial, suspension or revocation of an alcoholic beverages license."

Anti-Discrimination Resolution from the Jan. 5, 2016, Mayor and Commission meeting agenda.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Day 2016: Over 400 locals and students march downtown in protest of discrimination.

February 2016: Reports circulate of a petition to pressure commissioners to pass the anti-discrimination ordinance; activists advocate for stickers to be placed on windows of businesses that pledge not to discriminate. How long will it take to pass? "Months and months," according to Commissioner Melissa Link.

Slow Summer

June 2016: The public questions if the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance requiring bars to post dress codes and signs indicating private parties goes "far enough".

July 2016: Hundreds gather at Athens City Hall for a vigil hosted by Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and Athens for Everyone in remembrance of victims of police shootings.

Alvin Sheats, President of the Athens chapter of the NAACP, speaks at the July vigil. (Credit: Landon Trust/The Red & Black)

July 21, 2016: Mayor and Commission discuss specifics of the proposed anti-discrimination ordinance at the July commission meeting, including a maximum civil fine of $1,000 for each establishment that violates the ordinance, and the possibility of having their liquor licenses suspended or revoked.

August 16, 2016: A Sept. 6 vote date is set for the proposed ordinance at the Aug. Mayor and Commission agenda-setting meeting.

Delaying the Vote

August 2016: Wary of commissioners wanting to extend the ordinance beyond bars to include restaurants, Mayor Denson removes the ordinance from the Sept. meeting agenda. She would also be out-of-town on an economic development trip to Ireland with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.

Mansur Buffins, President of UGA NAACP

September 2016: Again uncertain about the reach the ordinance should have, Denson removes it from the Oct. meeting agenda. “I’m not sure what to do with it,” she said to Flagpole Magazine. “I haven’t decided when or if it’s coming back yet.”

Mokah Johnson, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement

Local activists focus on using extra time from the delay to broaden their anti-discrimination efforts: more time to develop their pitch for a local civil rights committee. Having the ordinance taken off the agenda “gave us more time to fight for what we wanted,” said Mokah Johnson, founder and director of Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement.

Vigil attendees at the UGA Arch on Sept. 23, 2016. (Credit: Austin Steele, info@asteelephoto.us)

September 23, 2016: Community members and activists gather at the UGA Arch for a Black Lives Matter vigil, held in honor of the victims of recent police shootings. Leaders encourage solidarity in the anti-discrimination movement.

LISTEN TO THE PEOPLE

Mokah Johnson, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement

October 4, 2016: Supporters of the anti-discrimination ordinance march from the UGA Arch to City Hall, into the monthly Mayor and Commission meeting, to demand that the ordinance be placed on the Nov. agenda for a vote. Mayor Denson agrees. A "commission-defined option" to create a local civil rights committee remains possible.

Mokah Johnson, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement

UGA Responds

October 6, 2016: At UGA's annual "Great Debate," held between the Young Democrats and College Republicans, both sides resounded support for an anti-discrimination ordinance in Athens.

October 12, 2016: While UGA President Jere Morehead, other administration and divisions have supported SGA, NAACP and other student organizations' efforts to bring attention to the issue of discrimination, UGA had not issued an official statement on the anti-discrimination ordinance until this day.

The first official statement from UGA on the anti-discrimination ordinance, sent via email from Bob Taylor, UGA's Open Records Manager.

October 13, 2016: The UGA Honors College hosts a "Policy Issues Forum" to bring students together to discuss discrimination downtown, the racial and LGBTQ climate on campus and solutions to the identity-based discrimination many students face.

Dustin Sammons, UGA student and member of the LGBTQ community

so close, yet so far

October 2015: The Human Rights Campaign releases their 2016 Municipal Equality Index. Athens improves from 19 to 21 points out of 100. The city lacks a Human Rights Commission, LGBTQ Liaison in the Mayor’s Office and LGBTQ Police Liaison or Task Force, among other things.

October 15, 2016: Commissioner Kelly Girtz writes an op-ed in the Athens Banner-Herald asking "Why does Athens need a Civil Rights Commission?"

October 20, 2016: Members of the Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement and other local supporters hosted a "Sticker Campaign" downtown, handing out stickers to retailers, bars and restaurants to place on their front doors or windows to "indicate that everyone is welcomed regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability," according to Athens For Everyone.

Wing Zone, along with many other businesses and bars in downtown Athens, agreed to place a sticker on their window as a symbol of solidarity against discrimination.

IT PASSED, KIND OF

November 1, 2016: At the monthly Mayor and Commission meeting, an anti-discrimination ordinance aimed at downtown bars was PASSED. In the same 6-2-2 vote, a proposal from four of the commissioners (Sharyn Dickerson, Andy Herod, Harry Sims and Allison Wright) was passed. The proposal laid the groundwork for the creation of committee that would link the public and local government in order to address claims of discrimination in the community. Two of the most outspoken supporters of an ordinance and formation of an Athens Civil Rights Committee, Melissa Link and Kelly Girtz, abstained from voting after Link's proposed amendment to include public input in developing a civil rights committee was rejected. Commissioners Jerry NeSmith and Jared Bailey voted against the proposal, saying it did not go far enough.

Wait, what?

November 1, 2016: A long fought for anti-discrimination ordinance amended local alcohol licensing ordinances to require local bars to post signs detailing their dress codes, provide information on private parties as well as contact information for the county attorney’s office, where complaints of alleged discriminatory practices can be filed.

Similarly, the Athens-Clarke County manager and attorney were directed to draw up a framework for a committee that can "best address claims of discrimination, whether through education, through training, through referral to other local, state, and/or federal resources, and/or through some other means.”

Mokah Johnson, Athens Anti-Discrimination Movement

WHAT'S NEXT?

June 30, 2017: Deadline for the county manager and attorney to present a final proposal for a civil rights committee to the commission for consideration.

This project was created by Reann Huber, Martha Michael and Denver Ellison as a part of the Grady Mobile News Lab, sponsored by the Cox Institute for Journalism Innovation, Management & Leadership.

Special thanks to our fearless leader and professor, Dr. Keith Herndon; our coach, Alex Sembra; and all of those who responded to countless emails, phone calls and interview requests.

Created By
Reann Huber, Martha Michael, and Denver Ellison Grady Mobile News Lab
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Reann Huber

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