A massive protest march against racism and police brutality through Buckhead June 7 was led by current and former students of the neighborhood’s major private schools — and appears to have kicked off a long discussion of prejudice and diversity within them.

Lovett School alumnus Harrison Rodriguez speaks to a huge crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road June 7 as part of the “BlackLives4Buckhead” event.

“The message we sent to the people of Georgia today is a powerful one,” said Harrison Rodriguez, a recent Lovett School graduate and one of three brothers involved in organizing the “Buckhead4BlackLives” march, as he spoke to at least 1,000 protesters in front of the Governor’s Mansion on West Paces Ferry Road.

The marchers fill half of West Paces Ferry Road as they head to the Governor’s Mansion.

Among the multitude of students and alumni from Lovett, Pace Academy and the Westminster Schools were many others joining or observing, including Atlanta Board of Education member Cynthia Briscoe Brown, Atlanta City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit and, according to a Sports Illustrated report, Atlanta Falcons football team coach Dan Quinn along with players and staff members. Fred Assaf, Pace’s head of school, marched with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in hand.

Fred Assaf, head of school at Pace Academy, marches in the protest with a “Black Lives Matter” sign.

But for organizers like the Rodriguez brothers — Blake, Franklin and Harrison — a driving motive was to address racism, prejudice and representation in the area’s private schools. In an interview before the march, Franklin and Harrison Rodriguez, who are of black and Puerto Rican background, said that their alma mater, Lovett, has made great strides. But, they said, it still has issues of tokenism, avoidance of black history and politics, and factors like lack of transportation that suppress diversity on the leafy campuses within the Southeast’s most exclusive neighborhood.

“They need to do a better job making black kids comfortable,” said Franklin, who graduated two years ago and now attends Louisiana State University.

Harrison Rodriguez, center with microphone, speaks to the crowd outside the Governor’s Mansion about the power of peaceful protest.

“There were less than 20 black students in my class out of 170,” said Harrison, who graduated last year.

The criticisms are hitting a nerve, at least at Lovett. Its history in the segregation era included a notorious rejection of Martin Luther King III as a student in the 1960s, an event detailed today on the school’s website and contrasted with its diversity efforts. Head of School Meredyth Cole said in a statement posted on the website ahead of the march that Lovett has more to do.

Beau Hight, 2, joined the protest along with mother Brooke Hight.

“We don’t have all the answers, but we do know that words without action do not drive meaningful change,” she wrote. “We will be broken as a community until all members feel that they are equally safe to respectfully express differences of faith, background and thought without fear of being devalued, targeted, ridiculed or suffering retribution.”

The march heads through the intersection of West Paces Ferry and Tuxedo roads.

Lovett spokesperson Lindsey Wohlfrom said that in the last academic year, the student body was 22% black or people of color.  She said the school has “longstanding and enduring connections” with many organizations that serve minority or low-income communities and that provide volunteer opportunities to students, such as LaAmistad and the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Looking ahead, the school is holding two virtual discussions about race and diversity issues this week for alumni, parents, students, faculty and staff.

Pace Academy and the Westminster Schools did not immediately respond to comment requests.

Organizer and Lovett School graduate Izzy Johnson, left, speaks with Georgia State Patrol Capt. Frank Pfirman about keeping the marchers on the sidewalk. The huge crowded ended up in the street anyway.

‘Subtle’ prejudices

The Rodriguez brothers are the sons of Frank Rodriguez, better known as Frank Ski, a prominent entrepreneur, DJ and radio personality on Atlanta’s V-103. Frank said he chose Lovett for his sons “because academically what they provide is second to none.” And they excelled in various areas, including Franklin in football, and Harrison in jazz trumpet and Mandarin Chinese. He said the school’s racial challenges revolve around limited points of view and exclusion.

Protesters pass the landmark “Castle” building at Pace Academy on West Paces Ferry Road.

“Sometimes it’s subtle things,” said Frank. He recalled Franklin’s football coach warning that there’s no excuse for missing practice, including “going to your beach house or lake house. You can imagine who he’s talking to. He’s not talking to us…. You’re talking to a certain segment and you’re alienating others.”

Cynthia Briscoe Brown, a member of the Atlanta Board of Education, speaks with protesters prior to the march.

The practice of legacy admissions weakens diversity, Frank said, as does the sheer difficulty of getting to campus at a school where most students must be driven in private cars, especially those from minority or lower-income communities. “If you think about it in the context that it took a very long time for MARTA to stop at Lenox just because of the racism… When you really want diversity, you have to work hard so that kids are able to go to [the] school,” said Frank.

Marchers fill the street.

Wohlfrom noted that last year Lovett began a pilot program of school bus service in North Buckhead and Brookhaven, which it is expanding. However, that program was presented as a solution to campus traffic that was a controversy among neighborhood residents as well. Last year Cole had an initially positive reaction to a neighborhood idea of charging outsiders tolls to use local streets, which was later criticized by some other residents as inequitable.

The crowd listens to Blake Rodriguez, a Pace Academy graduate, as he speaks outside the Governor’s Mansion.

Franklin and Harrison did not cite open bigotry as a Lovett problem. They said many individual teachers, students and administrators were welcoming and cited such organizations as Teens Against Prejudice. But they also spoke of tokenism in short-term volunteer service or one-off Black History Month events. And, they said, students were encouraged to avoid discussion — on the grounds of potential controversy — of momentous political events like the election of President Barack Obama or earlier Black Lives Matter protests.

The protest passes the construction site of Pace Academy’s new Lower School.

“That stuff was very good,” Franklin said of student volunteer opportunities in less privileged parts of town. “The issue is, that only lasts for so long in somebody’s mind who is in the Lovett bubble, [which] is what we called it.”

At least 1,000 people joined the march.

The brothers recalled some diversity-oriented events that became seen as slights. An event with Nikki Giovanni, a prominent poet of the Black Arts Movement, was held in the gym instead of the theater, with talk among students that some parents were uncomfortable with her brand of black pride. A course on “microaggressions” — subtle acts of prejudice — became the stuff of student jokes rather than of awareness-raising, said Harrison: “It was kind of looked at as a meme, almost.”

“Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,” reads one protest sign.

Protest tactics

Frank said he believes the reason the current wave of protests appears to be shaking institutions more than other recent Black Lives Matter demands is their youth-led nature. But, he said, more experienced activists can help by suggesting tactics to leverage reforms and get leaders to do more than listen with empathy.

Protesters march toward the Governor’s Mansion.

“Negotiations are never about being empathetic about what you’re giving to the other person. Negotiations are really about, how much do you have to lose if it doesn’t work?” said Frank. “How much do you have to gain, and then what do you have to lose?

Protesters gather at the West Paces Ferry shopping center.

“And I think what’s happening is, so much of America is waking up and understanding how much they’re about to lose,” he continued. “Because if the minorities in this country really, truly start to become what we say [is] woke… to what their economic power is and their ability to change, then that is how the change is going to happen.”

Organizer and Lovett School graduate Izzy Johnson directs protesters at the beginning of the event at the West Paces Ferry shopping center.

“We’re confronting this basically head-on,” said Harrison of the decision to take the concerns to the streets of Buckhead. “There’s no excuse to turn your head anymore, to turn your back anymore.”

For those young people involved, he added, school friendships that persisted through previously unspoken tensions could be on the line now. He said the question among his peers is: “When this change happens, are you going to be there or are you not going to be there?”

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.