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.

On Friday afternoon, March 4, 1960, Stearns and a dozen other well-dressed students gathered at the flagpole fronting the TSU administration building and walked down Wheeler Avenue to Weingarten's, uncertain of what might happen next. During the walk to the store they were joined by four other students; most of the people they encountered, however, threw their leaflets back at them. As soon as they arrived at Weingarten's, Stearns rushed to a pay phone and called both the newspapers and the police to inform them what was happening. Within 15 minutes, the white customers had left, the students were sitting down and the management had put a Closed sign on the lunch counter. A crowd gathered outside to watch. The students stayed at the counter until the store closed at 8:30 p.m.

The stories that went out across the nation that evening noted that the sit-in movement had arrived in Houston. The first demonstration had been notable for its lack of violence, but the following day that threatened to change. Two carloads of white toughs drove in from Galveston to express their displeasure with the idea of integration. When they arrived, they found Stearns and the other students sitting calmly at the second of their targets, a Mading's Drug Store. But at the moment violence might have erupted, a Houston police officer came into the store accompanied by press photographers with flashbulbs popping.

The following Monday saw the most violent incident in the history of Houston's integration movement. Two masked white men kidnapped a 27-year-old black man named Felton Turner, took him to a field, beat him and carved the initials KKK into his belly twice. The incident provoked outrage, and Stearns, seeing an opportunity, quickly presented Turner with an award on behalf of the student protest movement.

In the iconography of the civil rights movement, images of violence abound: police dogs snapping at children, demonstrators being clubbed, officials standing in doorways with arms folded. Houston police chief Carl Shruptine had police dogs and riot squads, all right, but he kept them out of sight, and during the early, tumultuous years of the 1960s, he never used them on demonstrators. The students, for their part, let the police know about their demonstrations, and when they were arrested -- as eventually some were -- they went peacefully. As he dug into the history of how Houston was integrated, Thomas Cole found that the city's story was one in which demonstrations provoked compromise and negotiation rather than violence and confrontation. And that at the center of much of the negotiation was Eldrewey Stearns.

Throughout 1960 and 1961, Stearns devoted himself completely to the protest movement. Though no copies or recordings of his speeches remain, the student protesters and reporters Cole interviewed recalled Stearns as a charismatic speaker who could mesmerize crowds. Though right-wing activists howled about Communist influences and outside agitators, the truth of the matter, Cole found, was that local middle-class black leaders, many of them people who would never have dreamed of carrying a picket sign themselves, were nurturing and funding the student protest movement.

Soon after his first sit-in, Stearns dropped out of law school and formed the Progressive Youth Association to carry on the protests. In a period of weeks, the PYA could point to the integration of the Houston Public Library, the city's buses and Jeppesen Stadium as quiet victories. To meet another of the protesters' demands, a Weingarten's in the Fifth Ward promoted two black employees from stockers to cashiers. By June, only three months after he'd begun, Stearns and his protesters were marching on downtown department stores, demanding not just the integration of lunch counters, but better jobs for black citizens.

In April, mayor Lewis Cutrer had formed a 41-member Citizens' Relations Committee to deal with the demands for integration, but it accomplished little, and by summer it was disbanded. A far more effective response to the protesters was instituted by a Foley's department store executive and political fixer named Bob Dundas. As a teenager, Dundas had seen the aftermath of Houston's 1917 Camp Logan riot, in which black soldiers and white civilians were killed. Dundas had gone to the morgue and viewed the bodies himself, and he didn't want to see anything like that again. When Cole interviewed Dundas he was in his nineties, but he could still remember clearly how he had helped broker an arrangement to integrate all of Houston's lunch counters in one fell swoop. And he could tell Cole a surprising, little-known nugget of Houston's civil rights history.

Critical to the integration plan was keeping it quiet, at least until it was a done deal, too far gone to attract violent protests from whites. That meant a local news blackout. In what today seems like a startling arrangement, Dundas won the cooperation of John T. Jones, then president of the Houston Endowment and publisher of the Houston Chronicle, and Oveta Culp Hobby, publisher and editor in chief of the Houston Post. They agreed to run no stories on the lunch counter integration for ten days. George Carmack, editor of the old Houston Press, was reluctant to go along with the plan until Dundas threatened to pull all Foley's advertising from his paper; Carmack then saw things Dundas's way. Even Dan Rather, who was climbing in the ranks of Channel 11, agreed to turn a blind eye to the news, as did Channel 2, which was owned by the Houston Post. When Foley's lunch counter was integrated, Dundas was on hand with guards to personally see that the students were served and that there was no violence. Any Houstonians who knew what had happened learned of it through talk on the street, or else from Time or wire stories in outside papers.

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