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