This sprawling six-campus university boasts four institutions prominent in the civil rights movement: Morehouse College ("the black Harvard"), Spelman College, Atlanta University, and West Hunter Street Baptist Church. Martin Luther King, Jr., graduated from Morehouse College, and Morehouse students Lonnie King and Julian Bond organized sit-ins, boycotts, and marches throughout the city. Spelman student Ruby Doris Smith helped lead freedom rides, sit-ins, jail-ins, and voter registration drives. Civil rights leaders W.E.B. Du Bois and Whitney Young, Jr., taught and chaired departments at Atlanta University. Rev. Ralph Abernathy pastored West Hunter when he was head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Student-organized demonstrations in Atlanta began in March 1960 with 80 well-dressed students and eight well-planned, simultaneous protests. Bond's group staged a sit-in at City Hall's municipal cafeteria, in front of which hung a sign, "PUBLIC IS WELCOME." Lonnie King and 35 protestors trooped to Rich's Department Store. There they were joined by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who shortly was to experience his first night in an Atlanta jail.
Later in the Atlanta movement, student protestors launched a publicity campaign to involve black adults on the periphery--black customers with buying power at Rich's. "Close out your charge account with segregation," urged the students. "Open up your account with freedom." Virtually all the black adults in Atlanta heeded the student slogan, and Rich's felt the pinch.
In March 1961, black elders worked out a compromise with city merchants. In exchange for an immediate halt to protests, store managers agreed to integrate their lunch counters, though not until court-ordered school desegregation took effect in September.
Within the Atlanta University Center, Stone Hall (now known as Fairchild-Stone Hall), was the focal point of university activities. It is a National Historic Landmark.