Lang, Clarence. "Between Civil Rights and Black Power in the Gateway City: the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), 1964-75." Journal of Social History. Journal of Social History. 2004. HighBeam Research. 23 May. 2013 <http://www.highbeam.com>.
Lang, Clarence. "Between Civil Rights and Black Power in the Gateway City: the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), 1964-75." Journal of Social History. 2004. HighBeam Research. (May 23, 2013). http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-115966481.html
Lang, Clarence. "Between Civil Rights and Black Power in the Gateway City: the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION), 1964-75." Journal of Social History. Journal of Social History. 2004. Retrieved May 23, 2013 from HighBeam Research: http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-115966481.html
When construction began on the federally assisted Gateway Arch project in the early 1960s, St. Louis, Missouri's civic, business and government elite viewed it as a means of revitalizing the blighted downtown riverfront area. Located near the banks of the Mississippi, this tourist attraction would be the centerpiece of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial park, symbolizing through formidable public art St. Louis's importance as the gateway city to the American west. Many local Civil Rights activists, however, saw the Arch project as indicative of continuing racial discrimination. African Americans worked as laborers at the site, but held no positions in the skilled building trades involved in the construction. During the midsummer of 1964, members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketed the Old Courthouse, which housed the downtown offices of the superintendent of the construction project. Then on July 14, one black and one white member of CORE staged a dramatic demonstration that became legend in St. Louis's Civil Rights struggle. While construction workers lunched, and protesters gathered for a press conference at the Old Courthouse, Percy Green and Richard Daly used a partially enclosed steel surface ladder to scale 125 feet up the north leg of the unfinished structure. Workmen returning to the scene found the two men perched above them, sitting on rungs of the ladder. Feet dangling, Green and Daly ignored orders by workers, National Park Service officers, and the project's assistant superintendent to disembark. A group of demonstrators, gathered at the base of the Arch leg, demanded that black workers receive at least ten percent of the jobs at the site. Four hours after making their ascent, the two Civil Rights activists climbed down the fixture to a reception of news media and police. Authorities charged them both with trespassing, peace disturbance, and resisting arrest. (1)
The incident focused attention on construction contractors, and black St. Louisans' longstanding grievances about the racially exclusive nature of the building trades in this strongly unionized city. It also forced the federal government to assay its nondiscrimination policies toward government contractors and federally assisted construction projects. The protest became part of a chain of events that led the U.S. Justice Department to file a "pattern or practice of discrimination" suit against the St. Louis AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Council, and four of its member unions. This was the first such action under Title VII of the newly implemented 1964 Civil Rights Act, which governed equal employment opportunity. (2)
The demonstration at the Arch occurred under the auspices of St. Louis CORE, but it marked the beginnings of an offshoot group--the Action Committee to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION). Active between 1964 and 1984, the organization offers entry into several tributaries of social history on the black experience. First, ACTION's history adds to revisionist treatments of the Civil Rights struggle of the 1950s and '60s that address the intersection between the movement, black labor/working-class insurgency, and the locally-oriented nature of these activities. (3) Such narratives decenter national black protest organizations and their local branches, lending greater attention to indigenous, unaffiliated groupings. This "New" Civil Rights Studies also gives greater weight to local struggles than to the initiatives of the federal government. Third, a study of ACTION further challenges portrayals of the Civil Rights struggle as elite-driven and focused on a symbolic, narrowly conceived "integration." Rather, investigating such an organization illuminates how the fight for the right to vote and enjoy public accommodations on par with white citizens was wedded to strategies for expanding employment and other economic opportunities for black people. Fourth, this work augments new historical interpretations asserting that Civil Rights and Black Power were not dichotomous political projects, as historians have claimed in the past. That is, no impenetrable line of demarcation existed between the strategies, tactics and goals often attributed separately to either "Civil Rights" or "Black Power." ACTION's membership exhibited qualities one could ascribe generically to either liberal integrationism or black nationalism. However, the organization did not fit neatly in either category. Instead, it straddled an enigmatic line between the two, serving as a visible bridge between the Civil Rights and Black Power phases of this period of African American social movement activity. (4)
This paper argues that ACTION's "inbetween" character was not at all contradictory, which calls into question continuing efforts to mythologize Civil Rights and vilify Black Power in the popular memory. But while they are not sharply discontinuous, neither are Civil Rights and Black Power collapsible historical constructs. To completely obliterate any distinguishing traits between the two effectively removes the black experience from the fluid patterns of continuity and change that undergird historical inquiry. Using ACTION as an illustration, this project contends that Civil Rights and Black Power drew adherents from similar, overlapping constituencies. Yet, Civil Rights and Black Power were identifiable phases of an evolving Black Freedom Movement. Proceeding from this conceptual grounding, this paper locates ACTION within the changing character and membership of CORE, and the contradictions of the Civil Rights struggle of the early 1960s. Second, this project discusses ACTION's own development, rank-and-file, and political agenda. This work then moves to a description of ACTION's major organizational campaigns, its interactions with crosscurrents of Black Power in St. Louis during the late 1960s, and its gradual decline. Finally, this work offers a fuller interpretation of the organization's legacies, and its overall significance within Civil Rights and Black Power scholarship.
African Americans in St. Louis
St. Louis was a unique crossroads--the "Gateway City." Historically, it had been a strategic center of riverboat commerce, and a midcontinental link between eastern centers of finance and the developing territories west of the Mississippi. On a vertical axis, the city embodied a "mutual checkmating of Northern and Southern influences." During the Civil War, St. Louis was split between pro-Union and Confederate sympathies; like Kentucky and Maryland, two other border states, missouri avoided secession. Like its midwestern neighbors to the immediate north, St. Louis became both heavily industrialized and unionized. The city similarly became a terminus for southeastern European and Lebanese immigrants, though culturally it bore the marks of its more numerous German and Irish population. A smoky, noise-ridden manufacturing center, St. Louis was neither a small town nor a big city. It may have been "commercially Yankee," but it was a southern metropolis in its racially proscriptive laws and practices, though unevenly so. Missouri law forbade interracial marriage and integrated schooling, though open seating prevailed on public conveyances. Department stores welcomed black shoppers, but their lunch counters refused them service. Separate, and fewer, public recreational facilities existed for black children in the city. Theaters, municipal swimming pools, and restaurants were also segregated, but public libraries were not. Because black St. Louisans could vote, they held political office early on, and used their strength in district elections to gain lower-level patronage jobs and services. This included the building of the first, and one of the finest, black high schools west of the Mississippi; and much later, construction of the full-service Homer G. Phillips Hospital. Yet, the franchise did not translate into equal participation at the bargaining table, where white political and business leaders still made the major decisions affecting black communities. (5)
In the realm of work, most black St. Louisans earned their livelihoods as personal servants, and as unskilled and common laborers in packing, steel, iron, glass, brick and railroad industries where unionization was weakest. A handful of black people worked in the city's declining shoe, clothing and textile industries, and toiled on the riverfront levee. Black women, additionally, found work in marginal food and rag processing industries. While employed as construction helpers, Black men were excluded from the skilled building trades, as they were from most AFL unions. Jim Crow norms also were manifest in the city's housing patterns. Following the example of citizens in Baltimore and Louisville, white voters in St. Louis passed a residential segregation ordinance in 1916. Efforts by the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, overturned the law, but realtors and homeowners' groups found private restrictive covenants adequate for achieving the spatial containment of St. Louis's swelling black population after the Great War. Although scattered in pockets across the city, most African Americans occupied the city's Central Corridor, where they crowded the northern fringes of the downtown business district and the three wards nearest the central riverfront. Mill Creek Valley, located in this area, was a maze of cheap tenements and hotels, pawnshops, churches, factory-lined streetcar tracks, and dilapidated shacks without indoor plumbing. West of the downtown-midtown area, Elleardsville, known as the "Ville," similarly became an African American enclave, and the center of black St. Louis's dense social, cultural and educational institutions. (6)
St. Louis CORE and the Postwar Black Revolt, 1948-60
During the 1930s and '40s, these conditions helped ignite black community struggles around recreational space, federal relief, better schools, and expanded employment opportunities. Unemployed Councils, the American Workers Union, the St. Louis Negro Workers Council, and the March on Washington Movement were among the organizations and citizens' committees that pursued these goals, backed by the St. Louis Argus and St. Louis American, the city's two major black newspapers. (7) ACTION was historically continuous with these periods of activity, but it had its most immediate origins in the St. Louis Committee of Racial Equality. Established in 1942, CORE was an offshoot of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a small Christian-pacifist group. Rooted in a Gandhian worldview and the spirit of interracialism, the committee sought to apply the philosophy of nonviolence directly to racial problems. Formed in 1947-48, St. Louis CORE was a bi-racial assemblage of World War II veterans, students, teachers, professors, labor lawyers, and organizers with the United Wholesale and Distribution Workers of America (later Teamsters Local 688).
The committee participated in a broad interracial campaign to desegregate St. Louis's public swimming pools in 1949-50, though its main focus was desegregating lunch counters at downtown department stores, drugstores, and dimestores. Through sit-in campaigns, members forced Woolworth's, Walgreen's, and other five-and-dimes to end lunch counter restrictions on black patrons. By 1955, even the major department stores had opened all of their eating accommodations to black St. Louisans, and desegregation of the city's midtown movie houses and theaters soon followed. A series of Supreme Court decisions, meanwhile, chiseled at the edifices of legal racism, culminating in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision. Bus boycotts in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (1953-54) and Montgomery, Alabama (1955-56) also propelled black civil rights to the forefront of the national agenda. This set the stage for an active, mass-based challenge to segregation rooted in nonviolent resistance--methods FOR and CORE had pioneered. (8)
Following a brief period of quietude, St. Louis CORE revived itself in 1957-58 around the fight against a proposed new city charter, and a campaign for improved black employment in supermarket chains, department stores and other consumer goods industries. Much of this occurred in joint action with the St. Louis NAACP's Job Opportunities Council, whose members had negotiated agreements with Kroger's and National Tea in 1957, and picketed an A & P store. The NAACP-CORE collaboration around changing existing employment policies brought numerous successess in 1958-59, while members of CORE and the NAACP's militant Youth Council continued to picket the White Castles, Howard Johnsons, and other eateries that still practiced Jim Crow. In 1960, Theodore McNeal--a former leader of the St. Louis March on Washington Movement, and chairman of the NAACP Job Opportunities Council--became Missouri's first black state senator. Pressured from below by young demonstrators, the Missouri Restaurant Owners Association also began a voluntary desegregation program. In 1961, St. Louis aldermen passed a hard-won public accommodations ordinance ending segregation in all stores, theaters, hotels, restaurants and playgrounds. Following a split with the senior NAACP branch, most Youth Council members left to join the growing ranks of St. Louis CORE. (9)
St. Louis CORE in Transition at the Height of the Civil Rights Struggle, 1961-64
The "Freedom Rides," begun in May 1961 to test the integration of interstate terminals, catapulted the organization to national prominence. In the three-year period that followed, CORE assumed a larger role in voter registration in the South. However, job discrimination in northern and border states became its central emphasis. The mass nature of these campaigns allowed CORE to enlist, for the first time, substantial numbers of working-class blacks. Circa 1960, an estimated 214,337 African Americans lived in St. Louis, many of them recently migrated from Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas and Alabama. Some 98 percent resided mainly in three locations cutting through the central city, including the area directly adjacent to the downtown business district, and midtown. With the explosion of mass direct action, many of these black St. Louisans sought to align themselves directly with protest organizations. By 1962, CORE nationally had grown from a group with predominantly white, northern, middle-class membership to one more evenly balanced between blacks and whites, workers and professionals, and northerners and southerners. Among those who joined St. Louis CORE during this period were Ivory Perry, a Korean War veteran, and Percy Green, a skilled radio and electrical mechanic at McDonnell Aircraft. At the suggestion of a white co-worker, Green began attending CORE meetings, and became a regular on a picket line at a local Kroger's grocery store. (10)
This was a scant six months before the organization began a massive 1963-64 boycott against the Jefferson Bank and Trust Company. Most African Americans deposited their money at the bank, yet the financial institution employed none in clerical work. Demonstrators mounted their protests with missionary zeal, literally putting their bodies "on the line" in front of bank entrances, teller's windows, department stores, City Hall, and even the tires of police cars. Nine high-profile demonstrators were arrested, and several more arrests followed. Regular CORE meetings skyrocketed from ten people to a staggering 300. With much of the experienced …
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