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Frank Bates 'went from Level Hill to Capitol Hill'

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The following feature story is one that focuses on a man who rose from the tiny community of Level Hill and made it all the way to Capitol Hill in Atlanta. The story of Frank Bates, a former investigator with the Toombs Judicial Circuit District Attorney's Office in Thomson, is one of compassion and struggle by a man who sought change through civil rights. His peaceful demonstrations, along with many others in the summer of 1965 brought about significant changes in nearby Crawfordville. During the past three years, The McDuffie Mirror has saluted several men and women in our area during February -- Black History Month.)

Frank Bates' life has taken him full-circle.

He grew up doing common chores on a simple farm near the tiny town of Crawfordville during the late 1950s and early 60s. But things got a little more complicated in his teen years when he was jailed as a civil rights activist. More dramatic changes happened as an adult when he became friends with governors, presidents, political hopefuls, judges and other highly-prominent individuals across the Peach State.

"I went from Level Hill to Capitol Hill," recalled Mr. Bates during a recent in-depth interview with The McDuffie Mirror . Ironically, he currently is writing a book about his life, entitled, From Level Hill to Capitol Hill . Publishing and marketing of that book is expected later this year.

Level Hill, a small community just southeast of Crawfordville, was where Mr. Bates actually was raised as the youngest of six children to the late James Thomas "Junior" Bates and Mary Bates. The family owned more than 250 acres of farmland -- property now handed down to a third generation.

There in the Level Hill community, Mr. Bates was educated from the first through the fifth grade in a one-room school house, known back then as Level Hill Elementary School -- a school for black students. It was the same one that his parents attended before they were forced to quit school in the third and fourth grades in order to help their families through economic hardships.

"Man there's a lot of steps between Level Hill and Capitol Hill," smiled Mr. Bates, as he reminisced about his past. "A friend of mine -- Huey Theus -- an artist who worked with me at the Georgia Department of Labor before I moved to the governor's office drew a picture of that one-room school house that I treasure. It really means a lot to me, because that was where it all began -- in that little one-room school house."

Today, at the age of 62, Mr.Bates remains loyal to the community where he grew up. He has two homes -- one, the old home place and the other in Atlanta. And he's still a member of Level Hill Baptist Church.

Civil Rights Era

Mr. Bates was handcuffed and placed in jail on several occasions back in the summer of 1965. He remembers that part of his life as though it was yesterday.

The reason for the peaceful demonstrations was in protest of five black teachers not having their contracts renewed by former Taliaferro County School Superintendent Lola Williams. The white school official believed that the five teachers -- all black -- and who taught at the all-black schools in the county were registering blacks to vote instead of teaching them to read and write, recalled Mr. Bates. But that wasn't case.

Nevertheless, Ms. Williams at the time held to that belief. As a result, it actually led to one of the second biggest civil rights marches ever held in the Deep South. The only other bigger one was the one from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, which was led by the late Civil rights Leader, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It also drew the attention of such Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) officials as well as Willie Bolton, the late Hosea Williams and longtime Ga. State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, who grew up in neighboring Warren County and has served as president of the Black Elected Officials Association of Georgia for many years.

Andrew Young, former mayor of Atlanta, also participated in the cause that Mr. Bates and so many others believed in back in 1965.

One of the five local black teachers whom Mr. Bates and others supported was Calvin Turner, a member of the SCLC and who had attended several rallies where Dr. King had spoken.

"Mr. Turner helped organize our local movement," said Mr. Bates. "It was the first demonstration ever held in Crawfordville."

Mr. Turner, who taught Science, died about two years ago.

"I'll never forget what he did to help get us started," added Mr. Bates. "He was a real good teacher, too. I had a lot of respect for Mr. Turner. He was a very courageous man -- a man I always admired."

It all began on the last day of school in the summer of 1965. And as the marches continued, they later casts Crawfordville into the national spotlight, as news reporters descended there to provide coverage of the boycott of local businesses.

"All we wanted to do was bring about change," said Mr. Bates, who became the 16-year-old leader of the young people involved in the protests. "We wanted those five teachers to have their contracts renewed because they hadn't done anything wrong."

Some of the protests held in downtown Crawfordville included the boycotting of businesses.

"We were trying to get our message across the best way we could," recalled Mr. Bates. "At that time, we thought boycotting the local businesses was simply a way that our voices could be heard."

Throughout that hot summer, more and more marches were held -- those involved wanting equal rights to visit the Alexander H. Stephens State Park, which at that time blacks were prohibited from attending.

"We lived right there in Taliaferro County and could never go to that park," said Mr. Bates. "That wasn't right. We should have been allowed to go there just like anybody else."

Dr. King later came to Crawfordville and spoke at Friendship Baptist Church.

"That was a real big thing back then to draw Dr. King to our little town," said Mr. Bates, noting that he got the chance to hear, as a teenager, Dr. King's speech. "It was really historical getting a chance to see and hear Dr. King in person. I'll never forget that as a long as I live. The church was just overflowing with people."

Following Dr. King's visit, Ku Klux Klan members came to Crawfordville. And on one occasion, in an open field near town, they set a cross on fire and demanded that blacks stop boycotting businesses there.

"We didn't stop, though," said Mr. Bates.

While continuing to fight for what he believed was right, Mr. Bates later became friends with a Catholic priest by the name of Father Joseph Cooney. The priest had come to Crawfordville to organize a Voter Education Project out of Washington, D.C.

"Growing up, I had a lot of mentors," explained Mr. Bates. "Father Cooney was one of them."

Mr. Bates estimated that he was arrested at least four times -- once for lying down in front of a school bus.

"I never did anything bad to get arrested for," he said. "We never once got violent. Everything we did was peaceful."

At the time, Crawfordville had a black police chief, believed to have been the first one in Georgia history. His name was Jessie Meadows.

"He singled me out one day when I was marching," said Mr. Bates. "I wasn't doing anything wrong. He put me in handcuffs and took me before Sheriff Bo Moore."

Mr. Bates said he was merely walking in a single file on a sidewalk in town when he was arrested.

"We weren't doing anything wrong," added Mr. Bates. "We were just singing songs like, 'We shall overcome and before I'll be a slave, I'll be buried in my grave.'"

Bates meets Kenneth Goolsby

Because he had gotten arrested, Mr. Bates ended up meeting Kenneth Goolsby, a feisty prosecutor, who served as district attorney of the Toombs Judicial Circuit and who lived in Thomson.

The two men later appeared in U.S. District Court in Augusta before Federal Judge Griffin Bell.

Mr. Bates was represented by the late Jack Ruffin, who would go on to become a prominent lawyer in Augusta. He rose to become a Georgia Appeals Court judge in Atlanta.

Mr. Bell, meanwhile, who later became the U.S. Attorney General when Jimmy Carter became the president, told both Mr. Bates and Mr. Goolsby to go back to their respective homes and see if they couldn't work things out amongst themselves.

It took a long time before such ever happened. In fact, it was 12 years later. By that time, Mr. Bates had graduated from law school in Atlanta. Ironically, as he was searching for a job, he remembered Mr. Goolsby.

In 1977, after earning his law degree, Mr. Bates said he telephoned Mr. Goolsby.

The two talked and later agreed to bury the hatchet between each other.

"It took 12 long years, but Kenneth Goolsby and I finally worked it out between each other," said Mr. Bates, noting that the late prosecutor later offered him a job working as an investigator in the Child Support Recovery Unit. "I ended up working for Mr. Goolsby for six years throughout the six counties in the Toombs Circuit."

Mr. Bates said he went to law school "so I could understand what my rights were."

He and Mr.Goolsby later became good friends.

"I had a lot of respect for Mr. Goolsby," said Mr. Bates.

While working at the district attorney's office, Mr.Bates, met and became close friends of Dennis Sanders, who today serves as the district attorney.

Bates moves on

In 1982, Mr. Bates went to work for Joe Frank Harris not long after he began campaigning for governor of Georgia. It was at the urging of former McDuffie County Tax Commissioner and former State Rep. Bobby Harris.

Mr. Bates worked as an investigator in the Georgia Office of Fair Employment Practice for two years before Gov. Harris later appointed him deputy director of the Democratic Party of Georgia.

While serving in that capacity, Mr. Bates later helped to organize the 1988 Democractic National Convention, which was held at the World Congress Center in Atlanta.

He later worked for two-time Georgia Gov. Zell Miller and is currently is helping Roy Barnes in his quest to become governor again on the Democratic ticket.

Web posted on Thursday, February 25, 2010

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