"If We So Choose": Race, the Varsity and Athens' civil rights fight

Still from "If We So Choose" on Vimeo

Still from "If We So Choose" on Vimeo

Just before the Fourth of July, the preceding Thursday, if I remember, the Southern Foodways Alliance officially released a documentary called "If We So Choose" about a little-covered protest in Athens, Georgia, in the early 1960s. Civil rights activists in the city chose the iconic Varsity, its second drive-up burger-slinging location in Athens at the corner of Milledge Avenue and Broad Street, to stage an anti-segregation protest in concord with nation-wide lunch counter sit-ins. 

Still from "If We So Choose" on Vimeo.

Still from "If We So Choose" on Vimeo.

I'm not a native Athenian, so I heard nothing of this through familial stories. It wasn't until I met Nicole Taylor, an Athenian now living in Brooklyn, NY, that this history was personally illuminated. No news coverage can be found of the protest. Not until Taylor and partner Gabrielle Fulton came home to make a documentary about the subject have the various narratives about this Varsity protest story been collected. 

Like many cities in the South, the story of segregation can still cause a dust up. For many, it's still a sore subject. People living now recall it through the lens of chilldhod, or from memories handed down from parents, making the recorded stories of those featured in "If We So Choose" powerful and right on time, if not decades too late. Nevertheless, this little known civil rights battle has finally been captured for the ages. 

I had the pleasure of sitting in on a number of interviews for "If We So Choose." I loved being "backstage," in a way, listening to all these civil rights activists recall some of their fiercest moments, what it felt like to be black in Athens in 1960, and what it felt like to cause a raucous in one's own hometown - all before the camera rolled.

Here's some background from what I wrote back in February when Taylor and Fulton conducted initial interviews:

“WHAT’LL YA HAVE?” goes the decades old slogan for the Varsity drive-thru restaurant chain. A naked dog or a cheeseburger is often the answer. But in the early 1960s, African-American Athenians marched on the restaurant’s Broad Street and Milledge Avenue location demanding a seat at the table.

The Varsity opened its now current Athens location in 1963. The company’s former downtown Athens location, now the home of Five Guys Burgers and Fries, served African-Americans through a walk-up window. They weren’t allowed to step inside the restaurant as customers, according to civil rights protestors.

At the Milledge and Broad Varsity, young black Athenians worked as car hops, delivering milk shakes and fries from the Varsity kitchen to white-driven cars. But African-Americans weren’t served.

In 1964, civil rights protestors based out of Athens churches set their sights on the West Broad Varsity.

Still from "If We So Choose" on Vimeo

Still from "If We So Choose" on Vimeo

Many times between 1963 and 1964, groups of African-Americans left Ebenezer Baptist Church West on Broad Street to protest the restaurant’s policy of segregation. The largest protest was said to have taken place in the spring of 1964. The Ku Klux Klan counter-protested. Many black protestors went to jail, including a few Athenians who would go on to prominent careers in government, law and the academy.

“We saw what was happening in Greensboro (North Carolina, site of ground-breaking lunch counter sit-ins) and we thought we needed to integrate this new establishment,” said Charlie Maddox, who marched in front of the Varsity in 1964.

Here's the stream for "If We So Choose":

And what follows are video interviews filmed by my reporting colleagues with some of the same subjects featured in Taylor and Fulton's documentary: