By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published January 21, 2010
A convert to Catholicism, Carolyn Long Banks carried her faith with her during the days when she organized sit-ins as a college student during the civil rights movement and the years she served her hometown as the first black councilwoman on the Atlanta City Council.
Today the active mother and grandmother, a parishioner at St. Paul of the Cross Church, still singles out the importance of the Eucharist in her life, which she was introduced to as a student at Our Lady of Lourdes School.
She was raised in a family with notable firsts. Her aunt was the first black to integrate then Georgia State College, her brother was one of three black students to integrate Georgia Tech and her father was the first black man to sit on the Atlanta School Board.
She was also raised in a family of educators.
“At one time 37 members of my family were teachers in a public or private school,” Banks said. “It was instilled in me at birth that, without a doubt, I would at least go to school through college. It was part of my understanding and lifestyle.”
Service and giving back to the community were expected as well.
She revels in the stories told to her by older relatives and reflects on how she was “kind of sheltered” until age 13 from the racially segregated society outside.
“My mom bought clothes for us every season. She would arrange with a salesperson … to pick out clothes and we tried them on at home.”
Society’s heightening “ugly” racial friction became more evident to the maturing Banks, who singled out events during the 1960 presidential race between John F. Kennedy and then Vice President Richard Nixon as having a significant impact on her. Her father was an “Abraham Lincoln Republican” and her mother, an “adamant Democrat.”
“It led to a lot of lively discussions about various activities and political kinds of things. But the most important emphasis was always on education.”
During the earlier days her father was the principal at an elementary school and her mother was the chairperson of a high school English department. “Because of their belief that education was the foundation of life that is why they wanted to provide the best education for us.”
Her parents’ ideals translated into sending their children to Lourdes, the neighborhood’s Catholic elementary school, even though Banks’ parents were practicing Episcopalians. She entered Lourdes in the third grade, along with her sister and brother who were in second and first grades, respectively.
“I absolutely loved the Blessed Sacrament sisters,” she recalled. “They were fair and insisted upon excellence. They wanted us to be the best possible person we could be.”
There was a lot of competition in the classroom back then and class sizes were small. “They charged us with helping others … It was the most unselfish environment I have been involved in.”
The sisters’ “dedication to making things right in society” has stuck with Banks. “The way they handled themselves—I wanted to model myself after them. They had a quiet inner strength.”
Being “Daddy’s girl,” however, Banks left Lourdes in the seventh grade when her father became principal of Turner High School while her two siblings graduated from Lourdes.
The family worshipped in the Episcopal Church, but she also attended Catholic services in school.
She said she and her sister “virtually … were Catholic already in our hearts. We accepted it as our religion even before converting.”
She respected her parents’ request to wait until she became an adult. “On my 18th birthday I became Catholic.”
Banks had grown to love “the quietness, the solemnity” of Catholic liturgy and “the miracle” of the Eucharist.
“The Episcopal Church was so much like the Catholic Church but for their belief in Communion—that it’s only a symbol,” she said. “I believe it is the Body and Blood of the Lord. … A lot is rooted to that belief.”
Being involved in the black Catholic community at Lourdes gave Banks “the opportunity to mix and mingle” with youth from other Catholic churches and schools through educational programs. Catholic schools were racially segregated until 1962. “We’d have debates and do other things with the white (Catholic) schools.”
At times, Banks grew disheartened at not being invited to the homes of her white friends even after they would visit hers. “There could have been something done by the church to better race relations.”
She recalled being “overwhelmed” by the ornate design of the Cathedral of Christ the King on her first visit and also of seeing only white faces when visiting other downtown parishes. The disparity between her modest church and the separation she experienced from her white acquaintances led her to question how well lived was the teaching of loving others as oneself.
“If there was any downside to being Catholic it was people not living what was being taught,” Banks said. “The most segregated day was Sunday. It still is, but not nearly as bad as it was.”
She acknowledged, however, that with later support by Catholic laity, religious and clergy during her involvement with the civil rights movement and also the church’s endorsement of the non-violent student movement, “I found things became a whole lot better.”
Banks was inspired by and worked at times with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She served on what became known as the Committee on Appeal for Human Rights, which created “a manifesto” outlining the problems facing the black community. (“They’re in much the same areas as now—education, housing, human rights,” said Banks, who was among the veteran members reissuing the manifesto in 2000.)
In the spring of 1960, the group, based at the black colleges and universities at the Atlanta University Center, took out advertising space to publish the document in the Atlanta Constitution, Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Daily World, the first successful African-American daily newspaper founded in 1928 and run by C.A. Scott at the time.
The ad found its way into the New York Times and also served to challenge the conservative black leadership in the Atlanta community who were relying on what the youth perceived as the slower strategies of negotiation and litigation to affect change in desegregation.
Along with the manifesto, the student movement staged sit-ins at lunch counters in segregated restaurants and stores; some of these were planned in the Long family home.
“My household was one of the meeting places where we’d plan some of the activities. My parents didn’t know the details because I didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs,” Banks said.
She recalled one day when about 4,000 students marched downtown and into 41 different public places such as department stores, transportation terminals and the city halls of DeKalb and Fulton counties.
“That morning I went out in my high heels and the whole bit. My mother said to me, ‘This is going to be the day.’ She knew then what was happening.”
Banks’ destination was the Magnolia Tea Room, “the hotsy-totsy restaurant” on the second floor of Rich’s department store. She sat in along with the publisher of the Atlanta Daily World. “I was so nervous; we ate our food and left. Then I was arrested.”
By September 1961, many storeowners had desegregated their lunch counters and, in 1962, a federal court ruled in favor of a COAHR lawsuit ordering the desegregation of the city’s public pools and parks. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 made segregated public facilities illegal.
Throughout her involvement with the civil rights movement, Banks said she “wasn’t scared.”
“I brought the Catechism with me throughout that time,” she said. “I was taught the principles of … ‘do unto others as you want them to do to you.’ If there are things to correct, do so if you are able; it’s better to help solve a problem than to be part of the problem.”
Banks eventually married, started a family and years later, in 1973, became a buyer for Rich’s. Her entrance into politics was “by no means” her design. “I was going to follow in my mother’s footsteps and become a teacher.”
In 1980, though, a spot came open on the Atlanta City Council while she was in New York on business. The media was stationed outside the airport’s arrival gate on her return home. Banks soon learned that her parents had tentatively accepted their daughter’s nomination to fill the council vacancy. Her only hope for “an out” was her children, she recalled with a laugh. But when she asked them if they would want their mother gone even more her daughter replied, “You always taught us that when duty calls, you never say ‘no.’”
Her greatest satisfaction on the council, her tenure lasting from 1980 until 1997, was being “in a place where I could affect some change … where minorities and poor people lived.”
She “called upon her faith” during challenging times, particularly when she sponsored legislation to ban AK-47 assault rifles (she received police protection in response to threats and an attack on her car) and during the tumultuous period of the “Atlanta Child Murders.”
“It was scary having kids the same ages as those who went missing.”
From the summer of 1979 and ending in the spring of 1981, 26 black children and young adults (also three people in their mid- to late 20s) were murdered.
“I participated in all 26 funerals. It was very difficult,” she said.
Today one can find Banks still making plans—now, after 50 years, with her Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters. She revels in days spent watching her “grandbabies” on the basketball court, and is on her “third retirement,” this time from Lockhead where she had launched a science/math initiative for school-aged kids. She has her “little finger” back in politics, as well, having worked on Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s election.
What brings her the most pride about being Catholic is “our commitment to helping the poor and underserved—our commitment to doing good unto others.”
As she told her colleagues from other U.S. cities when she served as president in the mid-1990s of the League of Cities, “We can be leaders and we can be bystanders.”
Banks’ history tells of a woman who has chosen the former rather than the latter.