How Blair Butterworth (Ghana 1962-64) Integrated Atlanta, Georgia

There were three PCVs who began their Peace Corps experience as employees of the agency in Washington, D.C., in early 1961 working at the original HQ the Maiatico Building across the street from Lafayette Square Park, and within sight of the White House. Two of them were Alan and Judith Guskin (Thailand 1961-64) who had on the night of October 14, 1960, created the ground surge for the Peace Corps on college campuses, first in Michigan, and then across the Mid West and the rest of America. Later they would go to Thailand as PCVs.

The other person was Blair Butterworth. I am not sure how Blair arrived at the Peace Corps, or why, but he did arrive, a recent graduate of Princeton, and moved into Georgetown with another buddy, and started working as staff for the Peace Corps before going to Ghana as a PCV.

Last year, at the 50thanniversary of the agency, I help organize a breakfast at the Mayflower Hotel for all the Mad Men and Women who had created the agency in the winter of 1961. I asked Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford to be co-speaker, and former Peace Corps Director, Mark Gearan was the MC at the morning breakfast on Saturday of the weekend

In the course of the morning, in the midst of Q&A about “how the Peace Corps began” Bill Moyers asked his friend, Blair Butterworth, to tell his story of the first Peace Corps Recruitment trip.

Blair who lives in Settle, Washington and has made a long and successful career as a political consultant in Seattle, Washington. Stood up and told and amazing story that I for one had never heard before. (And believe me; I have heard a lot of Peace Corps stories.)

Here is what Blair had to say on that Saturday on the 50th anniversary of the agency. If nothing else, it proves we have as a nation come a long way.

Blair Butterworth (Ghana 1962-64)butterworth__fit_250x250

In the fall of ’61, as a prelude to directly recruiting on college campuses, Shriver wanted to introduce the Peace Corps to the country in a series of well-publicized two-day regional conferences. Attendees were those who had contact with potential volunteers, such as college counselors, youth group and community leaders, YMCA’s and YWCA’s, church leaders of all denominations, 4-H, and similar groups who networked with youth. There were 13 conferences scheduled. 

Two of us, Tom and myself,  split up the conferences. Out task was to help organize and advance them. For about six weeks I was on the road without being able to catch my breath. It was incredible the amount of work. Shriver, Moyers and other top staff went to almost every one, so there was a lot of pressure. We developed a standard agenda starting with a description of the Peace Corps itself, what the Peace Corps wanted, what sort of volunteers we were looking for, what could they expect overseas, what countries had asked for volunteers.

Needless to say, a lot of the developing countries had figured out that Shriver was indeed the President’s brother-in-law, so why shouldn’t they ask for volunteers and please the new President.

There were automatically dozens and dozens of requests from all kinds of countries to have Peace Corps volunteers, and it was up to the Peace Corps to see if they were serious requests, and whether we had the volunteers to go. Initially most of the volunteers we sent were BA liberals who had just or recently graduated from college. There were some specialists – engineers, agricultural specialists etc – but mostly it was just kids like me, right out of schools who were willing to get trained and then dive in and go to work.

There was one of my 7 conferences that I’ll always remember, Atlanta. I had just finished advancing the conference in Oklahoma City, and was getting on an airplane to go to Portland, Oregon, when I was paged at the Oklahoma City Airport. I was actually going up the ramp to get on the plane when I heard the page. The airline said I had about 10 minutes, so I ran back and took the call, and they said, “You’re going to Atlanta.”

I tried but was unable to get my bag off the plane, but I arranged for it to be sent to Atlanta. They told me that Tom, who was handling the other conferences, had gone to Atlanta and found out the Sheraton hotel that we’d book would not allow an integrated event; there was a big mess, and some of the local Atlanta black leaders we’d invited were all upset. Moyers called me and said that I had to straighten it out. (For some reason because my Dad was from New Orleans they thought I would be able to find a solution!)

So Tom took Portland and I arrived in Atlanta and went directly to the Sheraton. I met with the manager, and he said there was no way they are were going to have an integrated conference at the hotel. When the Peace Corps had booked the hotel, no one had explained to him that this was going to be integrated. (We had booked all 13 conferences through the Sheraton system, which I think was headquartered in Boston. I guess they didn’t know the rules of the old south!)

I told the manager, “Well, I’m in a real predicament, and for the Peace Corps this is going to be extremely embarrassing, and unless we find a place it will be very embarrassing for you as well, because frankly we’re going to lay the whole blame on you. The Sheraton chain accepted our business. In fact I can see this event leading to some national boycott of all government and other conferences in all Sheraton hotels. It could be one hell of a mess and you don’t know Sarge Shriver if you think he will back down”

At that point the manager volunteered that the city had a public facility we might use and he would help facilitate our booking it, even in short notice. And if that worked they would cater the event and find hotel rooms for all the black invitees, give the others rooms at the Sheraton at half price and would do it all for a minimum fee as long as we could work together for a solution.

Coincidently, when I was at Princeton one of my friends was Ivan Allen, whose father had been Mayor of Atlanta. So I called Ivan and said, “I’m in deep doo-doo here, and I need to get to the Mayor.” Ivan responded, “Oh, the Mayor is a big buddy of my dad’s. Let me set something up for you.”

In half an hour I got a call back, saying the Mayor could see me at such-and-such time. I went to meet with him and told him what the dilemma was. The city did have this sort of armory, where they did have public meetings. He said that they had not had any large integrated meetings there, but it was time. And it was a public place. I assume that integrated conferences in those days just didn’t happen in the South. It wasn’t a question of where you met; it was a question of it being someplace other than the South. This was 1961; the Civil Rights Act hadn’t passed. None of those laws were in place.

So I made the arrangement to switch the conference location, and we got notices out to all of the people who were coming. I got the Sheraton to pay for corresponding with all the people who’d made room reservations and all this kind of stuff. Again, this was the Peace Corps, which had captured everyone’s imagination, and it was the brother-in-law of the President of the United States. Everybody knew that the time had come. We were not going to be segregated for the rest of America’s life. It was just a question of how it was going to change. Needless to say, I was sweating bullets, because we had people at the Sheraton who didn’t get the notices and people going here and there. I rented a bus that would take people to the conference space. Interestingly enough, the African Americans who were coming to the conference, all of them had made arrangements to spend the night at places other than the Sheraton. This would never have occurred to me.

Because it had been so traumatic, instead of going on to advance the next conference, I decided to stay just to be sure that everything went well. It was really quite extraordinary. The first day of the conference, Bill Moyers spoke, giving an introduction to the Peace Corps. There was a good turnout, maybe 30 tables of 10 or 15 people each. After introducing the other staff and welcoming everybody, something instinctive switched on in Bill’s head and he asked, “Would everyone from Alabama please stand up?” And about twenty-some people stood, and they were all sitting together at 2 tables. Blacks and whites all sitting together. Then he said, “Would everybody from Georgia stand?” And they too were all together at the same tables. All the people from each state had integrated themselves. It’s hard now, so many years later, to understand it, but as Moyers went down the list and people stood up at the same tables, applause broke out and got louder and louder. There were even people crying. When Bill got to Mississippi, and all of the Mississippi people were sitting together, Moyers choked up. Everyone including the black the waiters applauded, cried, laughed and shook hands. It was such an incredible emotional moment. Yes, we were cheering the New Frontier and the Peace Corps, but really we were cheering the beginning of a new era.

The conference was a huge success. The story about the Sheraton was never really written, but the Atlanta Constitution gave us a lot of press. On the last day of the conference, they wrote an editorial that talked about the need for change in Atlanta. It talked about the Peace Corps pulled off something that had not been pulled off before. It said, “It took a 23-year-old future Peace Corps volunteer from Princeton University to come to town and show us that we could have an integrated conference in this great city”

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