The First Protester

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

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