The First Protester

June 1997By Comments

I HAD HOUSTON IN THE PALM OF MY HAND that night. I had the whole country in the palm of my hand.” The speaker was a short but erect, even formidable black man named Eldrewey Stearns. Thirty-seven years ago he was the first civil rights leader in Texas—not the first to say there was something wrong, nor the first to attempt some protest, but the first to make a stand and gather a following, the first to seize the moments that were presented to him, the first to make anything change. Now he has a shock of gray hair and deep lines on his forehead and cheeks; but his voice, although gravelly, still has great authority. He is charismatic, almost fierce, and supremely self-confident. He is prone to exaggeration—it was not the whole country he held in his hand that night—but his bold claims are true enough. He definitely had Houston in his hand and, if he had acted differently, if he had acted only to preserve his rapidly growing power, who knows what else he might have held. But he didn’t act only for himself, the world is a better place for it, and today Eldrewey Stearns is forgotten, living alone in a single room in the South Central YMCA in Houston, across the street from Texas Southern University, the setting for his great blaze of glory so many years ago.

I met him in the company of Thomas Cole, who, although he has worked at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston for fifteen years, has his doctorate in history rather than in medicine. He first met Stearns in September 1984 and has been working to write his life story almost ever since. The tall white historian and the diminutive black activist are quite different, and there have been some hard times between them that slowed down the work. This June, at last, the University of Texas Press will publish Cole’s No Color Is My Kind: The Life of Eldrewey Stearns and the Integration of Houston. Cole is also producing a documentary film about the same events. The three of us got into Cole’s car to drive to a barbecue stand for lunch. “Drew,” Cole said, “how do you like living at the Y?”

“Oh, it’s just fine if you like clean living,” he said judiciously. “Which I don’t.”

Stearns is a manic-depressive. In 1984 his illness, combined with drinking, had brought him to wandering the streets of Galveston, his home town, and declaiming loudly and incoherently. Taken to the medical school for treatment, he was brought into a small psychiatric conference with teachers and medical students where he claimed to be the man who started civil rights in Texas. While some professors and students there took his boasts as symptoms of his disease, Thomas Cole, who was employed at the school as a historian and medical ethicist, wondered if they might be true. Yellow newspaper clippings that Stearns had managed to preserve through the years were the first confirmation of his stories and started Cole on what would turn into years of often frustrating but exciting and important research on the way Houston quietly, even secretly, integrated its stores, restaurants, lunch counters, and hotels between 1960 and 1963, before the federal integration laws passed in 1964. And it would not have happened except for Eldrewey Stearns.

In 1959 Stearns was 27 years old. He had served honorably in the Army and graduated from Michigan State University, a northern school that would admit blacks and even had some black faculty members. He had left Michigan for Houston, where he was attending law school at Texas Southern and working nights as a waiter at an exclusive private club. On August 23 two policemen stopped him for driving with defective taillights. In his wallet they found the picture of a white coed he had known at Michigan State. This incensed the policemen, who threw him in the back of their car, beat him, and put him in jail, where he was beaten again. The Wednesday after his release, he appeared before the city council and eloquently complained about his treatment. His persistence forced an investigation. It exonerated the policemen, basically saying that Stearns had gotten what he deserved because he had been “belligerent,” but it made Stearns famous among students at TSU and the professional blacks who used the South Central YMCA as a meeting place.

Soon Stearns was himself working at the Y. One evening in February 1960, as the staff was setting up tables in the gymnasium for a banquet, Stearns seized the microphone at the podium and began orating the Gettysburg Address. He asked the director, Quentin Meese, what he thought of his speaking. “Well, Drew, that’s pretty good,” Meese said, “but why don’t you quit sounding off and organize here like they’re doing in North Carolina and Georgia.” Earlier that month students in those states had begun sitting in at lunchrooms to protest segregation. The next day Stearns met with four other students to begin planning what would become the first sit-in west of the Mississippi. Afterward Stearns stuck his head into Meese’s office and said, “Mr. Meese, meet the leader of Houston’s student protest movement.”

Cole quotes a student activist from that period who said, “Nobody thought the melon was ready for plucking in Houston except Eldrewey Stearns. He just figured, ‘You gotta pluck it, you gotta do it, you gotta go.’” There was a Weingarten’s supermarket with a segregated lunch counter only a few blocks from TSU. On March 4, 1960, thirteen students Stearns had managed to recruit held hands around the flagpole at TSU, then began marching toward the Weingarten’s. There were seventeen protesters by the time they arrived. Stearns hurried to a pay phone to call the police and the media. In confusion the store closed the lunch counter rather than serve the students. That evening and the next day the local media were filled with accounts of this small but orderly demonstration.

Ecstatic over their success, Stearns and those with him held more sit-ins, and  Stearns became a figure in Houston. The mayor called him into his office and then became enraged when Stearns refused to be intimidated. As passions began to elevate, no one in the white establishment seemed to know what to do, even though a surprising number believed in the moral rightness, or at least the inevitability, of the students’ demands. No one, that is, except Bob Dundas, a vice president at Foley’s department store in charge of advertising and promotion. He had seen firsthand as a boy of thirteen the horrible slaughter during Houston’s race riot in 1917. He was haunted by worries of another. He thought the students might riot if their demands were not met and worried that whites might riot if they were. Working behind the scenes, he got an agreement that in the last week of August seventy lunch counters in stores throughout Houston would integrate. But, using the power he had over the media in those days because of Foley’s advertising—they were then by far the largest advertiser in town—he got every radio and television station and every newspaper, including one black weekly, to remain silent about the news for ten days. This total suppression of a crucial story is inconceivable today. Even then, as newspapers and magazines outside Houston reported the story, the Houston media had to sit silent, chagrined and embarrassed. It was completely the wrong thing to do by any standard except one—it worked.

For a movement that had started barely six months earlier this was a huge success, but the news blackout meant that Stearns never got any public recognition for his triumph. He continued working on protests through much of 1961. The Progressive Youth Association, a group founded by Stearns, also began pushing for better job opportunities. But Stearns’s erratic behavior and drinking, muted during the early days, became more pronounced. There were questions about his handling of the organization’s money that, even by his own admission, would not have held up to a rigorous audit. In the fall of 1961 the Progressive Youth Association forced him out, and he left Houston for San Antonio and later Mexico. But in the spring of 1963, he was back in Houston. On May 3 police officers in Birmingham, Alabama, used dogs and fire hoses against protesters, and 2,500 were arrested. This reignited the movement in Houston, and Stearns’ skillful and persuasive oratory carried him to the front once again. The targets now were movie theaters and restaurants. On May 23 astronaut Gordon Cooper, who had just returned from a solo flight into space, was to have a ticker-tape parade through downtown Houston. Stearns and his allies planned to infiltrate the crowd and, at an appointed signal, pull signs from beneath their clothes and run into the streets in front and behind the parade, bringing it to a stop. Once again Bob Dundas began to work on an agreement among theaters and restaurants. All night before the parade, TSU students worked making signs and completing plans. That morning more than one hundred protesters took their places along the parade route. But at ten-thirty Quentin Meese contacted Stearns. He said that if Stearns called off the demonstration, the theaters and restaurants would be open within thirty days.

After more than a year of exile and lack of direction, Stearns had just begun to reestablish his power. To call off the demonstration now would be to watch that power and all his respect and credibility with the protest movement deflate and disappear. But he called it off. And thirty days later, again with no mention in any Houston media, theaters and restaurants quietly integrated.

Most of the protest leaders went on to lives of distinction. Quentin Meese, for example, has a large hospital named after him. Stearns’s life was one of frustration and frequent purposelessness as he fought his illness and his drinking. No one would claim that Houston today is a racial utopia. But more than in any other Texas city, blacks are represented in political and business circles, and the ugly and defeating polarization by race, as there is in Dallas, has not occurred. And one of the reasons is that one morning in May 1963, Eldrewey Stearns bravely turned his back on everything he had, everything he would ever have.

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