VALDOSTA – Ruth Kimball Council was busy campaigning for the at-large seat on the Valdosta City Council.
She is black. Her opponents were five white businessmen.
The year was 1974.
A school teacher, she challenged the status quo of the City Council. White or black, Council said she felt she had broad support in the election.
Except for one white man who would later think otherwise.
“When I was running for the City Council – it was a white fellow – he said, 'I’m not voting for no (N-word).' I just looked up at him,” Council recalled reflecting on her days on the campaign trail.
“You have to do a lot to hurt me; and I said to him, well, sir, I’m so sorry you feel that way, and I said, you might change your mind one day. I went on about my business, and he did, too.”
The man returned to her later in the day, apologizing for his words and promised to vote for her.
“You know who you are, and you don’t let people program you,” she said. “You don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are by your action.”
And she did.
Ruth Council became the first black person to sit on the Valdosta City Council.
She served a two-year term, was reelected in 1976 for four years and became mayor pro-tem in 1980.
“It’s a hard job but it’s worthwhile,” she said.
Her win was historic for Valdosta and Lowndes County, but the story reverberates across the state and the nation.
This SunLight Project focuses on men and women who have similar stories and looks at race relations through the years in the Tifton, Moultrie, Dalton, Thomasville and Valdosta areas.
Luke Strong III stands on the shoulders of five generations who have lived in Colquitt County.
Strong, owner of Luke Strong and Son Mortuary, is a sixth-generation business owner.
His family relocated to the City of Moultrie from Covington and was the driving force behind several of the city’s businesses.
“My family was one of the first African American families to come to this area years ago,” Strong said. “We were also one of the first African American families to start a business here in our area through funeral homes.”
The family owned a large farm on the Colquitt County’s Tallokas side and has also operated funeral homes, stores, construction companies and rental properties.
Similar to Ruth Council, Strong’s father made a mark in local government.
His dad, Luke Strong Jr., became the first African American to serve on the Colquitt County Board of Commissioners in 1986.
Strong said his father was the “longest serving commissioner in the State of Georgia at his time of death” before his passing Sept. 24, 2017.
Prior to the 1980s, stretching from the '60s, a community called Rat Row sat in Moultrie.
“This was a portion of our community that was filled with a lot of crime, but it was also filled with a lot of businesses: dry cleaners, different clubs, things like that,” Strong said.
Black-owned businesses in Colquitt County have been in decline since the '80s, in his opinion; however, companies such as barber shops, funeral homes and construction remain stable.
“The culture here is pretty good. We have a very strong African American community here,” Strong said. “We have some black businesses; of course, we’d always love to see more African American businesses here.”
Community investments from the black community have been minimal, he said. He urges Moultrie residents to give back to the area.
He attributes the small investments to people not supporting black-owned businesses.
“Some of the (black-owned) businesses that we have had in the community did not fare so well because of (the) lack of support from the community,” Strong said.
“The other thing is financing; it takes money to build a successful business, and I think lack of finances here has been one of the issues, as well.”
He asserts education and having knowledge concerning business operations “fall by the wayside” due to no funding.
Vision of a King
While Strong says Moultrie lacks black entrepreneurs, one man says the City of Dalton needs more African American influences.
Dr. Jeff White, a pediatrician and community leader, said he believes the impact of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. remains relevant for the future of civil rights and relations between the races.
“(King) never asked of anyone what he wasn't willing to do himself, and those are the leaders we need,” White said, “but I'm not seeing those leaders today.”
Michael Kelley is the president of the Whitfield County National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Regarding civil rights and race relations, Kelley said Americans often focus more on how much still needs to be done and do not realize just how how much progress the country has made.
“I think sometimes people forget what (King) had to overcome,” he said. “He was threatened. He had his house bombed.”
In a speech the day before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn., in 1968, King said: “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
Kelley said King’s vision and faith sustained him and allowed him to focus on the long term and not get overly discouraged by short-term setbacks.
“The Bible tells us that where there is no vision, the people perish,” Kelley said. “King had a vision, and it’s one that is still important.”
In White’s opinion, a person cannot move forward without dealing with the reality of today’s events and those from the past.
If that happens, "we can conquer anything,” he said.
Thoughts of the Past
Nate Tyler, a 65-year-old native of Pavo, said he "caught remnants of the civil rights movement."
He recalled a Pavo physician's office having separate waiting rooms for black and white patients.
"Same doctor, but the waiting rooms were separated," he said.
Tyler attended school in Coolidge for eight years and had been at Magnolia School in Thomasville for one year when integration hit. He attended 10th, 11th and 12th grades at the integrated Central High School.
"It was a tumultuous time," Tyler said.
Decisions had to be made about a school mascot and school colors.
"As always, cooler heads prevailed," Tyler said.
Black students were not allowed to be quarterbacks at the school. A black quarterback was later named following Coach Will Roy Cooley’s entrance into the arena.
Central's next season was 10-0. Tyler played tight end that season.
A 41-year City of Thomasville employee, Tyler served 20 years with Thomasville Police Department. He retired in 2019 as solid waste/public works director.
He also served four years in the U.S. Marine Corps and in the Army National Guard.
Terry Scott, a Thomasville native and retired Army National Guard full-timer, returned to the city after being away for 33 years.
Scott's Army National Guard unit was activated to assist in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. His job was to escort athletes to a medical tent to be tested for drugs.
His unit was activated in 1994 to the Albany flood and to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and did two tours in Iraq.
Witnessing segregation during his transition from elementary to middle school, Scott said he has noticed some changes since returning home.
He has seen redevelopment of The Bottom from a primarily black area of Downtown Thomasville to a creative district that recently underwent a multimillion streetscape and design project.
He has seen Martin Luther King Drive, formerly known as Straw Road, and streets in Fletcherville resurfaced.
Scott recalled working for Ben Hatcher at Hatcher's Funeral Home making $10 a week washing cars, vacuuming floors, washing windows and cleaning bathrooms.
A former Thomasville City Council member and mayor pro-tem, Scott said he came back to his hometown to make a difference.
He is now a minister at a Thomaville church.
"You don't need money to make a difference, just time and effort, a vision from God, and He will make provisions for you," he said.
Residents of the black sections of Thomasville now walk on sidewalks, not dirt streets, Scott said.
"We still have some building to do in race relations," he said. "We need more interaction together.”
Tyler said race relations will improve with open, frank conversations.
"The color of skin is just window dressing," he said.
Sacrifice and Segregation
Three black students helped end segregation in Tifton.
Tift County High School was integrated by Nita Ruth Ingram Ludden, Sammy Lee Russell and Janet Roberts in 1965. Roberts has since passed away.
The integration came after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which allowed students to choose where they wanted to attend school.
The three students changed from the all-black Matt Wilson High School to Tift County High School.
“At that time, Wilson wasn’t accredited and we wanted to graduate from an accredited school,” Ludden said. “We did struggle with it. Your senior year is supposed to be your best. We waited until the very last day" to register.
When they arrived at the superintendent’s office to fill out their form to change schools, they were warned the decision was a permanent one. If they didn’t like Tift County High, they would be stuck there for the year.
Ludden said she believes this was an incentive not to register.
In taking this step, she had the support of her parents and siblings.
“Of course, our parents were worried,” she said. “But they chose to support us.”
Russell said his parents were accepting of his decision, though they did not learn of it until after he’d already registered.
His influence to join school integration came when he watched King in Albany.
The time had come for Tifton to consolidate schools, he said.
The three students faced harassment at Tift County.
There were no buses set up to bring the three of them to school, so on the first day, Russell’s father dropped him off.
“I know when I walked in that first day, there was a wall of white students blocking my way going in,” he said. “The assistant principal had to come out and break that up.”
Ludden said the time between changing classes was the group’s largest problem.
“You might even get hit, but you couldn’t tell who did it,” she said. “We got spat on, called the N-word, told ‘you need to go back to where you’re supposed to be.’”
Russell had his own experience with the class changes.
One day, he walked into a bathroom to find a group of white students waiting.
“I had to get up out of there because I knew I was going to take a good butt whooping in there,” he said.
He later worked it out with a teacher so he would be allowed to go to the bathroom after class had started and the hallways had cleared out.
The harassment wasn’t limited to the school day.
One afternoon, a school bus passed Russell. A student leaned out and flipped him off. Russell responded in kind, he said.
The next day, the same guy grabbed him in the hallways and spun him around.
“His intention was to kick the daylights out of me,” Russell said. “I just backed into a corner and waited for him to come on in there.”
Another student saw what was happening and ran for an administrator, who broke it up.
Another memory comes to mind for Russell.
“I heard a car that sounded like it was awful close to me,” he said. “When I happened to turn around and look, I had to jump into the ditch to keep from getting hit.”
Russell, along with Ludden, reported the incident to the sheriff’s office.
A third event involved a father showing up at Russell’s house with his child.
“He was saying his kid wasn’t like that,” Russell said. “My dad came out on the porch with his rifle, just in case there was some stuff going down.”
Ludden said it took place near 2nd Street, the site of a swimming pool today.
The students were crossing 2nd Street.
“Just as we got to 2nd Street, a car full of young men was passing by and one of them in the back seat hit me in the back with a belt buckle,” Ludden said.
She got the license plate and, along with Russell who was with her, reported it to the sheriff’s office, along with their addresses, she said.
“Later that night, we had this guy’s father to come to our house,” she said. “But I had a very strong mother, very strong. She told them if they didn’t get their ’so on and so on and so on’ away from her house, what was going to happen.”
None of this caused Ludden to waver. Instead, she remained confident.
“I had no other place to go if I was going to graduate,” she said. “That was at the beginning of the year. I think all of that was just to try to get us to leave.”
Afterward, Ludden said, things calmed down. She spent most of her time at Tift County High without any problems.
There were small kindnesses, too.
A young lady would always smile and speak to Russell every day.
“That was my saving grace, if you want to call it that,” he said. “I could always count on her speaking and smiling when we passed each other in the hallway. It was never a conversation, but it was always a smile and a hello.”
On graduation day, Ludden remembers being uncertain if she and the other two students would be allowed to walk across the stage and get their diplomas.
But they graduated with the rest of their class.
The next year, Russell’s siblings attended Tift County High; and a year later, more black students enrolled.
Ludden followed a career in community and religious organizations. Today, she works with the Tift County Division of Family and Children Services.
Russell, after a stint in the Navy and a decades-long business career that took him from one side of the country to the other, retired in 2008 only to join the Peace Corps.
Today, he lives around Atlanta. When asked what he does, he said he’s “roaming the world.”
When Ludden looks back at her high school years, she’s amazed at their courage.
“I wonder how was I that brave. It’s a bittersweet feeling I carry, even today. I’m so proud to be one of those trailblazers, but I think, if something had happened, I wouldn’t have my children or my beautiful grandchildren,” Ludden said.
“It seemed like in 53 years, we’d be completely over this mess, but we’re not. Sometimes I think we went and suffered for nothing because of the things that still go on in our schools today.”
She said it was all worth it 90% of the time.
Six years passed before there was a total integration. Ludden said she and the others attended the school by choice.
“I’m just glad we were there to be there,” she said.
Ludden said she feels the local stories have been lost as time passed and current students have no knowledge of them.
The stories are not being told, she said.
“It’s an education thing,” Ludden said. “Kids can’t learn what they haven’t been taught.”
She said any lessons about black history are offered in February annually, leaving the rest of the months void of this particular education.
“However, I must say that overall the sacrifices that we made afforded my children, grandchildren and the school children of today to have the right to the same quality of education regardless of their skin color,” Ludden said.
Russell said he feels the history of integration, especially the local history, has been lost on the current high school generation.
“The students at Tift County High today probably don’t even know what went down at that time. What I have found, and this obviously isn’t all young black students — what we did was minor in trying to get them where they are today,” he said.
“To go to school where you want to go to school, to go to the restaurant you want to go to — I don’t think they truly appreciate what blacks from the past have done. Some even gave up their lives (so) people could have these opportunities.”
Being educators, the Councils encountered the inner workings of the school system.
The couple attended Valdosta city schools prior to integration; however, the two landed in separate systems after becoming teachers. George Ralph Council was a coach and athletic director in the Lowndes County School System while his wife, Ruth Kimball Council, taught for Valdosta City Schools.
“One of the success stories behind her, before integration, she had people coming and she was teaching white children (after school),” Ralph Council said of his wife. “The superintendent had recommended her to parents if they wanted to learn.”
Ruth Council completed her education career at W.G. Nunn Elementary School, a school that was considerably located in a “white community” at the time. Like when she taught in African American schools, she received Teacher of the Year at W.G. Nunn, she said.
Integration had occurred and Ralph Council made his way from teaching to becoming a part of the administrative staff as assistant principal. He gained respect from the white population within the Lowndes system when a school principal was elected to superintendent.
Ralph Council was asked by the newly elected superintendent to move from teaching to board administration. With the support of board members, he went from assistant principal to assistant superintendent. During the transition, he was the Lowndes High principal temporarily for 97 days.
Leading a predominantly white school, Ralph Council said he felt no fear. “That didn’t bother me,” he said. “They felt that I would keep things straight, which I did. … I didn’t have any problem with it that I couldn’t handle.”
Neither did his wife.
Ruth Council ran for the Valdosta City Council in a time when the area was divided by skin color. “You stay your way and we’ll stay our way,” she said of residents’ thoughts at the time. “You live in your community and I’ll live in my community. You just stayed in your race. You knew what was the practice.”
Though she was anxious during her campaign, she desired change and strived to be the one to make a difference with the backing of varied communities.
She tackled the use of outdoor toilets and substandard housing.
“I said I want to be a part of a group that can handle these things. That’s what I did,” Ruth Council said. “I offered myself, and the people said to me that ‘we’ll help you Ruth, go on, we want you there,’ and I listened to them and they did help me financially and verbally.”
With past successes, opposition did not bother her, she said.
“More importantly, I am reasonably at peace with myself, so I’m not afraid to approach things,” she said. “I just (knew) that I (had) that feeling that maybe I can do it, and I felt pretty good about myself.”
The road across from her home is named for her. Ruth K. Council Drive, the street sign reads. Her accomplishments include being inducted into the Valdosta State University Education Hall of Fame.
Alongside her husband, she formed the Valdosta-Lowndes County Martin Luther King Jr. Commemoration Committee. Ruth Council established the committee during her reflections of King and his contributions. She said she wished to do something “monumental.”
Charter members were Valdosta City Councilman Joseph “Sonny” Vickers, Henry Everson, Willie Houseal, Bunnis Williams, Mildred Hunter, Evelyn Hargett, Emily Hudson, Willie Rayford, Herbert Williams, Otis Lane, J.C. Riley, LaRonnia Williams and Clifton Young.
“It has grown, but it’s also stable because we have so many members that are still members,” Ruth Council said. “There are people who have indicated interest in being a part of the committee, and so, they have joined.”
Annually in January, the group sponsors assorted remembrance events for King including a banquet, youth program and Sunday service. Vickers is now the chairperson of the organization. “One of our goals was to get the city and the county and the school boards to declare the third Monday as a holiday, and we were successful in doing that with the city in ’85, and about ’86 and ’87, then the school boards did it and the county,” he said. “All of it didn’t happen overnight, but the City of Valdosta did set the standard. I put much work into negotiations.”
His support of the committee lies in his views of King. “I think Dr. King is one of the greatest Americans,” Vickers said. “… He made America look in the mirror at itself, and he was a great inspiration and he gave his life for what he believed in. I think that’s a big part of our history that we need to celebrate.”
Ruth Council has her own words for today’s youth.
“I say to young people, offer yourself. People will help you. You’re not going to go into anything knowing everything but just offer yourself and accept help, and you’ll be surprised at what you can do. That’s in most things,” she said.
“I just feel rewarded that I was given the opportunity to serve because that’s the rent you have to pay for living, so I just feel satisfied that I was doing that and that I was able to represent Dr. King in Valdosta, and his findings in Valdosta, and I will continue to keep that dream alive.”
In addition to Amanda M. Usher, SunLight Project reporters Savannah Donald, Eve Copeland-Brechbiel, Charles Oliver and Patti Dozier contributed to this report.