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.

While the blackout, and a subsequent one over the negotiated integration of Houston's movie theaters and restaurants, helped prevent violent opposition from segregationists, it also robbed the student protest movement and Eldrewey Stearns -- the forces pushing Dundas -- of recognition for what they'd done. Quentin Mease and black business leader Hobart Taylor used Stearns's ceaseless organizing and speechmaking to prod the white leadership into negotiations. But when the agreements were made, Stearns was in the background.

As Stearns's work intensified, the first symptoms of his mental illness appeared. He would work all day and drink all night, compulsively moving from one woman to the next, unable, he says now, to remember with whom he had slept. His response to a crisis was simply to stay constantly awake, a sign of a manic phase.

By 1961, cash was flowing into the PYA, and Stearns, who had quit his job at the Y, pocketed some of it for himself. His fellow students became wary and resentful, finally wresting control of the association's finances away from him. Stearns was growing progressively more irrational; when James Farmer and the Congress for Racial Equality announced they wanted to organize in Houston, Stearns went on local radio to denounce the move as a takeover of his work. Then Stearns's fiancee broke off their engagement. Feeling robbed of recognition from the news media and in despair over the breakup with his fiancee, Stearns broke down. Friends urged him to take a vacation, and he disappeared into Mexico, drinking and running up hotel bills he couldn't pay.

Rescued by friends, he returned to Houston, and ultimately regained some of his credibility. By the spring of 1963, Houston had still not desegregated its movie theaters and restaurants, so Stearns and his former roommate, Otis King, organized what would be Stearns's last hurrah, a demonstration designed to embarrass the city, garner national publicity and take one giant step toward complete integration. Houston was sponsoring a downtown parade in honor of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper, who had just returned from orbiting the Earth. A hundred students from TSU and Rice with signs hidden under their coats were prepared to scatter themselves along the route. At an appointed moment, they would jump out of the crowd, halt the parade and display their placards demanding the end of segregation. As with most demonstrations Stearns organized, this one was planned with military precision. The students were broken into groups, and the group leaders were to check in at set times to confirm that nothing had changed. When Bob Dundas and the Houston Endowment's John Jones were informed of Stearns's plan, they worked feverishly to get theater and restaurant owners to agree to integrate, with the same news blackout as before. At 10:30 a.m. on the morning of May 23, Mease called Stearns to tell him they'd won; the restaurants and theaters would be integrated in 30 days if the demonstration was called off. The final check-in for the group leaders was at 11 a.m., and when they called, Stearns told them to fold up their placards. Once again, he'd accomplished his goal. And once again, few people would ever hear about it.

Over the next month, carefully selected black leaders and students attended movies at formerly whites-only theaters and ate in formerly whites-only restaurants. The newspapers and television stations said nothing. Quietly, Houston was integrated. The next year, Lyndon Johnson presided over passage of the Civil Rights Act to outlaw racial discrimination, but not with Stearns's support.

"I was opposed to it because my rights were already in the Constitution," Stearns says now. "I was an integration leader, not a civil rights leader. Civil rights belong to everybody."

Eldrewey Stearns says that his biography should have started something like this: "Eldrewey Stearns is the first black man in Texas to rise up against white power."

"That would be a good lead," he notes. "I was trying to topple white power. But I was ill, mentally, I couldn't do it."

After graduating with mediocre grades from TSU law school in 1963, Stearns made a halfhearted attempt to practice law. Then, for 20 years he drifted through madness and alcoholism. Stearns claims he spent three years living in the women's dorm of New York's Columbia University, where he slept with a different woman every night. The story, like much of what Stearns has to say about his life from 1964 to 1984, strains credulity. In the middle of a conversation he breaks into a long, disjointed story about a fight he had with a New York bartender over a Jewish girl. The story centers on sex; these days, almost any conversation with Stearns inevitably turns to sex.

"Race," he explains, "is a sex problem. We can't be brothers if we are afraid to be brothers-in-law."

So what can we do about it? His answer is cheerfully emphatic: "We're going to fuck our way out of it."

In his book, Cole does little to smooth over Stearns's rough edges, something for which he's already been criticized. Cole discusses Stearns's boyhood sexual encounter with a farm animal, and his being forced to have oral sex with a white man at knifepoint. But, argues Cole, these elements were necessary to establish just who Stearns was -- a lonely and vulnerable boy who, because his family had no money, was shipped from his hometown of Galveston to the East Texas countryside for three years. A resentful and resourceful young man who returned to Galveston to grow up in a climate of racial segregation. A servant and chauffeur for a wealthy and alcoholic white man. Stearns seemed, in important ways, tied to white power.

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