Lost in the Cause

In the early 1960s, Eldrewey Stearns was a powerful force for integration in a segregated society. Then he forgot his way, and history forgot him. Until, that is, he met writer Thomas R. Cole.

After insisting that he had ordered the racial integration of the very restaurant in which he was now eating lunch, Eldrewey Stearns looked imperiously around his table at the Spanish Village and began spooning hot sauce directly into his mouth. He also began explaining all that is wrong with his soon-to-be-published biography, an advance copy of which sat before him. A short, narrow-shouldered man of 65, Stearns wore green slacks, black patent leather shoes and a purple sweatshirt drawn tightly over his compact dome of a belly. But he had the confident air of a celebrity; he had been using an advance copy of his story, No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston, effectively.

"I showed this book to a white boy," Stearns said, indicating the volume, "and he said, 'Goddamn, I been thinking you were the biggest bullshitter in the world.' "

Stearns's biography was written by Thomas R. Cole, the lanky, bearded historian who sat next to him. Cole, who befriended Stearns in 1984 when Stearns was deep in manic depression in the psychiatric ward of the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, had heard most of the criticisms before. A teacher of humanities and medical ethics at UTMB, Cole spent 12 years with Stearns, interviewing both him and those who, with him, had led the early '60s sit-in movement that resulted in the integration of Houston. The day before his lunch with Stearns, Cole had delivered a copy of the book to Stearns's 90-year-old mother, who had nurtured her son through some of his worst periods of alcoholism and craziness. She had wept.

Until Cole came along, no one had really bothered with the story of how Houston came to integrate without the violence that plagued many other Southern cities. Now Cole has done it, and put at its center a man who, because of his mental instability, likely would have been dropped from the story had others told it.

Cole had hoped that helping Stearns relive his past might even cure him -- a fantasy, he now admits, almost as grandiose as those entertained by Eldrewey Stearns himself. In the course of his research, Cole learned much about Houston that had been hidden or underplayed in the city's officially sanctioned history; he also learned that his hope that Stearns would prove to be a selfless hero driven only by noble motives and grand aspirations for his race was naively unrealistic. Not that it mattered, since what he did find was something far more interesting: a brilliant, flawed, passionate, eloquent and grandiloquent man whose political hero was Richard Nixon and who doesn't think of himself as African-American but as a hybrid of African, Irish and Jewish ancestors -- "simply an American, whatever that is." Stearns's story is not just about ideas and issues and leadership; it's also about sex, alcoholism, madness, friendship and family. It's even about Thomas Cole's struggle to understand his own ambiguous motives in writing it.

If it weren't for Stearns's illness, his story would have been very different, and possibly not nearly as interesting. Eldrewey Stearns might have ridden the wave of integration and become prominent, someone like his fellow student leader Curtis Graves, who became a state representative, or Otis King, who was Stearns's roommate when they were both law students at Texas Southern University and who became Houston's first black city attorney. Mention of those men doesn't sit well with Stearns; Cole paid too much attention to such people in his book, he says, and he wasn't nearly hard enough on Barbara Jordan, who called him a moocher after he had helped her. Even Stearns's own supporters grew exasperated with him, accusing him of "pimping" the movement for his own profit. Such criticisms still sting.

"Look," says Stearns, "I wasn't looking for money, fame was my compensation."

Cole's failure, as Stearns sees it, was not to understand just how famous he really is. Cole underplayed important people when writing the book, Stearns complains, people such as Richard Nixon and George Bush. True, Cole does mention that Stearns gained a little notice in 1970 by publicly objecting to a huge diamond that Richard Burton gave Liz Taylor, a diamond mined in South Africa under the oppression of apartheid. But, says Stearns, Cole still doesn't understand how much he has in common with Taylor and why she should be central to his story.

"We were stars all our lives," he says. "I identify with her. We were both child stars."

And Eldrewey Stearns sees his star rising again. He hopes to be giving speeches soon, and he expects to be paid for interviews. For the one at the Spanish Village, he settled on a price of $40. Cole, who had secured financial help for Stearns while researching his biography, had warned that talk of money should be expected.

With the book scheduled for a mid-June release, Stearns said he was figuring out a way to get on Oprah. Cole was skeptical. He suggested that the best thing for Stearns to do would be to lay low and not get too excited.

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