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.

"I had heard every story at least three times," Cole recalls "and he still wanted to go on. I had a gradual sinking feeling. Then I realized that the facts of his life didn't square with his vision of who he was. I had to get other people into the story."

Cole called a halt to the taping and renegotiated a deal with Stearns and the University of Texas Press, which had signed on as publisher. Cole was no longer going to be Stearns's helper in creating an autobiography. Instead, he was going to write his own book, a biography of Stearns that would include more than just Stearns and his memories. Cole would expand his research to include interviews with other players in the student sit-in movement of the '60s that helped lead to the integration of Houston.

That part of Stearns's story began -- almost inevitably, it now seems -- with the issue of interracial sex. In 1959, Stearns was attending law classes at TSU and working nights as a waiter at Houston's Doctors' Club, an exclusive white social organization. Although he looked boyishly young, he was 27 and had already served in the Army and graduated with a degree in political science from Michigan State University. One August night, he was stopped by police for a traffic violation; the wallet he gave to the officers had no driver's license in it, but it did have a picture of a white girl he'd known at Michigan State. Stearns expected to be given a ticket and sent on his way, but when a cop asked who the girl was, he defiantly replied that she was his girlfriend and what did he make of that? Stearns got a rough ride to jail and a rougher time in the drunk tank, where he was beaten with billy clubs.

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The incident would probably have gone unnoticed, but Stearns showed up at the next pop-off session of City Council, neatly appointed in a suit, a bow tie, a shirt with French cuffs and facial bruises. He protested forcefully and eloquently that he had been beaten and repeatedly called a nigger; the police, of course, denied his claims and, following an internal investigation, exonerated the officers involved, saying Stearns had been injured because he was "belligerent." Nonetheless, the story made Stearns a sudden celebrity. His story made the three Houston daily papers, and he was interviewed by a young TV newsman fresh out of Sam Houston State University, Dan Rather. Stearns was beginning to taste fame.

He was also beginning to taste the results of fame. The Doctors' Club fired him, but Stearns quickly found a job at the South Central YMCA on Wheeler Avenue near the TSU campus. The Y was run by Quentin Mease, who five years earlier had persuaded the white YMCA leadership to build a decent facility for African-Americans instead of putting them in rundown rental buildings. Mease had created a black business and professional organization that met at the Y, which was one of the few places in Houston where black and white business leaders could sit down face to face to solve problems. Mease had taken a firm but quiet role in the leadership of the black community.

The times, though, were beginning to favor less silent black leaders. It had been five years since Martin Luther King Jr. had begun the Montgomery bus boycott, and three years since federal troops had been called in to guarantee the integration of Central High in Little Rock. Most important for Stearns, February 1960 saw the beginning of the sit-in movement that would soon sweep the South. Four black college students in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a whites-only lunch counter and triggered a massive change in the tactics of integration. One night that same month, while helping Mease set up an NAACP dinner, Stearns took up a microphone and tested it by reciting the Gettysburg Address. Stearns wanted to know what Mease thought of it, and the older man told him, "Well, Drew, that's pretty good, but why don't you quit sounding off and organize students here, like they're doing over in North Carolina and Georgia?"

Stearns took the admonition to heart. Four TSU undergraduates were already holding organizational meetings, and when then senator Lyndon Johnson was quoted as saying Texas "nigras" were too complacent to demonstrate, Stearns joined them. Quickly, he was head of a student protest movement determined to make Johnson look like a fool.

Things were moving rapidly. Less than a month had passed since the Greensboro sit-in when Stearns and his associates selected their first target: the lunch counter at a Weingarten's grocery store on Almeda, which was within walking distance of the TSU campus. To this day, Stearns admits he felt both terrified and called by God to lead Houston's first sit-in. Though most of the customers at Weingarten's were black, the lunch counter served only whites. The students went to the Reverend William Lawson, then a TSU chaplain employed by the Southern Baptist Convention. Lawson was horrified by their plans, and tried to talk them out of it. But Stearns wouldn't be dissuaded.

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