Native Americans Take Over Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

26 Mar

By Bob Simpson
From The Montgomery Spark, November 29, 1972. page 13 & page 14

Trail of Broken Treaties Participant: 1972

Sign of distress by unidentified Trail of Broken Treaties protester. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs [BIA] by militant Native Americans in early November [1972] began almost by accident.

Leaders of the Trail of Broken Treaties were negotiating with the Interior Department over the question of housing. Suddenly fighting broke out between several GSA security guards and a group of young Indians.

Apparently the guards misunderstood that the BIA had given the Indians permission to stay in the building past closing time. The guards were quickly overpowered and escorted from the building. Indians ran through the BIA building at 19th & Constitution breaking up furniture to barricade entrances and manufacture makeshift weapons. The occupation was on.

Trail of Broken Treaties Press Conference: 1972

Before the takeover. From the D.C. Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Trail Required Concerted Effort

The Trail of Broken Treaties had originally come to Washington as a concerted effort by militant Native Americans from across the continent. Numbering well over 1,000, they had to negotiate over a series of 20 demands.

These demands involved the abolition of the BIA, whose paternalism and corruption is infamous, plus a whole series of reforms leading to greater self-determination for Indian people. Both urban and reservation Indians had joined the protest. Discriminated against in jobs, their land ripped off by greedy whites, water rights threatened, possessing a terrible infant mortality and T.B. rate, the Indians of over 250 tribes were represented.

Rumors of Police Violence

When the Indians seized the building Nov. 2, the government began a series of complex legal maneuvers to force the Indians out. A deadline was set for the night of Nov. 3. Rumors of impending police violence led the Indian leadership to put out a call for support.

Prepared for the Worst at the Bureau of Indian Affairs: 1972

One Native American is prepared for the worst. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Groups began to appear outside the BIA with food, supplies and political support. On the night of Nov. 3, several hundred non-Indians formed a line of bodies to interfere with the expected police assault. Confronted with hundreds of armed Indians plus their supporters, the government backed down. The waiting game was on.

From the beginning the government game was clear, keep the occupiers in a constant state of doubt and suspense to wear down their morale.

Deadlines Repeatedly Postponed

With the election on Nov. 7, the Nixon administration could not afford a massacre until after this date. So they kept setting shifting, fluid deadlines. They sent dozens of undercover agents to spy on the occupation force.

Army buses would ride by and ominously park in front of the building. Pig cars would race around the block. From across the street, cops would stand and photograph demonstrators. This type of harassment failed to break the spirit of the fighters.

Housekeeping During the BIA Occupation: 1972

Protesters set up basic services during the occupation. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

A relatively efficient system of organization was set up. Armed Indian security ringed the building. Child-care was set up. A paramedical team from the University of Maryland contributed themselves and their resources. Food distribution was organized.

Tribal ceremonies were held and large council meetings of all the occupiers kept people informed and allowed for democratic decision-making. Communication was set up with support groups.

Native Americans Take Over BIA in DC: 1972

The occupation on Nov. 5, 1972. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Tensest Moments

The tensest moments of the occupation occurred on Monday, Nov. 6. The judge had given an order that the Native Americans must vacate the building by 6 p.m. or face forcible eviction. A large force of GSA [General Services Administration] and Civil Disturbance Unit riot police were quartered about a block away.

Tension mounted Monday afternoon as the Indians broke down into teams of four and established military perimeters. Armed with clubs, knives and spears they passed out rags to cover their mouths against the expected tear gas. Inside the building itself, firebombs and other more potent weapons were prepared. Some Indians barricaded inside reportedly had guns. People broke up pieces of iron grating for missiles and Indians on the roof prepared to rain down destruction upon the expected invaders.

Molotov Cocktail in BIA After Native Americans Leave: 1972

At the BIA. From the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

As the deadline approached, Indian leaders spoke on the steps of the BIA. Russell Means spoke of the telegrams of support they had received from the Irish Republican Army and the Black Panther Party.

He spoke of the occupation of the BIA office in Seattle, Washington. Indians had seized the Indian Affairs office in Ottawa, Canada and had all their demands met. The Canadian police had refused to march on the occupation force. Means reminded those present that the mostly black GSA riot squad was using one oppressed group to smash another.

Plead for No More Massacres

After the Civil War, Freedmen had been used in all black cavalry regiments in the Indian wars of the west. They had a reputation for brutality and harshness. Means pleaded for the black riot police not to follow in the infamous footsteps of their post-civil-war predecessors and aid in the smashing of Native American aspirations.

He asked all non-Indians to stand in solidarity, comparing the anticipated massacre at Washington, D.C. with American actions like the massacre of Vietnamese at My Lai, and the slaughtering of Indians by the 19th Century cavalry at Wounded Knee and Sand Creek.

Native Americans Vow to Fight

The Indians had come to Washington in peace, but had been given the prospect of war. They were ready. Many of the young warriors had daubed on war paint, signifying that they had taken vows to fight until death.

Had the government decided to attack, much death and injury would have resulted. The 6 p.m. deadline came and went. Soon the word was out that the judge had extended it until Wednesday, Nov. 8. There was much rejoicing as once again the government had backed down.

Documents Liberated from BIA Commissioner’s Safe: 1972

Documents were taken from BIA commissioner’s safe. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

On Election Day the leadership held several press conferences. It was announced at the first press conference that many records had been removed in order to expose the record of corruption and scandal within the BIA. It was revealed that massive corruption was involved in the building dams on Seneca land in upstate New York, and that Senator Mike Mansfield was involved in shady real estate dealings in his hometown in Oklahoma. It was stated that the files would be kept in secret hiding places until Native American lawyers could untangle them and expose their content.

Indian leader Russell Means explained that people would begin leaving but that an occupation force would remain the building until the Wednesday deadline. He announced that the BIA was effectively abolished. Prosecution for activities was expected, but [he said] that they would meet this bravely.

DC Police Spy Captured

Later on in the day, a metropolitan police detective was captured while spying in the building. After being chased, captured, and knocked around a little bit, he was taken back inside the building for questioning.

Bill Cross at Trail of Broken Treaties Demonstration: 1970

Bill Cross of the Dakotas, a participant during the protest. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post

Indians called on his police band walkie-talkie and the cops at headquarters freaked. He was brought outside in his own handcuffs and forced through a humiliating press conference. He said his name was Roger O’Day of Criminal Investigation but pleaded ignorance to other questions. He was eventually turned over to his superiors.

By late Tuesday afternoon, it was clear that a settlement was in the offing. The Indians were demanding a twelve person commission be set up with seven of their leaders and five top Nixon aides. This commission would work to implement the 20 demands.

Settlement Reached

On Wednesday, Nov. 8, a settlement was reached. As a task force was set up to deal with the demands, amnesty for the occupiers was agreed upon. As the Indians left, they took with them many paintings and artifacts. Police made no attempt to stop them.

Marilyn Nuttle at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Marilyn Nuttle of the Pawnee during protests. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Although they left the building interior totally destroyed, it was not set afire or blown up as had been threatened. Although over $2 million damage was done, these acts of destruction were nothing compared to the destruction that whites have wreaked upon the Indian people.

Before you join the ranks of those condemning this action, think who was it who stole the Indians’ land, ravaged it, despoiled it, polluted it, and put up fences and ugly stinking cities. The real criminals are where they have always been in the highest corporation and government offices in this land. If there is to be prosecution, let the real criminals go on trial.

US Betrayal on Amnesty
[Originally published as a sidebar]

Although representatives of Nixon signed an agreement with Native Americans occupying the bureau of Indian Affairs recommending against prosecution, the government has decided to go ahead and begin indictment proceedings.

This means the White House has broken yet another treaty with the Indians. A White House spokesperson claimed the amnesty agreement did not mean that the government couldn’t prosecute the Indians for stolen property and destruction of the building.

Total damage to the building was estimated by the government at over $2 million. The government said damage was the third heaviest ever to government buildings, surpassed only by the burning of Washington by the British in 1814 and the destruction of government buildings in the San Francisco earthquake in 1906.


Floyd Young Horse at Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Floyd Young Horse, a participant at the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Public LIbrary Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Postscript: March, 2013

The Trail of Broken Treaties was originally proposed by Robert Burnette during a Sun Dance ceremony in South Dakota. Burnette was a former tribal chair of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Others at the ceremony agreed that a demonstration in Washington was needed because of numerous treaty violations and widespread poverty among Indian people.

A dozen Indian organizations eventually signed on to the caravan idea including the American Indian Movement (AIM). When the caravan reached Minneapolis, the coalition drew up a 20 point document, mostly written by Hank Adams, a longtime fishing rights activist in the Pacific Northwest.

Central to the 20 points was that Indian people were members of sovereign nations and should be negotiated with on that basis. When the caravan arrived in Washington DC, there was a major communications breakdown between the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the caravan members, resulting in the takeover of the BIA building. AIM then assumed a dominant role in the leadership of the Trail of Broken Treaties.

At the Trail of Broken Treaties in DC: 1972

Unidentified participant in the Trail of Broken Treaties. From the DC Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

AIM’s role in the BIA takeover as well the armed occupation of Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1973, put it directly in the crosshairs of federal COINTELPRO-type repression.

AIM supporters on the Pine Ridge Reservation were assassinated by mysterious death squads widely believed to be linked to the FBI. AIM was infiltrated by informants who spread rumors that various leaders were actually working for the FBI, leading to divisions and violence within the group.

The mayhem on the Pine Ridge reservation led to the shooting of two FBI agents under murky circumstances. AIM member Leonard Peltier is serving 2 life sentences for the killings even though the evidence against him was contradictory. Two other AIM members indicted for the killings were found not guilty. There has been considerable international pressure to free Leonard Peltier.

AIM survived in a weakened state and eventually split into two different AIM organizations, one headquartered in Minneapolis and the other in Denver. Both continue to be active today.

As for the 20 points originally raised by the Trail of Broken Treaties, most still remain unaddressed.


Robert “Bob” Simpson is a former University of Maryland and Washington, DC area social justice activist who moved to Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1970s. He is one half of the Carol Simpson labor cartoon team. Bob remains active in greater Chicago and is a regular contributor to the Daily Kos, Counter Punch and has his own blog The Bobbosphere.


See the Trail of Broken Treaties photos in larger sizes and with more description at the Washington Area Spark Flickr set: BIA Takeover 1972


The DC Women Streetcar Operators of World War II

20 Mar
Women Operators in Superintendent's Office: 1943

Women operators at the superintendent’s office in 1943.

By Craig Simpson

In December, 1942, the Capital Transit Company began a series of advertisements in wartime Washington, D.C. newspapers seeking women to operate the city’s streetcars and buses.

African Americans and their allies were demanding that the company end its Jim Crow practices and hire black operators, but the owners instead opened the door a crack to white women.

Women Workers Converge on D.C.

During the first year of World War II, many thousands of men left their jobs and entered the armed forces while tens of thousands of women moved into Washington to work in the rapidly expanding federal city and fill many jobs traditionally held by men.

The District was not a blue-collar town, but women quickly began turning out ships’ guns at the Naval Gun Factory and driving trucks. They also filled the jobs of store and bank clerks that had been traditionally held by men. But most of all, they came to join the federal government’s rapidly burgeoning clerical corps.

A Woman Operating DC Streetcar: 1943

Collecting a fare on a DC Streetcar in 1943.

The Capital Transit Company was desperate. The company adamantly refused to consider hiring African Americans, even though streetcars and buses lay idle in the barns and yards for lack of operators. While women had driven buses for some smaller suburban companies and operated streetcars in a few other cities, none had ever been employed as operators in the biggest transit company in the Washington area.

The same week that the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission issued a preliminary order to Capital Transit to hire African American operators, the company began its advertising for women workers.

Recruiting women, however, was going to be no easy matter. The new workers were required to work split shifts covering both rush hours and there were plenty of other help-wanted ads filling the newspapers.  The company also imposed other restrictions. The openly biased Washington Post wrote,

The last bastion of male drivers in the District has fallen before the assault of the gentler sex, but the hands that guide the trolleys down the track must not be too gentle. It’s Amazons, not Veronica Lakes, who’ll qualify according to the specifications. Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without shoes, and–listen to this, you dieters—must weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

First Women Hired

Betty Whitehurst and Dorothy Berlett became the first women trainees on January 6, 1943. Capital Transit’s plan was to first train them as conductors, then streetcar operators, and later, perhaps, on the buses.

At the same time, pressure was building on the company to provide adequate transportation in the federal city. Milton Diehl of the Office of Defense Transportation, said, “We want to keep the transportation system going here in Washington and I think it is awfully serious when 200 buses are idle because there are not enough men to operate them.”

Capital Transit President E. D. Merrill: 1940

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill (far right)  in 1940. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill sought other means besides integration, and he called for draft deferrals for the men operating streetcars. He said up to 600 new workers would be needed to maintain the level of service the company was attempting to provide.

Plans to use women, however, were dealt a blow when both of the initial trainees quit only two weeks into the training program. Whitehurst dropped out when she and her husband, who was also an operator, decided one member of the family working odd hours was enough. Berlett’s Navy husband was transferred to New Orleans and the couple decided to relocate.

Company Renews Commitment

Capital Transit, under intense fire from advocacy groups and from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for its racial policies, was determined to make the women’s program work.

The Washington Post reported,

Undiscouraged by the recent defaulting of its two pioneer women bus drivers, the Capital Transit Co. is still training its Amazonian operators, a company official disclosed last night. As a matter of fact, two of the girl graduates are already getting experience as conductors on the Fourteenth Street streetcar lines during the afternoon rush hours while three others are immersed in the academic courses. Enrollment in the streetcar seminary is light, but the transit company still approves the idea and is welcoming possible freshmen to the ranks.

The company tried to entice women to apply for the jobs by offering Sundays off and prohibiting night work by women. This was in contrast to previous new hires who would be at the bottom of the seniority list and end up with the least desirable days off and hours.

First All-Female DC Streetcar Crew: 1943

Edna Cobb & Bessie Allison are the first all-female streetcar crew. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Women soon began going out unaccompanied by trainers on streetcar and bus lines. On April 8, 1943 two women left the Fourteenth Street barn and headed to the Bureau of Engraving as the first all-female trolley crew in the city. Bessie Allison piloted the vehicle while Edna Cobb served as conductor.

Allison came to Washington from Mullen, West Virginia, where she had been assistant manager of a dairy store. Cobb became a spokesperson for the women transit workers during the war years, attempting to recruit more women to the ranks.

Women’s Auxiliary Transit (WATS)

In May 1943, company president Merrill announced the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service (WATS) and an ambitious plan to recruit 100 women a week to the group. The group was modeled after the initially civilian Army WAC and Navy WAVE programs and was designed to promote the idea of women temporarily serving in essential wartime transportation in the city.

Join Capital Transit WATS: 1943

WATS advertisement in June 1943.

When it was first formed, WATS was composed of seven streetcar operators, two bus operators, and five in training, plus 19 fare collectors at the Pentagon. Merrill began promoting his idea to recruit more women with regular advertisements in the city’s newspapers appealing to patriotism.

Before long, Merrill hired a women’s counselor to head the group and recruited a panel of Washington, D.C. business and professional women to form a “Women’s Committee to Sponsor the WATS.”

The Committee opened a lounge for the transit women at 4702 14th Street NW, across the street from the Northern streetcar and bus barn. It was dedicated with a housewarming party on July 13, 1943. By this time there were 16 women streetcar and bus operators and 19 conductors. All the women were assigned to the 14th Street streetcar line or the buses in that section of Northwest Washington that operated out of the Northern barn, although later they operated out of other locations as well.

Transit Women Between Shifts: 1943

Women operators between shifts in 1943.

The lounge was equipped with three rooms and a basement for the women’s exclusive use. The rooms contained easy chairs, a radio, a Ping-Pong table and reading material.

The women had the option to wear skirts or slacks at work. The slacks, skirts and blazers were navy blue, the shirts were grey and the ties were black. Operators’ caps had a visor whereas the fare collectors at the Pentagon wore foldable “overseas” caps.

The Women Operators and Conductors

Among these women was Ruth Rautio. She had been a homemaker until joining her husband who was already a streetcar operator. The two worked the same streetcar line, passing each other several times during the day.

Bus operator Elsie Stone reported few problems with customers who she said had grown used to seeing women on the trolleys and buses. “But once in Petworth a man ran real fast to catch the bus and backed right out when he saw me driving,” according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Conductor Washington DC: 1943

Hattie Sheehan in 1943.

Another was Hattie Sheehan, who had worked three months on the midnight shift at the Glen L. Martin Aircraft factory north of Baltimore. Sheehan decided day work was more appealing and moved to Washington to take a streetcar operator job. Sheehan’s sister, Eva Bennet, joined her on the job. The two were originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The most senior operator was Bessie Allison, who had a strong West Virginia accent. “I’m a hillbilly and don’t mind who knows it. But I’m having a lot of fun running streetcars in Washington,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Outside Her DC Streetcar: 1943

Frances Lewis in 1943.

Still another was Frances “Tennessee” Lewis, who came from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Valeria Schwalenberg hailed from Greensboro, N.C. She said operating a streetcar was “awfully exciting” compared with her life back home, according to the Post.

Sheehan, Allison, Lewis and Schwalenberg formed a quartet that sang songs learned from childhood. One song that everyone knew was “I’ve been working on the railroad,” according to Sheehan. She added, “It sure is a good theme song for us,” according to the Post.

African American Fired

Sarah Grayson was hired in September, 1943 and worked without incident as a streetcar operator on 14th Street NW until January 31, 1944, when she was summarily fired.

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943

Capital Transit refused to hire African American men or women and fired one woman after she had worked five months when they discovered she was black.

The company rejected the application of an African American neighbor of Grayson’s because of skin color. The applicant reportedly told the company representative, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you,” according to the Afro American.

Grayson, who had light skin and blue eyes, told the Afro, “I made no effort to conceal my identity.  The question just never came up.” Grayson had previously been a clerk at a People’s Drug Store.

Grayson told the Afro that it was amusing when her male coworkers would try to chat her up while making derogatory remarks about African Americans [See an image of Grayson: click on “browse this newspaper” and navigate to the February 5, 1944 edition, page 11].

Shortages Continue to Occur

The operator shortages continued to occur throughout 1944 with the company delaying, making excuses, but not outright refusing to hire African Americans. Throughout this time, the FEPC never acted to enforce an order to desegregate transit in Washington.

Appeal for More Women Operators: 1943

Operator Edna Cobb (center) often acted as a recruiter of women. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Apparently believing they could recruit more (white) women by a makeover of the current operators, Capital Transit opened a “charm school” in May, 1944, for the 55 women streetcar and bus operators. Classes taught make-up, hair styling and skin care. Hannah Sherman, school director, said, “We don’t want any you-hooing on buses and streetcars, but we want to make the girls feel pretty and important,” according to the Post.

By February of 1945, the company had 150 buses idled for lack of drivers and was 450 operators short. Still refusing to hire African-Americans, the company began advertising for both men and women part-time operators. The number of women peaked at about 70 after the introduction of part-time employment.

Post World War II

The war in Europe ended in May and in Japan in September.  Post-war propaganda had already begun calling for women to “return to the home.” Merrill estimated that only 25 women remained as operators or conductors at the end of 1945.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Streetcar operator Thelma Hodges speaks at a union meeting during a 1945 strike. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Wages had been held down during the war and the pent up demand resulted in two unauthorized strikes by Capital Transit workers in November 1945. Thelma Hodges, a streetcar operator, told co-workers at the Turner Arena during a strike meeting that “The men ought to make enough pay so their wives could stay home.”

No additional women were hired after World War II ended. By 1948 there were only ten remaining women operators. When streetcar operator Harriet Smith died in September, six of the remaining women acted as pallbearers wearing their Capital Transit uniforms. The six were Bernice Harding, Elizabeth Mann, Martha Blanton, Ethel Drake, Katherine Snyder and Mary Small.

Last of the DC Streetcar Women Operators: 1961

Last of the D.C. WW2 women streetcar operators (2nd row) in 1961. From ATU Local 689.

In 1955, Capital Transit finally desegregated its operator ranks. The company was sold after a two-month strike later in 1955 and it was renamed D.C. Transit.

Two women can be seen in a 1961 group photo of D.C. Transit operators in front of the U.S. Capitol, but by 1962 streetcar service had ended in the nation’s capital–and with it, women transit operators.  By one account, the few remaining women streetcar operators were offered the choice of clerical jobs or retirement.

First Female Bus Operator for DC Transit: 1967

Sarah Owens, first African American woman bus operator hired by D.C. Transit is shown in a screen capture of a 2007 ATU Local 689 video.

After a six-year interlude, the next woman employed as an operator by the D.C. Transit system was Sarah B. Owens, an African American. Owens was turned away at the company employment office in 1966, but filed a complaint with the District government. A year later Owens began her career as a bus operator in June 1967. Owens went on to operate the Metrorail trains as well after that service began in 1976.

This time, employment of women in the D.C. transit industry grew rapidly.  Today hundreds of women operate buses and trains for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the successor company to the D.C. Transit and Capital Transit companies.


Want to see and read more?

For more images related to the World War II era D.C. women transit operators.

For an article on the desegregation of the Capital Transit Company.

Do you know more about these women? Comment below or e-mail us at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


Author’s Notes:

Sources include The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star, the Washington Post, The Afro American, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert

14 Mar
Marian Anderson Sings at the Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 6

Marian Anderson arrives in Washington, D.C. for her 1939 concert. Photo: Scurlock Studio.

By Craig Simpson
3rd in a series

The Lincoln Memorial became the symbolic focal point for civil rights in 1939 when over 75,000 people attended a Marian Anderson concert there after she was barred from performing at the Daughters of the American Revolution’s (DAR) Constitution Hall and from the all-white public Central High School in Washington, D.C.

Most versions of the story focus on first lady Eleanor Roosevelt dropping her membership in the DAR and President Roosevelt’s Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes arranging for the concert to be held on federal parkland. But the struggle to desegregate theaters in Washington was much more complex. It began long before Anderson’s 1939 concert and did not end in victory until long afterwards.

This was a struggle led primarily by the African American elite in the city and at times was a microcosm of the tensions inherent between the struggle to uplift all and the quest for individual achievement.

Segregation in the city

Segregation in public accommodations in the District of Columbia had actually been prohibited since Frederick Douglass’s son, Lewis H. Douglas, successfully introduced a bill into the District of Columbia Legislative Council in 1872.

But while that law was not repealed, it was removed from the published city code in the early part of the 20th Century, when many gains achieved during the Civil War and Reconstruction were reversed.

Laws were passed mandating segregation in public schools and parks, but attempts at mandating Jim Crow on streetcars, housing and other areas were defeated. However, even without segregation laws, businesses were imposing the practice throughout the city by the 1920s and courts upheld this discrimination as the right of individuals or businesses.

Many theaters for the performing arts in Washington required Jim Crow seating arrangements, often relegating African Americans to the upper balcony. Some barred admission to African Americans altogether or staged separate performances for blacks and whites. A very few venues barred African American performers altogether. A minority of theaters, mostly those oriented toward African American audiences, permitted mixed seating.

No Jim Crow for Civil War Vets: 1922

Civil War vets have the only integrated seating at the 1922 Lincoln Memorial dedication.

Lincoln Memorial Dedication

The African American elite in the city looked forward to the dedication of the “great emancipator” Abraham Lincoln’s memorial on May 30, 1922.  President Warren Harding took office as a Republican the year before and there was great expectation that he would reverse the policies of his Democratic predecessor, Woodrow Wilson, who had introduced segregation into the federal government and fired hundreds of black workers.

They believed that the President might announce new civil rights initiatives at the ceremony. But when they arrived on a blazing hot day to their reserved seats in Section 5, the invited African Americans discovered they had been roped off from the rest of the guests in Jim Crow seating by Lt. Col. Clarence O Sherrill, Director of Public Buildings and Parks in the city.

Shelby Davidson, president of the Washington, D. C. NAACP wrote afterward,

Platform seats reserved for white were in chairs and within distance of the speakers that might be called reasonable, considering the crowd, while back of those seats were those reserved for colored roped off from those occupied by the white and placed about a block away from the Memorial in the grass and weeds with rough hewn benches with no backs or supports.

The Harding administration did not invite any activists to address the crowd and instead asked Booker T. Washington protégé Dr. Robert Russa Moton, principal of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, to speak on behalf of African Americans, and required Moton to submit his speech for approval in advance.

Dr. Moton Speaks at Lincoln Memorial Dedication: 1922

Dr. Robert Russa Moton speaks during Lincoln Memorial dedication in 1922.

After a brief exercise by an integrated group of Civil War veterans, Moton spoke perhaps more forcefully than Harding expected. Moton departed from his prepared speech, according to published reports, pointedly saying, “among 30,000 persons convicted of disloyalty during the last [Civil] war, not a single one was colored.”

Moton went on to call on the country to fulfill

the task imposed upon it by the martyred dead: that here it highly resolves that the humblest citizen of whatever color or creed, shall enjoy that equal opportunity and unhampered freedom…

But Harding ‘s own speech downplayed issues of race discrimination and did not mention the Dyer anti-lynching bill pending in Congress. He praised the South and credited Lincoln not for the Emancipation Proclamation but for saving the union.

The African American press castigated the ceremony after the event with one headline summing it up, “Opened But Not Dedicated Stands Memorial to Lincoln.”

Refuse to Perform

The fight against Jim Crow performing arts theaters and concert halls in the District of Columbia began in the 1920s and was waged in the city by the NAACP and other African American rights groups for more than a dozen years before the Anderson concert.

National Council of Negro Women Mary McLeod Bethune: 1930 ca

Mary McLeod Bethune circa 1930.

One of the first organized actions occurred on May 5, 1925, when more than 200 African American artists refused to take the stage at the newly opened Washington Auditorium at 19th & E Streets, NW, in a protest over segregated seating.

The “All American Music Festival,” sponsored by the International Council of Women, had given written assurances to Mary McLeod Bethune, president of the National Council of Negro Women, that there would be no Jim Crow seating at the event.

However when singers from the Richmond Treble Clef, the Howard University Glee Club, the Hampton Institute Choir and the Howard University Choral Society arrived at the hall, they found all black people in the audience seated on the left side of the hall and in the balcony.

The groups walked out of the hall and refused to perform. African American members of the audience followed the singers and left the theater.

Roland Hayes

Singer Roland Hayes circa 1925

Seating at Roland Hayes Concerts

The fight over Jim Crow continued at tenor Roland Hayes’s concerts.

Hayes first achieved fame in Europe when career avenues were shut to African Americans in the United States. In the 1920s he returned to the U.S. and took the country by storm.  He was the most famous African American of his time.

A 1925 Atlanta, Georgia concert ignited a firestorm of criticism of Hayes when he performed before a Jim Crow audience in the city.  He was scheduled for a concert on January 5, 1926 at the Washington Auditorium and the District’s African American rights organizations swung into action.

The NAACP, Equal Rights League, National Race Congress and ministers throughout the city began bombarding the hall and the promoter with telephone calls, telegrams and letters protesting the planned Jim Crow seating.  The local NAACP’s head of the “Ladies Service Group,” Beatrice Francis, coordinated the campaign.

Hayes, unsure of how to proceed, called promoter Katie Wilson-Greene who agreed to arrange to mix the tickets.  Hayes performed without incident. The next night, however, protests failed to change Jim Crow seating at the Lyric Theater in Baltimore.  Hayes delayed taking the stage for 32 minutes before relenting and performing before a segregated audience.

Roland Hayes Blasted for Jim Crow Performance: 1926

Afro covers Hayes on front page January 9, 1926

Hayes Blasted by Activists

In a debate that continues today over the role of prominent African Americans in the civil rights struggle, there was fierce criticism and impassioned defense of Hayes within the African American community as he continued to perform before Jim Crow audiences.

“From a popular hero, acclaimed because of his European and American success, Mr. Hayes became overnight an outcast, who betrayed his race for gold,” the Afro American wrote in 1925.

Dr. Kelly Miller, a Howard University professor, responded in his weekly Afro column, “He [Hayes] will serve his race to better advantage if we permit him to function before the world as an artist, and not as a professional Negro agitator.”

Hayes was confronted with the issue again in another Washington concert in 1928. Hayes sang before a segregated audience where African Americans were relegated to the back rows of the balcony at Poli’s Theater.

Neval Thomas, president of the local NAACP, said, “Mr. Hayes could make it far easier for us in the campaign we are conducting if he would end his policy of silence.” Thomas added, “Upon Mr. Hayes’ last appearance in Washington, we urged him to condemn the Jim Crow seating arrangement and his only reply was that, ‘I make my speech from the stage,’” according to the Afro.

Hayes continued to have defenders with one reader of the Afro writing, “I could agree with you [the Afro] in blaming a Garvey or DuBois or Trotter for tolerating race conditions in Washington, but surely not a Hayes or Marian Anderson.”

NAACP criticism of Hayes became more muted when Hayes agreed to perform a number of benefit concerts for the organization, including an April, 1930 event at the Belasco Theater in Washington.

Constitution Hall Desegregated

The DAR opened Constitution Hall in 1929, and the Wilson-Greene Agency booked Hayes for a concert on January 31, 1931. African American leaders again sought assurances that the audience would not be segregated. This time Wilson-Greene, which was responsible for ticket sales, agreed to sell tickets to African Americans in any area of the hall.

Howard University Professor Kelly Miller

Howard University professor Kelly Miller defended Hayes. Photo undated.

Accounts of what occurred that evening differ. Immediately after the event, The Afro American reported that the concert went off without incident and that there was no Jim Crow seating. The paper also reported that there were few black people in the audience.

Fred Hand, the hall manager who ultimately initiated Jim Crow policies, ten years later related that Hayes refused to sing until a large group of African Americans seated together were dispersed in the crowd, although he said Hayes relented and performed.

Following the Hayes concert, the Hampton Choir performed on March 21 at Constitution Hall. After the concert, the Washington Daily News blasted the DAR for its treatment of African Americans:

The DAR management ruled that only two blocks of seats, those on the corners of the surrounding tiers, might be sold to colored people…hundreds of colored people were turned away.  The turnout of Washington’s regular concertgoers was small…consequently the Hall was two-thirds empty. The seats assigned to colored people were packed; beside them were empty blocks.

The DAR didn’t take long to respond. They began including a “white artists only” clause beginning with all contracts starting on March 23, 1932.

Marian Anderson Rises in Fame

Meanwhile Marian Anderson’s career began to blossom. Anderson started as a young girl singing at neighborhood events for small amounts of money that began to grow larger over time. She was active at her church in the junior and, later, the adult choir in her youth. She gained attention in both church and other venues where she was often a featured singer.

The Philadelphia black community banded together and paid for private music lessons when she was refused admittance to the all-white Philadelphia Music Academy.

She continued her studies in New York, where she booked to favorable reviews at several concert halls, including Carnegie in 1928. However, the opportunities for an African American singer were limited and like Hayes, she went to Europe where she became a star.

Anderson returned to the U.S. and the contralto began giving concerts, including one at New York’s Town Hall in 1935 that received highly favorable reviews. She was soon a star in the states and continued to give concerts in Europe and the U.S. throughout the late 1930s.

Singer Todd Duncan in undated photo

Singer Todd Duncan in an undated photo.

Desegregation Attempts Continue

The fight to desegregate Washington’s theaters continued into the 1930s. This time, however, high-profile African American performers would lead the effort.

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, the two leads of “Porgy and Bess,” announced their refusal to perform at the whites-only National Theater unless the theater admitted a fully integrated audience.

Howard University Professor Dr. Ralph Bunche: 1934 ca

Dr. Ralph Bunche circa 1934.

They were threatened with being fired from the show and fined by the actor’s union, but they held their ground and the rest of the cast backed them. Ralph Bunche, chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science Department and a leader of the Howard Teachers Union (HTU), rallied other labor groups and met with management, threatening to picket the theater.

The theater finally offered a compromise: blacks could sit in designated sections. The cast rejected this and held firm that they would not perform if there were any restrictions. The National Theater management gave in and the performance opened on March 16, 1936 with African Americans present in every section. The victory was short-lived, however, as the theater immediately went back to its whites-only seating.

Howard University Approaches DAR’s Hall

The same year, Howard University treasurer V. D. Johnson approached Hand about booking Anderson at Constitution Hall, perhaps thinking that the controversy then being generated by the dispute over “Porgy and Bess” would win the day for an acclaimed singer like Anderson.

Hand simply reminded Johnson of the “whites only” clause. Johnson let the matter drop and Anderson was booked in Washington at the public African American Armstrong High School in 1936 and 1937 and at the larger Rialto Theater in 1938, appearing in all cases before mixed audiences.

In 1939, with Anderson’s popularity outgrowing these theaters, Charles Cohen, chair of Howard University’s concert series that arranged Anderson’s performances in Washington, applied to the largest venue in the city—the DAR’s Constitution Hall. Three days later Hand wrote back that April 9 was already booked, and reminded Cohen of the whites-only performers clause.

Marian Anderson 1933

Marian Anderson 1933.

Eleanor Roosevelt Refuses to Help

This time officials at Howard balked at the refusal. The hall often booked more than one performer on a Sunday and there was no other suitable venue available.  In early February of 1939, Johnson reached out to first lady Eleanor Roosevelt to rebuke the DAR. However, Roosevelt initially refused to do so.

Anderson’s manager Sol Hurok and Howard’s University’s Cohen scrambled to find another venue. They singled out the District of Columbia public whites-only Central High School’s large auditorium as being most suitable.

But on February 3, Superintendent Frank Ballou wrote back, “In the opinion of the school officers, it is not possible under the law for the Community Center Department to grant your request for the use of Central High School auditorium to present Miss Marian Anderson.”

Howard officials were ready to take the fight to the next level and turned to Walter White, executive secretary the NAACP and to Doxey Wilkerson, professor of Education at Howard, who was also one of the leaders of the HTU and of the local National Negro Congress.

Wilkerson presented the appeal to use Central High School at the February 15th meeting of the Board of Education.  The Board upheld Ballou’s decision to deny the use of the school.

Howard University Professor Doxey Wilkerson: 1940 ca.

Doxey Wilkerson circa 1940.

Protests Ignite

The American Federation of Teachers reacted first at a February 18th meeting at the YWCA, where they condemned the school board’s refusal to permit Anderson to sing and began circulating petitions.

The following day, Feb 19, Charles Edward Russell, chair of the citywide Inter-Racial Committee, convened a meeting that formed the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee (MACC) composed of several dozen organizations, church leaders and individual activists in the city.

Among the groups were the NAACP, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the Washington Industrial Council-CIO, American Federation of Labor, and the National Negro Congress. Some predominantly white citizens’ associations also joined.

By February 20th the group was picketing the board of education, the first time that the school system had been picketed since the Moen’s case drew thousands of African Americans into mass meetings and picketing in March of 1919.

The MACC collected signatures on petitions and planned a mass meeting February 26th and a mass protest March 1st at the next board of education meeting. MACC elected Charles Hamilton Houston as chairman, John Lovell, Jr. as secretary, and Bertha Blair as vice chair.

First Mass Protest

Fliers called upon Washingtonians to rise,

Marian Anderson is a Negro. Thus, even as in Naziland, superb art is here crucified upon the altar of racial bigotry. Shall we permit the DAR and the Board of Education to impose this unwholesome policy upon our community? Shall the people of Washington dictate, or be dictated to?”

Over 1,500 people crowded into the Lincoln Temple Congregational Church at 1701 11th Street, NW to hear Doxey Wilkerson,

We must note that … if it is legal to present a white artist in Armstrong Hall, for a considerable fee, as was done recently, before a mixed audience, then it is equally legal to present a colored artist in the auditorium of a white school before a similar audience.

The growing protest movement also caused Roosevelt to reconsider her earlier refusal to condemn the DAR. She sent a telegram to the rally saying, “I regret extremely that Washington is to be deprived of hearing Marian Anderson, a great artist.” Unknown to the meeting, Roosevelt resigned her membership in the DAR the same day.

Roosevelt Announces Resignation

The next day, Roosevelt announced in her weekly newspaper column and at a press conference that she had resigned from a major organization to which she had “belonged since coming to Washington.” The Anderson situation turned quickly from one covered in the local newspapers and the African American press to one also covered by the white press across the nation.

DC School Board Member Col. West A. Hamilton: 1940 ca.

Col. West A. Hamilton circa 1940

Hundreds of Washington residents descended on the Franklin School on March 1st to protest the school board’s decision. Telegrams began pouring in to the school board from around the country and 3,000 signatures were presented at the board meeting.

Charles H. Houston, speaking for the NAACP, called the school board’s decision a “travesty on democracy.” Sidney Katz of the local CIO spoke for the Anderson committee, comparing her treatment to “the treatment of Jewish artists in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.”

Col. West A. Hamilton, one of two African American members of the school board, made a motion to permit Anderson to sing at Central, but failed to get a second. The board voted to defer a decision to a committee meeting the following day.

Board Sets Impossible Conditions

Fearing the consequences of an outright refusal, the school committee voted to permit Anderson to use the school on a basis that did not set a “precedent” and

only on the positive and definite assurance and agreement…that the Board of Education will not in the future again be asked to depart from the principle of a dual system of schools and schools facilities.

The full board upheld the committee decision on a 6-2 vote on March 3rd.

Charles Hamilton Houston & the Capital Transit Fight (Photo 3)

Charles Hamilton Houston circa 1940.

Houston was stunned by the decision, “I had expected Friday a real hearing by the Committee, and had obtained thru the Committee (MACC) new signatures on the petition, a file of newspaper comments, letters and telegrams of endorsement [and] resolutions.”

All rights leaders were appalled. They could accept the no-precedent language, but not a restriction on whether anyone could ever apply again. After considering their options, Cohen wrote that he would accept the auditorium, but not the conditions.

Superintendent Ballou withdrew the offer March 17, writing, “The responsibility for making the Central High School auditorium unavailable for the concert of Miss Marian Anderson on April 9 must be assumed by you and your associates of Howard University.”

MACC leaders vehemently denounced the board and scheduled another mass meeting. Houston summed it up best when he said after the school board decision, “I wanted Marian Anderson to sing in Central, but not at the cost of my dignity and self-respect.”

Scramble for a venue

While the fight with the school board was playing out, efforts were made to find other solutions.

Hurok surreptitiously discovered that April 8th and 10th were available at Constitution Hall and applied for those dates, but Hand responded on February 15th that, “the hall is not available for a concert by Miss Anderson.”

Options were growing narrower, since the Rialto Theater was closed for repairs and the National and Belasco theaters would not give definitive answers.

It is not clear who came up with the idea to stage the concert at the Lincoln Memorial. The director of music at Howard, Lulu Childers, had said in exasperation in early January that Anderson would “Sing here—even if we have to build a tent for her.“

Hurok announced publicly in late February that Anderson would keep the April 9th concert date and sing “out in the open air in the park immediately in front of Constitution Hall. She will sing for the people of Washington and there will be no charge.”  NAACP Executive Director White, however, opposed holding the concert at that location, believing it would show weakness.

Venue discussions were taking place among Howard officials, Hurok, Houston and White in early March and they included ideas about outdoor concerts.  According to one account, White favored Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, early in the strategy sessions.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 5

Marian Anderson and Oscar Chapman 1939.

Lincoln Memorial

But by March 13th, White drafted a resolution adopted by the NAACP directors calling for Anderson to give her concert at the Lincoln Memorial. White approached Oscar Chapman, Assistant Secretary of the Interior, about the use of the Lincoln Memorial.

Chapman was a fervent New Deal Democrat who had previously worked on anti-lynching legislation. He had been active in a number of progressive causes and was even accused of being a communist in 1938 by Rep. Noah Mason (R-IL) because of his support for the loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War.

Chapman recalled in a 1972 interview that White approached him saying, “Oscar, wouldn’t it be a ten strike if we could have her sing at the feet of Lincoln, at the Lincoln Memorial?”

Chapman immediately agreed and contacted Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes. Chapman recalled appealing to Ickes’ vanity saying,

We’ll build a platform on that low level of steps so cameras down here can take pictures of Lincoln right straight through from the platform we build for you and Marian Anderson who will be sitting there. And when she’s singing, they’ll be taking pictures; we can get the picture of Lincoln, you, and Marian Anderson all the time.

Chapman added after his recollection, “Well that pleased him.” Ickes quickly agreed to use the Memorial and contacted President Franklin Roosevelt who also gave his assent. With only days to prepare, Marian Anderson had a place to sing in Washington, D.C.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 2

Marian Anderson and the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial 1939.

The Marian Anderson Concert

While the parks department began site preparation, the NAACP began organizing buses to come to the concert. Nobody really knew how many people would turn out for the event and Anderson had never performed outdoors before.

Sunday, April 9 was a cold, blustery day and rain threatened throughout the day. Nevertheless, more than 75,000 people—black and white– showed up to hear Anderson, with no segregated areas. Millions more listened to the radio broadcast by NBC.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 3

April 9, 1939 crowd at the Marian Anderson concert

The DAR’s refusal of a concert hall to an African American performer turned into the largest affirmation of civil rights at that time. It marked an unofficial dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans. The battle for civil rights was far from over, but the concert also signaled a turning point in the fight against Jim Crow.

Anderson, who avoided political statements and claimed to know little about the battle over her concert venue in Washington, did her part that day. In a slight twist of words, she gave a new civil rights meaning to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when she sang, “to thee we sing” instead of “of thee we sing.”

Battle Far from Over

While the concert marked a turning point, the long battle to desegregate theaters went on in Washington, D.C.

Picket at the National Theater: 1947 ca.

A picket at the National Theater circa 1947.

The fight continued at the National Theater, where picketing began in 1946 over the lessee’s refusal to admit black patrons.  The theater even employed a “spotter” in an attempt to bar anyone trying to “pass” as white.

President Harry Truman crossed the picket line in 1947 to see a performance of “Blossom Time,” but that only inflamed the protests led by the Committee for Racial Democracy chaired by Leon Ransom.  Later that year, the Actor’s Equity Association ultimately voted to ban performances until the theater desegregated.

Marcus Hyman, who held the lease, converted the theater to a movie house rather than desegregate and the landmark theater didn’t open its doors to African Americans until his lease expired and it was reconverted to a theater in 1952.

Desegregate Lisner Auditorium Pickets: 1946 # 1

Pickets at the opening of Lisner Auditorium in 1946. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Ingrid Berman Spat on At Lisner

The Lisner Auditorium opened at George Washington University in 1946, excluding African Americans.  Swedish actress Ingrid Bergman, the star of the play “Joan of Lorraine,” said at a press conference the day before the show opened, “If I’d known black people weren’t allowed in, I’d have never set foot in this town.”

Bergman reported that pro-segregationists waited outside her dressing room and spit on her and called her an “n_____-lover.”

The Washington chapter of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare set up a picket line opening night October 29 demanding that African Americans be admitted. The cast of the production signed a petition denouncing the “deplorable and un-American practice of segregation.” A veterans group and other students at the school joined them in subsequent days.

In response to the outcry against segregation, the university voted to admit African Americans as patrons of university sponsored events in 1947. However, privately-sponsored events at Lisner continued to be segregated until 1954.

Protest Signs, Campaign to integrate Uline Arena, (1948-49)

Picket signs plastered on Uline Arena circa 1948.

The Warner Theater desegregated in 1953. Other battles, including picket lines at the Uline Arena and at movie theaters throughout the city, were waged continuously in the post World War II period.

Concert venues and theaters in the city accelerated desegregation in the wake of the 1953 Supreme Court decision reinstating Washington’s “lost laws” prohibiting segregation in facilities open to the public, and the Court’s 1954 Bolling vs. Sharpe decision outlawing segregated schools in the District.

Marian Anderson in D.C. after 1939.

Anderson was invited to appear at DAR Constitution Hall for a World War II relief benefit in January, 1943. Her representatives demanded that the audience be mixed and that the ban on black artists be lifted. The DAR agreed to a mixed audience, but refused to drop their “whites-only” performers clause, except on a case-by-case basis. Anderson ultimately sang, citing the need for wartime unity.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial: 1952 # 2

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial in 1952.

She reprised her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial on April 20, 1952 in a remembrance service for Harold Ickes. Over 10,000 came out to the event.

She performed again at DAR Constitution Hall in 1953—the same year the organization finally dropped its “whites only” performers clause—and appeared several other times at the hall in subsequent years.

Perhaps in triumph as she gazed out on the 250,000 gathered, she sang at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—again at the Lincoln Memorial.

Perspective

Marian Anderson’s 1939 concert was in many ways the symbolic beginning of the end of Jim Crow.  Though taking the form of a concert, it marked the first mass rally for civil rights, using the emblematic Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop.

Marian Anderson Sings at Lincoln Memorial: 1939 # 1

Marian Anderson concert April 9, 1939.

Most accounts miss the symbolic dedication of the Lincoln Memorial by African Americans that took place with the 1939 Anderson concert. It stood in stark contrast to the segregation at the official dedication held in 1922.

The same accounts usually give most of the credit to President Roosevelt, Eleanor Roosevelt and Interior Secretary Ickes for Anderson’s historic concert, but in 1939 local NAACP secretary John Lovell Jr. saw it a little differently when he wrote in The Crisis,

The spirit they [D.C. African Americans] showed this year was beyond the recollection of the oldest old-timer. They flooded the newspapers with letters, bitterly and skillfully written. They got their friends from outside to shower Congressmen with petitions. They hung from the rafters when the Board of Education met.

They demanded a picket line against the DAR national Convention and shouted for the opportunity of being the first to ride in the Black Marias [police paddy wagons], if the Black Marias were to materialize.

The national press put the credit for the furor upon Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary Ickes; but it was the Marian Anderson Citizens Committee which first notified Mrs. Roosevelt and which got her first response.

The 75,000 who heard Miss Anderson on Easter Sunday were a tribute to the fighting Negroes in the District of Columbia as much as to democracy and the preservation of art.

(Note: This post was updated March 14, 2016 to clarify that while there were not explicit laws requiring segregation of public facilities such as theaters, housing and restaurants; the courts upheld the “right” of individuals and businesses to impose Jim Crow. Further, restrictive covenants requiring houses to be sold only to whites were upheld by the courts)


Watch and listen to Marian Anderson’s rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at the 1939 concert:


This is the third part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The March that Wasn’t & a Renewed Focus on Washington

Read Part I, “Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington
Read Part II, “‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights”


Author’s Notes:

Central High School was the old name for what is now known as Cardozo High School.

Sources include The Washington Post, New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Baltimore Afro American, Washington Afro American, Chicago Defender, Atlanta World, New York Amsterdam News, Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Allan Keller’s “Marian Anderson: A Singers Journal,” Victoria Garrett Jones, “Marian Anderson: A Voice Uplifted,” The Crisis, and Howard Kaplan’s “Marian Anderson.”


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


DC Police Raid 1948 Fundraiser by Progressive Party Supporters

6 Mar
Demonstration Protests DC Police Raid on Veterans Dance: 1948

Civil Rights Congress protests police raids in 1948. Courtesy, DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

By Craig Simpson

In the fall of 1948, Washington police for the second time broke up an interracial gathering when they raided a political fundraiser at the Laborers’ Union Hall at 525 New Jersey Avenue, NW, and arrested seven people and detained two-dozen others.

About 350 people were attending the dance that began Saturday night October 9, and continued past midnight. It was sponsored by the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America to support the Progressive Party campaigns of Henry Wallace for President and Dr. John E. T. Camper for Congress in Maryland’s Fourth District. The election was a mere three weeks away when this raid occurred.

When the police entered the union hall, the band struck up “The Star Spangled Banner,” which momentarily halted the police. But when the last notes faded away, police began herding attendees into lines. The crowd responded by singing Progressive Party songs.

“They [the police] brought in a batch of index cards and police would copy the names down on the index cards and several times they would jot down the source of the identification papers,” according to the Washington Daily News.

About two dozen people refused to give their names and were detained, taken to police headquarters and eventually released after establishing their identity. The Washington Herald published their names and addresses in the next day’s newspaper.

It was almost two years into the post-World War II “red scare” and the dominos were falling at the local level.

Future Progressive Party Presidential Candidate Henry A Wallace: 1939

Henry Wallace in 1939. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Progressive Party Fights Tide

Henry Wallace’s third-party campaign for president was a reaction to President Harry Truman’s move to the right following Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the end of World War II in 1945.  Wallace stood for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, repeal of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, universal health insurance, and civil rights.

Wallace refused to appear in segregated halls in the south and was often attacked with eggs and vegetables during campaign appearances. When his opponents tried to shout him down at political rallies, supporters would drown them out with labor and civil rights songs.

Dr. Camper was an African American physician who devoted his life to racial justice in Baltimore. He organized a group of African American physicians into  MeDeSo (Medical-Dental Society), which helped provide the funding for many civil rights suits, including Brown v. Board of Education.

Baltimore Civil Rights Activist Dr. John E. T. Camper

Civil rights activist Dr. John E. T. Camper in an undated photo.

Along with Juanita Jackson Mitchell, he organized a 1942 march on Annapolis by 2,000 protesters demanding civil rights in Maryland. Dr. Camper was also a founder of the Baltimore NAACP.  He was chair of the Baltimore Committee on Non-Segregation, which picketed the whites-only Ford’s Theater in that city for six years until the playhouse desegregated in 1952.

Kicking off his Progressive Party campaign, Camper said in part,

To the workers of the Fourth District who have witnessed the bipartisan attack on our living standards…I say that we stand for repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, for real price control, for a dollar minimum wage, and for wage increases to meet the rising cost of living.

No resident aware of the shameful betrayal of the Jewish people…and of the callous disregard of the rights of the Negro people can fail to support…Wallace.

Political Motivation Charged

The police denied any political motivations in breaking up the Wallace/Camper fundraiser and said they were just conducting a raid where illegal alcohol was being served.

However, the invitations to the party were under the names of Henry Thomas, leader of Laborer’s Local 74, who had helped lead police brutality protests earlier in the decade, Edward Fisher of Cafeteria Workers Local 471 that had engaged in the 11-week strike earlier caused by Cold War politics, and William Johnson of Local 209 of the Cooks, Pastry and Kitchen Workers union and a long-time civil rights leader in the city.

Among those arrested at the Laborer’s hall were Winston Edwards, national chairman of the veterans’ organization and Sidney Goldreich, acting chairman of Veterans for Wallace.

Local Progressive Party chair Clark Foreman, who was also national treasurer of the organization, said police broke up “parties composed of white people and Negroes, apparently on the theory that any such party is subversive,” according to the Washington Post.

Civil Rights Congress Denounces DC Police Raid on Progressives: 1948

D.C. Civil Rights Congress leader Thomas G. Buchanan Jr. speaks at a rally against police raids in 1948. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

The D.C. chapter of the Civil Rights Congress (CRC) held a demonstration on October 18 where 150 people marched on police headquarters at 300 Indiana Ave., NW, carrying a coffin that read “Don’t Bury American Freedom” and carrying signs reading “Give Storm-trooper Tactics Back to the Nazis” and “Civil Rights Congress.”

Thomas G. Buchanan Jr., executive secretary of the local CRC branch, put perspective into the arrests saying, “The lottery charge is based on the allegation that veterans organizations were raffling off small prizes to those attending the party as a fundraising measure,” according to The Washington Herald. Such raffles were “a common practice among church groups and organizations of all types,” according to the Herald.

The CRC called for a police investigation of the incident and of police Captain Howard V. Covell, who had led the two raids.  Covell responded, “There was nothing political about those raids,” according to the Post.

Earlier Raid on Interracial Party

But eight days earlier, Washington police raided an interracial housewarming party given by Julius Kaplan at his apartment. According to Kaplan, police showed up about 1 a.m. and pretended to be looking for a fictional person named “Mrs. Schwartz,” ostensibly to tell her about a refrigerator leaking gas.

An hour later, 20 police officers showed up saying there had been a report of a shooting in the apartment. By the time the police arrived, there was only one African American still present and police demanded to search him for a weapon, according to Kaplan.

Police arrested 14 people at the address and held them at the police station until 5 a.m. before releasing them.  Kaplan said when the parents of one of the young women called the station to find out why she was being held, a police officer allegedly told them, “Communists are being questioned.” No charges were made related to a shooting.

Protests to Truman & DC Commissioners

The Progressive Party sent a telegram to President Harry Truman and the District of Columbia commissioners protesting the raids, saying in part, “We note that [Police Commissioner] Major Barrett has given as a reason for the high crime rate in Washington that he does not have enough police. We should like to call your attention that…he used nearly 50 police to break up a veterans dance on the pretext that certain individuals were selling liquor without a license and holding a raffle…”

The Washington Post editorialized that “Despite the explanation of Washington police that there was no political significance to Saturday night’s raid, local authorities have shown enough indifference to rowdyism launched against the Wallaceites to arouse suspicion that the arrests at this meeting were not entirely accidental. The case is at best a flimsy one, and, as police well know, illegal sale of liquor in Washington is by no means confined to Wallace rallies.”

The words may have rung true, but the political climate was stacked against those arrested.

Red Scare Takes Hold

Headlines about “reds” and “commies” filled the daily newspapers. The “Hollywood 10” had been convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail for refusing to answer questions about their political beliefs.

Afro Devotes Full Page to Progressive Party Convention: 1948

The Afro American covers the Progressive Party convention in July 31, 1948 edition.

The U.S. government had instituted loyalty oaths for federal employees and indicted leaders of the Communist Party on the charge of advocating insurrection. They were scheduled for trial the day before the Presidential Election.

The anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, among its many provisions, effectively barred alleged communists from holding union office.  It was used locally by a government-sponsored corporation to refuse to bargain with the cafeteria workers union, forcing an 11-week strike earlier in the year.

Wallace, a former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice-President, and Secretary of Commerce, was personally attacked as a communist sympathizer. Baltimore-based, nationally known journalist H. L. Mencken wrote that Wallace and the Progressive Party were under covert control of the communists.

Wallace ended up finishing fourth in the presidential election with about 1.2 million votes, running slightly behind segregationist Strom Thurmond in the popular vote. John Camper won 10% of the vote in the Maryland Fourth District in a three-way race, despite evidence of vote rigging by the Pollack political machine in African American precincts.

Fight in Court Against Raid Arrests

Notwithstanding the minor charges growing out of the dance at the Laborers’ hall, federal prosecutors were determined to convict the men, while those arrested battled back in the legal arena.

Edwards and Goldreich had their arrests dismissed because no police officer had actually observed them selling liquor or “operating a lottery.” Instead, police had arrested them because they said they were in charge of the dance.

However, this victory was short-lived as both still ended up facing charges for the alleged alcohol sale and lottery operation. Separate trials were scheduled for the lottery and alcohol sales.

The “illegal lottery” trial took place January 5, 1949, with the assistant U.S. Attorney Arthur McLaughlin proclaiming that the four men arrested, including Edwards and Goldreich, acted in “open defiance” of the law.

When undercover police officers testified, the “open defiance” of the law that required 35 officers to suppress on a Saturday night turned out to be chances that were being sold for 25 cents each to win three prizes—one fifth of scotch, one fifth of bourbon and a Paul Robeson “Freedom Train” record.

Veterans for Wallace: 1948

1948 Vets for Wallace button.

Police Officer Suggested Raffle

When Edwards, the head of the African American veterans organization, took the witness stand and was being questioned by McLaughlin, he testified that undercover police officer Benjamin Chaplain was the person who suggested holding the raffle to raise money.

Police testified they seized $19.80 at the event as evidence, but when Edwards testified he said he counted over $200 in proceeds two hours before the raid. “I am wondering what happened to all the money,” he said on the witness stand.

In his closing statement, prominent civil rights attorney Charles Hamilton Houston argued that the raffle was conducted for a “cause” similar to church bazaars and fairs where contributions were requested. Houston went on to say that criminal intent was absent.

All were found guilty and fined; three of them were fined $50 and one $25.

Those charged with illegally selling whiskey, including Edwards and Goldreich, had a trial that stretched over three days, from January 17-19.

Leon Ransom, another well known civil rights attorney, argued that the five men charged were accepting contributions, but not selling liquor. Nevertheless, all five were found guilty.

After the trial, juror Anne Mallory filed an affidavit stating that she and other jurors understood that they could find all five guilty or all five innocent. She further stated that she believed two of the men were innocent, but Judge Aubrey B. Fennell denied the motion for a new trial. Fennell imposed fines of  $200 on all five defendants in February.

Further court appeals for both groups were unsuccessful.

Breadth of Suppression

In the overall context of the post World War II “red scare,” this was a minor incident. Those who were jailed or lost their jobs during that period suffered worse fates.

However, it illustrates the depth and breadth of the suppression of the country’s left wing movement during the period, including the use of fear and apprehension at being even remotely connected to progressive, socialist or communist issues and campaigns.

Police and the FBI routinely made files of everyone associated with left-wing activists or events. In this instance, it was those who attended a housewarming party or a dance. Authorities prosecuted minor offenses and created arrest records for others. An undercover police officer urged an act that police later conducted arrests for. Proceeds from the fundraiser went missing after police seized them.

Newspapers during this period published the names, addresses and often the employer of people even if they were not arrested or convicted of any crime. In this instance, The Washington Herald published the names and addresses of people who were booked for “investigation” and not for any crime. All the local newspapers carried the names and addresses of those arrested for minor alcohol violations in this case.

It also illustrates how those affected continued to fight back. They campaigned in elections, held demonstrations and waged court battles. The message of “Don’t Bury American Freedom” carried during the protest of these arrests turned out to be one repeated many times during the next decade.


Author’s Notes:

Sources include the following newspapers: The Washington Post, The Afro American, The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star and The Washington Herald.  Also consulted were “Hearings Regarding Communism in the District of Columbia” conducted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities and “A Doctor’s Legacy: Dr. John E. T. Camper and the MeDeSo” by Jonathan Cahn.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Police Break Up Unemployed Protest at White House: 1930

26 Feb

Police at the White House broke up a protest by the unemployed on March 6, 1930. The demonstration was part of the first nationwide protest response to the Great Depression that had begun the previous fall.

Protests were held in Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Boston, Milwaukee, Seattle, Las Angeles and San Francisco among other cities. Demonstrations were also held on the same day in cities around the world.

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 1

Pickets arrive at the White House, March 6, 1930. Photo courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress.

The clash began when District of Columbia local Communist Party leader William “Bert” Lawrence stopped and began to speak to the crowd, police in street clothes attacked him. Uniformed police then assaulted the picketers and bystanders with tear gas and black jacks. Some the protestors fought back against the police.

Some reports said President Herbert Hoover watched the demonstration from the White House windows along with a delegation from the District of Columbia Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), while other reports had his wife watching along with the DAR.

The District of Columbia Communist Party and allied groups began preparations in the city for weeks before and police responded by arresting 10 people on April 30 for holding soapbox style speeches on the street corners near the Communist Party headquarters at 1337 7th Street NW. Similar meetings and police harassment took place at the Women’s Christian Temperance Union statue at 7th Street and Pennsylvania Ave. NW.

Unemployment Rally in DC: 1930

Meeting at 1337 7th St. NW prior to picketing, March 6, 1930. From the Library of Congress

The communists and along with others held a rally the night before at the Communist Party headquarters where speeches were given and signs were made for the next day’s demonstration. The main themes were demands for good jobs, against police brutality, Jim Crow schools in the District and lynching.

Among the organizers were Lawrence, Solomon Harper of the International Labor Defense and Edith Briscoe of the Young Communist League.

Briscoe was among those arrested at the White House picket line after she jumped on the back of a police officer he was getting ready to strike an African American demonstrator. Lawrence was detained and charged with speaking in a public place without permission.

Harper was arrested for disorderly conduct, but was acquitted. He still faced charges from an outdoor speech he gave the night before condemning the lynching of sixty-year-old Laura Wood at Barber Junction in North Carolina.

Tear Gas Quells Reds: Washington Post 1930

Jobless pickets are the lead story for the Washington Post, March 7, 1930.

Public demonstrations of this type were fairly infrequent at that time and public protests involving blacks and whites even more infrequent.

The picket in front of the White House was held with blacks and whites locking arms while picketing. Press reports estimated that several thousand nearby office workers came out to watch. The newspapers also indicate that 13 picketers were arrested with an unknown number of injured, but only one that required hospital treatment.

The demonstrations made front-page news and were the lead stories in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun and helped put the Communist Party at the forefront of the fight against unemployment and racial discrimination in the District for the next decade.


To see still photos of the March 6, 1930 demonstration, go to the Washington Area Spark Flickr site.

The photos in the short video are courtesy of the Library of Congress. The video clips were originally from Sherman Grinberg, but are believed to be in the public domain. The clips were misidentified as part of the the 1932 bonus march in a Newsreel production. The Library of Congress has mis-dated some of the photos to a period earlier than they actually were taken.

Note: This post was updated February 28.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights

19 Feb
4000 March in Washington to Free ‘Scottsboro Boys’ – 1933

4,000 march on Washington on May 8, 1933 to “Free the Scottsboro Boys.” ©Bettman/Corbis.

By Craig Simpson
2nd of a series

During the height of the Great Depression, on May 8, 1933, a crowd of 4,000 people marched more than six miles through steady rain in Washington, D.C. demanding freedom for the “Scottsboro Boys” and other prisoners.

More than ten years had passed since the last predominantly African American mass march in the nation’s capital centered on a call for anti-lynching legislation and basic civil rights.

The “Scottsboro Boys” were nine African American youths accused of the rape of two white women in Alabama. Eight of them were convicted and sentenced to death. A mistrial was declared for the ninth, 13-year-old Roy Wright, after the jury deadlocked on the death penalty.

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

‘Scottsboro Boys’ with Attorney Leibowitz: 1933

An all-white crowd packed the courtroom during the trials while thousands more gathered outside. When the first verdicts were announced, a band began playing, “It’s going to be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

The case inspired unprecedented activism in black communities across the country and cast a worldwide spotlight on treatment of African Americans in the United States.

The tactics used in the fight to free those accused also set off a years-long,  acrimonious public debate between the Communist Party (CP) with its legal arm, the International Labor Defense (ILD), and the NAACP.

Communist Party Takes Control of Case

During the initial trial a local lawyer, hired with the assistance of a ministers’ group allied with the NAACP, did a poor job of representing the Scottsboro defendants. The ILD attorneys then took control of the case with the support of the youths and their mothers.

Eight of the defendants had been sentenced to death on April 11, 1931 and were scheduled for execution on July 10th. The CP acted quickly to organize protests across the country, characterizing the trial as a “legal lynching.”

Blacks, Whites Protest Job Losses: 1930 No. 2

Solomon Harper shown at a 1930 picket line at the White House. National Photo Company, courtesy of the LIbrary of Congress

In Washington, D.C. meetings and rallies were held, including one on May 29, 1931, led by ILD District of Columbia leader Solomon Harper at Fisherman Hall (320 F Street, SW).

Harper outlined the holes in the prosecution’s case, pointing out, for example, that three trial witnesses had placed the defendants in different locations.   Harper also  addressed those criticizing communist involvement by calling for a united front to aid the youths. Ada Wright, mother of two of the defendants, also spoke and appealed to the crowd for aid in freeing the youths. Wright’s 17-year-old son, Andy, was scheduled for execution in six weeks.  Her other son Roy, 13, was still in jail, awaiting sentencing.

Letters and telegrams poured in to the county, the courts, the attorney general, the governor, Congress and the President to free the young men.  Nationwide direct action—including civil disobedience—was employed on an extraordinary scale in the quest for the young men’s freedom.

Communist parties in other countries also led marches and rallies to demand release of the youths, including a July 1931 rally of 150,000 German workers who heard Wright speak and plea to save her sons.

In addition to the mass pressure, the ILD challenged the initial guilty verdict in the courts on three broad grounds: that the trial had taken place under mob intimidation, that the defense was incompetent and had deprived the young men of a fair trial, and that African Americans had been excluded from the jury pool.

NAACP Leader DuBois in Washington: 1932

W.E.B. DuBois, shown at an Alpha Phi Alpha dinner, blasted communist tactics of mass action. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American HIstory.

NAACP Blasts Tactics

The NAACP was initially reluctant to take on an appeal. However, once the communists brought public attention to the youths, they fought bitterly to regain control of the case, even offering the services of famed trial lawyer Clarence Darrow at one point.

W. E. B DuBois, editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine, blasted the ILD in a 1931 article, “If the Communists want these lads murdered, then their antics of threatening judges and yelling for mass action. . . is calculated to insure this.”

The NAACP also didn’t believe any significant legal principles were involved in the case. NAACP executive secretary Walter White wrote in a letter to field secretary William Pickens, “It is equally true that there is no broad legal principle to be established in the cases. The principle involved in them was established by us in the Arkansas Cases…ruling that a trial in a court dominated by mob influence is not due process of law.”

However, events proved the NAACP leadership wrong.

Case Goes to Supreme Court

The communists directly challenged every institution involved in the case—local officials, state officials, judges and the federal government—denouncing them as tools of the ruling class.

The CP engaged in high profile civil disobedience when they staged a banned demonstration at the Supreme Court on November 11, 1932–the day the Court was due to deliver its first decision in the case. A captain of the Capitol police, Stephen Gnash, refused to issue a permit because the protest “might be interpreted as an attempt to coerce the Supreme Court.”

The ILD held the demonstration anyway and police broke it up with clubs and tear gas, but not before the pickets threw a few counter-punches at the police.  Reports of the clash were met with horror by more conservative elements in the African American community.

7 'Scottsboro Boys' Win: 1932

Protestors are arrested at the Supreme Court prior to the ruling reversing the Scottsboro verdicts, November. 1932.

Precedent Set by Court

But in a precedent-setting ruling, the Supreme Court found that the defense provided the Scottsboro youths was incompetent and ordered a new trial. Justice Felix Frankfurter said at the time that the ruling was “the first application of the limitations of the [fourteenth] amendment to a state criminal trial.”

The Court also rejected the mob intimidation legal theory with the majority writing, “It does not sufficiently appear that the defendants were seriously threatened with, or that they were actually in danger of mob violence. . .” This was another blow to the NAACP and White, who had earlier written this was the sole basis for overturning the convictions.

The Alabama prosecutors then split the defendants into different groups for retrial,  where eight of the youths were again found guilty.

March on White House and Capitol

The CP continued its campaign to free the youths, their efforts climaxing in the 1933 march on Washington.

The night before the march, several thousand African Americans mixed with several hundred white supporters at the Mt. Carmel Baptist Church located at 3rd and I Streets, NW. There they heard Ruby Bates, one of the accusers of the youths who had recanted her testimony during the second trial, say,

They were framed-up at the Scottsboro trial, not only by the boys and girls on the freight train, of which I was one, but by the bosses of the southern counties.

Scottsboro March Rates Four Photo in Afro American: 1933

Afro American publishes four photos of the 1933 march on Washington.

The next day the lengthy march began at Florida and New York Ave NE and wound through the city before heading toward the White House and then on to the Capitol, where it was to disband near the House office buildings. Ruby Bates and Janie Patterson, the mother of defendant Haywood Patterson, led the group.

Marchers also called for freeing labor leader Tom Mooney, a Maryland African American named Euel Lee who was also facing the death penalty, and Angelo Herndon, a black communist labor organizer charged with insurrection in Georgia.

Roosevelt Refusal Angers Demonstrators

The demonstrators were angered when President Franklin Roosevelt refused to see a delegation. Instead the White House appointments secretary received representatives who presented a petition with 145,000 signatures. The crowd paused their march and gathered outside the White House where they sang The Internationale and shouted, “Free the Scottsboro Boys.”

Delegation Demands Justice Depart Action on Lynching: 1940

William D. Patterson, 2nd from left, shown in 1940. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy National Museum of American History.

They then marched to the Capitol where a delegation led by William D. Patterson (no relation to defendant), a leader of the ILD, met briefly with Speaker of the House Henry Rainey and Vice President John Garner. They presented more petitions demanding freedom for the Scottsboro Boys and for the passage of an anti-lynching law.

Rep. Oscar De Priest (R-IL), the only African American in Congress at the time, continued the debate over tactics. He rebuked Patterson, telling him the case “cannot be settled by your parading in the capital: it is a case for the state and your presence in Washington fails to help the cause.” DePriest, who also opposed higher taxes on the wealthy and federal relief programs, was defeated in an election the following year.

Louise Thompson Patterson - late 1920s, CRC Worker, Former Wife of Wallace Thurman

Louise Thompson said the 1933 Scottsboro march was only the beginning and predicted a million would return. Photo: Carl Van Vechten.

The march concluded with a rally at Seaton Park near the Capitol where the throng heard a dozen speakers, including Louise Thompson. She told the crowd this was “only the beginning” and that “another time will come when 500,000, even a million marchers” will descend on Washington.

Mothers Return to D.C.

On the morning of Mother’s Day, May 13, 1934, four of the mothers and Ruby Bates returned to Washington and spoke at churches throughout the city.  In the afternoon, they were refused an audience with the President or any of his representatives. That evening several hundred people rallied in support of the Scottsboro defendants at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA, 901 Rhode Island Avenue, NW.

'Scottsboro Boys' Mothers: 1934

Four of the Scottsboro mothers and Ruby Bates at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA in Washington, DC in May 1934. Photo by Addison Scurlock, courtesy of National Museum of American History.

Janie Patterson, whose son had three times been sentenced to die in the electric chair, told the crowd, “The President wouldn’t see me and he is supposed to be my President too.” Viola Montgomery, mother of defendant Olen Montgomery, stated, “If a colored woman had been attacked by white men, nothing would have been done.”

Ida Norris, mother of Clarence Norris, praised the ILD, “If it hadn’t been for them, our boys would have been electrocuted or lynched long ago. If you are ever going to vote, vote nothing but the Communist ticket.”

The group went back to the White House the following day and was received by the President’s representatives.

Court Rules Jury Exclusion Illegal

The case came back before the Supreme Court as Norris vs. Alabama on February 15, 1935. The Court overturned the guilty verdict again in another precedent-setting decision, finding that Alabama’s exclusion of blacks from the jury rolls violated the “equal protection” clause of the Constitution.

“Scottsboro Boys Must Not Die,” DC Mass Meeting: 1934

Flyer for a 1934 Washington, D.C. protest meeting on the ‘Scottsboro Boys.’ Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

By this time, the ILD had made its own mistakes in handling the case, including two ILD members being caught trying to bribe the principal accuser of the youths.  In addition, the NAACP was under pressure by its members to end its fight with the communists.

A joint legal defense committee, supported by both groups, the ACLU and others, was finally formed in 1935 to take charge of the case. With the legal defense under a unified banner, the CP and ILD continued to organize mass pressure.

Partial Victory

Patterson’s fourth trial, in January, 1936, resulted in another rape conviction, but this time he was sentenced to 75 years—the first time in Alabama that a black man had avoided the death penalty after a conviction for the rape of a white woman.

In July, 1937, prosecutors dropped charges against Montgomery, Willie Roberson, Eugene Williams and Roy Wright after they had spent six years in prison. Wright, 13 at the time of the events, had been imprisoned all that time, even though he was never tried again after the first mistrial.

During an altercation, a deputy shot and wounded Ozie Powell in 1936 while he was being transported to a prison. Powell eventually pled guilty to assaulting the deputy and the rape charges were dropped as part of the plea deal. Powell was released in 1946.

The other three were convicted of rape. Clarence Norris, Andrew Wright and Charlie Weems were eventually paroled in the 1940s, and Patterson escaped in 1948. Wright was sent back to prison for a parole violation and wasn’t released until 1950.

New Rights, New Tactics

The debate over tactics would continue for decades, but the Scottsboro campaign established that direct action could produce change.  The defendants weren’t all acquitted, but they were all saved from the death penalty. Two new important precedents were set: the right to competent defense counsel and a prohibition against excluding African Americans from juries.

145,000 Protest Scottsboro to Roosevelt: 1933

The May 10, 1933 New York Amsterdam News headlines the Scottsboro mass protest.

Equally important was the communists’ use of mass protest and civil disobedience alongside a strident legal defense. Charles Hamilton Houston, who served as the first NAACP special counsel from 1935-40, summarized the Scottsboro case and put the Communist Party/ILD approach in perspective when he wrote in 1935:

By its uncompromising resistance to Southern prejudice the ILD has set a new standard for agitation for equality. Through its activity in the Scottsboro case the ILD has made it impossible for the Negro bourgeoisie in the future to be as complacent and supine before racial injustices as it was prior to Scottsboro. It has introduced the Negro to the possibilities and tactics of mass pressure.

Years later, Houston reflected that Scottsboro marked “an historic departure” and that African Americans

were made to feel that even without the ordinary weapons of democracy…[they] still had the force…with which they themselves could bring to bear pressures and affect the result of the trial…

Nobody who ever sent a telegram of protest to any of the Scottsboro judges…ever inside himself accepted the fact that he was willingly from then on going to tolerate the system and the oppression to which he hitherto had been unresistingly subject.


This is the second part of a series on civil rights marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for the landmark 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom. Next Installment: The 1939 Marian Anderson Concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Read Part I, Before 1963: the 1922 Silent March on Washington

Read Part III, DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by Marian Anderson Concert


Author’s notes:

In 1976, Norris, the last living defendant at that time, was pardoned with the support of the NAACP and civil rights groups across the country. The Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center was opened in the town in 2010, acknowledging the history of the youths’ ordeal.

This year, two bills were introduced into the Alabama legislature that would finally clear all the defendants.  A resolution would find the Scottsboro youths “victims of a series of gross injustices” and declare them exonerated. The other legislation would grant the state parole board the power to grant posthumous pardons, a legal prerequisite before pardons to the now deceased defendants could be issued. Though 82 years late, observers predict that both bills will pass.

The quotes by Charles Hamilton Houston are excerpted from Genna McNeil’s, “Groundwork: Charles Hamilton Houston and the Struggle for Civil Rights.” Quotes by the Scottsboro mothers, Ruby Bates and Louise Thompson are from articles from The Afro American. Quotes from Walter White and W.E.B. DuBois came from “Remembering Scottsboro: The Legacy of an Infamous Trial” by James A. Miller. Other sources include: The Crisis, The Afro American, The Washington Post, The Washington Star, The Chicago Defender and The Amsterdam News.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Cock Rock: The Rape of Our Culture

12 Feb
Cock Rock Illustration_edited reversed-1

Illustration accompanying original article. From Liberation News Service, published in Montgomery Spark, Oct. 1972.

By Bob Simpson
Originally published October 1972 in the Montgomery Spark

The Mike Quatro concert at Montgomery College really pissed me off. Not particularly because Quatro is any different from any other rock super heavy – he’s not – but because he is representative of a general sickness which is eating away at rock music – SEXISM.

Sexism roughly defined involves male domination. It means coming on strong, manipulating people, being the male center of attention at all times, and ultimately fucking over and using women.

I talked with Mike Quatro a little before he was interviewed on WHMC. I had no intention of writing about him at the time. It was about 2 hours before the concert and I was bored. So I rode up to WHMC with his entourage and a couple of my friends.

Quatro, seated next to his female companion, wanted to talk. As we passed around a joint, he noticed that I had well-developed leg muscles. I used to swim and run distance, so he used this as an excuse to discuss physical fitness. He explained that the way to achieve fitness is to “get a chick and fuck her three times a day.”

Women Are Not Chicks

Most of the men reading this probably find that statement amusing, maybe a few women do too. It’s not. It typifies a whole attitude found in rock culture. Women are not chicks. Chicks are small fuzzy immature chickens. Women are human beings with feelings and intelligence.

Quatro_Ad

Ad for Quatro concert. From Montgomery Spark, Sept. 1972.

Male chauvinist rock culture demands that women be sex objects who are subservient to men. They are tolerated if they are “groovy chicks”, disregarded as a “drag” if they are not. They are sexual exercycles to masturbate into while the male demonstrates his supposed prowess with his prick. It is a highly oppressive and emotionally destructive environment for a woman.

Our conversation lapsed severely after his statement about physical fitness. After several minutes of uncomfortable silence, he asked if we listened to Barry Richards. Now Barry Richards is one of the most slick, fast-talking, pseudo-hip rip-offs in the Washington area. His show on WHMC is loud and obnoxious, a weak, unintentional parody of AM Top 40 on a supposedly “progressive” station.

Pseudo Hip Promoters

Personally, he always comes on strong and heavy. He has been booed off the stage of several live rock shows. We told Quatro we didn’t listen to Barry Richards because he’s an ass. Quatro, seeing as how Richards was giving him airplay plus a live interview, was surprised. He said people like Barry Richards are necessary. Later, we discovered that Quatro was a rock promoter in Detroit. Birds of a feather.

The point is that Barry Richards both typifies and strengthens the hold that male chauvinism has over rock culture. His “heavy” approach helps create the obsolete concept of maleness and virility that many rock stars cultivate. He tolerates all manner of sexist ads which insult women. Listen to WHMC and hear about how you can’t be a “real woman” or “get a man” unless you by certain “youth” oriented products.

Mike Quatro Concert 1972 # 4

Students gather on the football field for the Montgomery College Quatro concert on Sept. 1, 1972.

Ads like these try to force women into the roles which male heavies like to keep them in. Male rock heavies like Barry Richards and Quatro. Most rock promoters, DJs, producers, etc., are bell-bottomed, hirsute phony hippies. Their only interests outside of music are money, dope, and groupies. They use their power to get all three.

Quatro Concert

Quatro had his interview and went on to perform. I didn’t like his music, but by that time I didn’t like him much, either. His efforts to combine “Bach & Rock” seemed pretentious and silly. His massive ego demanded that he play all the instruments except for the drums. It came over to me as sounding artsy-fartsy and cluttered. Most of the small crowd left before he was finished.

If it sounds like I’m being harsh on Quatro, it’s because that’s my intention. But there are other examples. Jimi Hendrix was one of the finest guitarists in rock, but he was a vicious sexist. Using his guitar as an extension of his penis, he created an indelible image of raw male power in his live performances. He often ran the guitar between his legs in crude imitation of an erection.

His most symbolically horrifying spectacle was at the Monterey Pop Festival. There he reversed the guitar symbolism by fucking the music hole with his body. Spraying lighter fluid as he knelt over his guitar-vagina, he set it afire. Later it was smashed to pieces. The whole ceremony dredged up horrible echoes of the burning and torturing of disobedient women as witches in the Middle Ages.

Rock lyrics can be equally as offensive. Who can forget Jagger telling their friend Leroy that “they may be stupid but they sure are fun,” referring to women Leroy was about to prey upon. Or Rod Stewart telling his groupie that she can go to be with him, but that she better be gone the next morning. These aspects of rock culture we can do without.

Feminist Rock Bands

“When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”

New Haven Women's Liberation Rock Band: 1970

New Haven Women’s Liberation Rock Band performs in D.C. in 1970. Photo: Rosemary, courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Winds of change are blowing through the male bastion of rock. Singers like Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King have sung of the beauty and pain of being a woman. A real woman who laughs and cries, who feels pain and happiness, not the passive groupie image of the male rock heavy.

Feminist rock bands, including both gay and straight women, are now a reality. Some of these all-women groups are musically excellent and need more listeners. A few male performers like John Lennon and Country Joe McDonald are musically grappling with the problems that men have relating to women as human beings. These are hopeful signs. But the male-dominated rock industry is powerful.

We as listeners must make sure that these and other voices are not crushed or stilled as Janis Joplin was. Or turned into pale imitations of heavy male rock like the all-women group Fanny. Finally, we need to stop supporting the blatant sexists of rock. They only perpetuate what is vile and unhealthy in our culture.


This section was updated and corrected March 5, 2013

Editor’s Notes:

When this article was published February 13, it was erroneously attributed to Anonymous II. The person choosing Anonymous II as their identification was one of the people that edited the article, but not the author.

Reflecting on the article after 40 years, Anonymous II wrote,

I was thinking a lot of rap music today is even more graphic about sexism and of course the groupie thing still applies. I watched Steven Tyler as a judge on American Idol one night flirting with 16-year-old girl contestants. It disgusted me and felt like child abuse. He can do it because he is a rock star even though he is like 40 years older.

The Mike Quatro concert at Montgomery College took place September 1, 1972. The article was originally published in the Montgomery Spark, Vol. 2, No. 2, Week of October 4, 1972, page 13. This post is titled the same as the original article.


Before 1963: The 1922 Silent March on Washington

6 Feb
Marian Anderson at Lincoln Memorial: 1939

1963 March? – Marian Anderson 1939 concert. Photo: Robert Scurlock,

By Craig Simpson

The August, 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was a watershed moment for the modern civil rights movement.  The effort galvanized upwards of 250,000 people for the largest demonstration in the city up to that time.

Sometimes called “The Great March on Washington,” it was the scene of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and helped spur the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The groundwork for that massive march on the nation’s capital for basic civil rights was laid over the course of decades, and the symbolism of the Lincoln Memorial figured prominently in those early efforts.

A fierce debate over tactics and strategy to achieve equality raged during those years between left-leaning advocates of direct action who were based in the black working class and those more rooted among African American professionals who urged reliance on legal efforts and lobbying.

By the time of the 1963 march, it had become clear that a “Courts and Congress” strategy by itself would not bring equality.

This is the first article in a series outlining some of the prior marches on Washington and rallies at the Lincoln Memorial that laid the basis for 1963 March on Washington.

1922 March Against Lynching in D.C.

Silent Anti-Lynching March on Washington: 1922

1922 anti lynching march on Washington © Bettman/Corbis

Five thousand African Americans staged a silent protest march on June 14, 1922 parading past both the Capitol and the White House with placards denouncing lynching and urging a federal anti-lynching bill.

Rep. Leonidas Dyer (R-MO) sponsored a bill that was pending in the Senate to require federal penalties for those state and city officials who failed to protect against lynching, as well as those committing the act.  It would also have forced counties to pay damages to the victims’ families.

Reversal of Post-Slavery Gains

By 1922, many of the gains African Americans made during the Reconstruction era after the Civil War had been reversed.  And in the 45 years since the end of Reconstruction, over 3,000 black Americans had been lynched.

President Woodrow Wilson capped the drive to re-subjugate black people after his election in 1912 when he segregated most government facilities in the capital city. He told a New York Times reporter in 1914, “If colored people made the mistake of voting for me they ought to correct it.”

Black leadership was not mute during this period, but the NAACP did use the tactic of a “Silent March.” It organized the first mass demonstration by African Americans in the twentieth century when 10,000 paraded in New York City in 1917 after a brutal attack by a white mob on African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois.

A New Militancy – 1919

African American soldiers returning from World War I gave a new militancy to the fight for rights. When white mobs attacked black people in Washington, DC and Chicago in 1919, the veterans organized the armed defense of black neighborhoods.

White leaders were shocked when 10 whites, including two police officers, were killed during the clashes in Washington, compared to five black people.

DC Teen Kills Detective in Her Home: 1919

Johnson home at 220 G St. NW. Photo: Washington Times

Carrie Minor Johnson, a 17-year-old African American woman, became a cause celebre in black working class Washington when she and her father held off a mob of whites during the riot, then shot and killed a detective after police officers invaded their home.

Both were wounded in the shooting on the second floor of their residence and charged with murder. Charges were subsequently dropped against the father, but Carrie Johnson’s first trial resulted in a conviction for manslaughter. A second trial was granted and prosecutors dropped all charges after the new judge agreed to admit defense evidence that the young woman was in terror for her life.

In the Chicago attack, whites gained the upper hand against a fierce defense by African Americans.  The official toll was 23 black people dead compared to 15 whites.  A dozen blocks were destroyed in African American sections of town. Other cities and towns across the country were often overwhelmed by white mobs in the “Red Summer” of 1919, but the fighting spirit in Chicago and Washington brought hope and pride to the black communities.

Poem Extolls African American Resistance: 1919

Ode to DC’s defenders. From Afro American 8/15/1919.

James Weldon Johnson, then a field secretary for the NAACP and later the organization’s leader, wrote “In previous race riots they [African Americans] have run away and have been beaten without resistance, but now they will protect themselves.”

Chapters of the African Blood Brotherhood (ABB) organized by New York leader Cyril Briggs were established around the country. The ABB was organized as a semi-secret body and was a militant alternative to Marcus Garvey’s back-to-Africa movement; it favored armed self-defense of black people in this country. The ABB peaked during this period at upwards of 3,000 members in several dozen cities across the United States.

White Mob at the Scene of Final Assault on Greenwood: 1921

Part of white mob at scene of final assault on Greenwood at Frisco rail yard: Tulsa, Oklahoma June 1, 1921.

Tulsa Outrage -1921

In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, an armed group of African Americans went to the courthouse to protect a black man charged with assault of a 17-year-old white woman. A black man had been taken from the authorities’ custody in 1920 and lynched and the group was determined to prevent another murder.

As the evening went on, shots were exchanged with a white mob. Several people on both sides were killed and wounded.

One of the worst attacks against black people in the nation’s history was about to begin. Oklahoma had a strong Ku Klux Klan and hundreds of whites were organized to assault the black Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood. Black ex-servicemen organized the defense, placing armed men at strategic defense points around the neighborhood.

Defenders largely held off the white mob on the evening of May 31, but they were overrun on the morning of June 1. The white mob had overwhelming numbers and firepower, including a machine gun and an airplane.

Ruins of Greenwood Section of Tulsa: 1921

Greenwood in ruins after white mob assault in Tulsa: 1921

As they gained territory, the white mob systematically looted each house, business and church and then burned them to the ground, sometimes murdering the homeowners they found. The National Guard, which had been mobilized and spent the night and morning protecting white neighborhoods, moved to end the mob violence around noon.

The actual death toll is not known. Estimates ranged from 10 white and 26 black, to several hundred African American dead. The entire Greenwood section of the city was burned to the ground.

Early NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson: 1920 ca.

NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson led the fight for Dyer bill. Photo by Addison Scurlock.

Dyer Bill – 1922

The increasing violent clashes put pressure on Republican Party leaders who still nominally advocated the rights of African Americans.

While there was no serious talk of Congress over-riding state Jim Crow laws, the campaign against lynching and the armed clashes gave new impetus to a federal anti-lynching bill that had been introduced in one form or another since 1901.

African American leaders had successfully lobbied the Republicans to include an anti-lynching plank in their party platform.  In 1922, the party controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency.

The House of Representatives passed Dyer’s bill, strongly lobbied by the National Association for Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), on a 231-119 vote on January 16, 1922.

Mary Church Terrell as a Young Woman: 1920 ca

Mary Church Terrell, one of the organizers of the 1922 march on Washington. Photo: Addison Scurlock.

Mainstream civil rights organizations that had been leading the anti-lynching fight stepped up their tactics. In addition to the traditional meetings held in churches and letters written to newspapers and elected officials, these leaders made another foray into the street.

The Washington march included many fraternal organizations:  Masons, Elks and Knights of Pythias and Odd Fellows, along with veterans of the Civil and Spanish-American wars and World War I. Over 700 automobiles brought up the rear of the parade.

The District of Columbia march was organized by a “Committee of 100” mainly composed of D.C. residents. It featured a number of prominent women in the leadership, including Mary Church Terrell, a founder of the NAACP, Rosalie F. Cook, a member of the District’s board of education and M. A. McAdoo, head of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.

After the march, the NAACP took out full-page ads in major newspapers across the country on November 22 and 23, including the New York Times and The Atlanta Constitution. Despite the backdrop of armed clashes, the lobbying efforts, the 5,000-person march, and the follow-up ad campaign, the Dyer anti-lynching bill died in December 1922, after Senate Democrats staged a filibuster.

Aftermath

While similar bills were introduced in subsequent years, the Ku Klux Klan reached the height of its power in that period during the 1920s. They effectively blocked any legislation through their successful electoral program in the south and intimidation of any white official within their range of influence who considered breaking with them.

NAACP Anti-Lynching Advertisement in New York Times: 1922

NAACP ad in New York Times Nov. 22, 1922 during campaign for Dyer anti-lynching bill.

The devastating defeat of Tulsa’s armed resistance put a damper on this form of resistance and began the decline of the ABB. Briggs ultimately merged the organization with one of the two communist parties in existence at the time.

The failure of public mass pressure to result in victory during the anti-lynching campaign discouraged leaders from widespread use of this tactic during the 1920s.

It would be another ten years before African American activists again embraced the tactics of nationwide marches and demonstrations and renewed the push for federal anti-lynching legislation.


Read Part II: “Scottsboro Boys” – New Tactics & Strategy for Civil Rights
Read Part III: DC’s Old Jim Crow Rocked by 1939 Marian Anderson Concert


Author’s Notes: Most of the material in this article is taken from The Washington Post, The Afro American, Washington Times, Washington Star, Washington Bee, Amsterdam News, New York Times, Chicago Defender, “The Tulsa Race Riot Report” by the Oklahoma Commission and other public sources.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


Crazy Dion Diamond: A 1960 Rights Warrior in the Suburbs

20 Jan
Bravery at Arlington Lunch Counter: 1960

Dion Diamond sits calmly while Nazi Party chief George Lincoln Rockwell hurls racial insults at 1960 Arlington, Virginia Drug Fair sit-in. Photo by Gus Chinn, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.


Campaign in Arlington, Virginia

Dion Diamond was one of a small interracial group that broke Jim Crow’s back in the Washington, DC suburbs in 1960.

The sit-in movement in the area began June 9, 1960 at a People’s Drug Store counter at Lee Highway and Old Dominion Drive in Arlington, Virginia.

Thirteen people, seven African American and six white, were refused service and the management closed the counter. Half the group, including 19-year-old Howard University student Diamond, then moved to the Drug Fair at 5401 Lee Highway, where they were also refused service.

However, this time a crowd of white teenagers gathered to harass the group, who had named themselves the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG). Someone alerted the American Nazi Party, headquartered nearby at 928 North Randolph Street. Lit cigarettes and other items were tossed at those sitting-in.

No arrests were made until the next day when Diamond and Laurence Henry sought service at a Howard Johnson at 4700 Lee Highway. They were arrested there for trespassing.

Victory Within Two Weeks

While business, civic and political leaders negotiated, NAG held another round of sit-ins. The demonstrations resulted in victory on June 22 when five major Arlington businesses — including People’s and Drug Fair — announced the end of their segregated practices. The next day restaurants in Alexandria followed suit, and Fairfax County did the same shortly after.

The group then turned to the Glen Echo Amusement Park in Montgomery County, Maryland, and began picketing on June 30. The picketers were faced again by American Nazi Party-organized counter-demonstrations, arrests for trespassing, and police harassment. Diamond was among those arrested.

White neighbors in the nearby community of Bannockburn joined the desegregation protestors and helped sustain the picket line through the rest of the summer.

Confidence in the Cause: Glen Echo 1960

Dion Diamond braves counter-demonstrators organized by Nazis in Glen Echo, MD in 1960. Photo: Walter Oates, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Jim Crow Falls in Maryland Suburbs

The demonstrations branched out to other suburban Maryland targets that summer, including the Hi-Boy restaurant at North Washington and Frederick Street in Rockville. Hi-Boy gave in after two weeks of picketing, sit-ins and arrests.

The Hiser Theater at 7414 Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda was the target of nearly 100 consecutive hours of picketing during one of the protests to mark the years that had passed since the Emancipation Proclamation.  Longtime owner John Hiser sold the theater in September and the new owners desegregated.  Picketers also targeted the Fair Lanes Bowling Alley in Hyattsville.

Glen Echo ended the 1960 season in the fall still segregated. During the off-season, however, under the cloud of lawsuits, political pressure and the threat of renewed picketing, the owners gave in and opened in 1961 as a desegregated facility.

The battle against Jim Crow at restaurants, theaters and amusement parks in Montgomery and Arlington was largely over, although sit-ins continued in Prince George’s County through 1962. Further, it wasn’t until 1966 that another group took on desegregation of housing in the Washington suburbs in an even tougher fight.

Diamond Heads South to Freedom Ride

When Diamond heard about the Trailways bus burning in the Spring of 1961 that nearly killed many in the first group of Freedom Riders in Anniston, Georgia, he quickly joined the second wave. He was arrested with others in Jackson, Mississippi for trying to integrate interstate transportation and was sent to the Mississippi State Prison in Parchman with the other riders.

Diamond served as a Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary in Mississippi and Louisiana from 1961-63. He was arrested more than 30 times during his civil rights activism, most famously at Southern University in East Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Several Southern students had joined in local desegregation demonstrations and were expelled from the historically black college by the administration. A student strike was organized and when Diamond arrived on campus to urge the students to continue resistance, he was placed under arrest for disorderly conduct.

To Overthrow the Government of Louisiana

The charges were changed to “criminal anarchy” – attempting to overthrow the government of Louisiana. Two other SNCC workers who visited Diamond in jail were also charged with insurrection…

…with force of arms, in the Parish of East Baton Rouge feloniously did… advocate in public and in private opposition to the Government of the State of Louisiana by unlawful means and are members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, an organization which is known to the offenders to advocate, teach and practice opposition to the Government of the State of Louisiana by unlawful means.

Diamond’s bail was raised to $12,000 – an enormous sum at the time. Another young activist, 20-year-old Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), led a sit-in at Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s office in Washington seeking Diamond’s release.

Bail was ultimately secured for Diamond and the criminal anarchy charges were dropped after a long fight, but Diamond did eventually serve 60 days in jail for the original disorderly conduct charge.

Diamond went back to school in the fall of 1963. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin and later received a degree from Harvard. He lives in Northwest Washington, DC.

Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) on Diamond:

Dion Diamond Freedom Rider Mugshot: 1961

Dion Diamond mug shot after Freedom Ride arrest in Jackson, Mississippi May 1961.

I had a lot of experience in jails since this time. But this one? Whoa, it was unforgettable. This one was very, very strange.

We’re in the cell, unable to get to sleep. About two o’clock in the morning we hear footsteps approaching. I turn over to see a young white cop staring at us. He’s holding a pump-action shotgun, which he loads. As he does this, he’s staring at us and cursing. Dion and I exchange glances. Now what?

“So you the two _____ ______ _____ little sons of bitches who started this, huh? Wal, tonight you some dead niggers. I’ma kill yore black _____ _____ _____.”

He cocks the gun, cursing all the while. His eyes are bloodshot and staring as he moves the gun back and forth. First on me, then on Dion.

We are frozen. Dion in one corner of the cell, me in the other. The gun swings from one to the other. The cop is ranting and cussing. I’m stiff as a board trying to watch the guy’s eyes, his trigger finger, and the yawning muzzle of the shotgun at the same time. I watch as it swings away and back over to Dion. Then I hear Dion’s mouth, I cannot believe my ears.

“Come on, you cracker so-and-so, shoot. Pull the damn trigger. Ain’t nobody scared of you. Shoot. I’m ready to die if you bad enough. Shoot, white man. Do it.”

Dion just goes off, and as I see from the corner of my eyes, he’s steadily advancing on the gun. A veritable torrent of language flowing out of his mouth, defiant, challenging, non-stop language. Talk about putting me through some changes.

One minute I’m sure I’m dead, the next I’m absolutely certain that I’ve gone out of my mind. I can’t believe Dion. I remember thinking, “F” God’s sake, Dion, shut up. Please. This man is drunk. He’s crazy. You fixing to get us killed, Dion.”

The cop stares at Dion, begins to tremble, and swings the gun back over to my corner. What could I do? Having no choice, I start up too.

“Yeah, cracker, go ahead. Pull the _____ trigger. We ready to die. Are you? Pull the trigger.”

The policeman really started to shake then. Which was, if anything, worse. Now two voices are coming at him. Silently he lowers the weapon, turns, and walks away. I sink down on my bunk, listening to the footsteps recede.

I can’t describe the range of emotions. Fear. Anger. Disbelief. Relief, then exultation, then anger again. At Dion. I will not repeat exactly what my first words to him were—in effect, Dion, you crazed so-and-so….that’s my life you messing with. You understand that your crazy self damn near got us killed?

“Me,” said Dion. “Me crazy? Negro, we alive, aint’t we? Did he pull the trigger? Boy, you should be kissing my feet for saving yo’ shiftless life. Best you never forget this, Negro. When in doubt, jes’ follow me. Always follow the kid.”

For some reason, I found myself laughing. “You de man, bro, I’ma follow you. I’ma follow you.”

Crazy-assed Dion Diamond.

–Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) on Nashville, Tennessee arrest 1961.

Excerpt from Stokely Carmichael, John Edgar Wideman & Ekwueme Michael Thelwell, “Ready for Revolution: The Life and Struggles of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture),” Scribner, November, 2003.


See more photos of Dion Diamond and the Glen Echo protests


When Abortion Was Legalized: One Woman’s DC Experience

15 Jan

by Anonymous
Originally published February, 1972 in the Montgomery Spark 

Disclaimer: This article is reprinted for its insight into subject of abortion in the District of Columbia in 1972 and should not be used for medical advice. Current practices should be consulted. The article is slightly edited from the original. Included after the article is the author’s reflections 40 years after publication.

Abortion can be a frightening word – especially when you’ve just found out it’s going to happen to you. Fear of the unknown makes you eager to find out exactly what’s going to be done to you, and how it feels, and what effects it will have.

If you have friends who have gone through it, you can go to them and find your answers – at least some reassuring fact comes from each person you ask. But in case none of your friends have had abortions or they’re afraid to admit it, or they’ve scared you with their stories, or if you’re afraid to ask anyone — maybe it will help if I tell you about my abortion.

The Decision

I had been using contraceptive foam (Delfen) because I had been led to believe it was effective – and it had been for three years. But then I missed a period.

I don’t like to admit unpleasant possibilities to myself, so I waited until a couple of days after I’d missed my second period before I went to the D.C. Free Clinic for a pregnancy test. Don’t ever wait that long if you can help it – your pregnancy could be over ten weeks along and abortions can be much more difficult (and expensive) then.

For awhile before I went to the Free Clinic, the man I live with and I had thought a lot about what we’d do if I were pregnant. What good things would happen if I went through with it and had a baby? (1) A new person would come into being and . . . and what?

The bad things were much more evident. We couldn’t afford the hospital bill, I wouldn’t be able to work for a couple of months, our lives are too unstable right now to properly help a child to grow, we might subconsciously resent the child for causing this change and stifling in our lives, and what if the two of us ever decided not to live together anymore?

So it was evident that either the baby had to be given up for adoption (I went through that once before and always regretted it), or I’d have an abortion.

So by the time I received the results of the pregnancy test (positive, huh?) I was convinced that abortion was the answer. But I was afraid. Even after a really good explanation by a very kind counselor at the Free Clinic, I was still apprehensive, to say the least.

What Next?

All I knew at this point was that I had barely escaped the ten-week deadline, there were several places I could call, in D.C. and in New York, that they were all reliable (no witch-doctors or black-sedan/shady-deal/incompetent or unskilled malpracitioner), and that I had to raise $150 in less than a week.

First DC Abortion Clinic Opens: 1971

Phone counselors at Preterm clinic shortly after it opened in March 1971. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

So the next day I made an appointment at a downtown D.C. abortion clinic called Pre-Term. I was to go in the following Monday, at 7:25 a.m. They assured me I’d be out of there by 11:00, but I had my misgivings.

Getting the money was hard to do, but we found we had more friends than I thought we had. The man I live with called up his friends, and within a couple of hours they had it all together – without question of when they would get paid back. And they couldn’t really afford it – they just know what it is to be a friend.

Luckily, we didn’t have to take their money because three of my women friends each had $50 stashed away and offered it to us. (Sisterhood is powerful!)

I had told several people that I was going to have an abortion, and some of the women told me about their abortion experiences. I kept asking questions because I was really afraid, but for some reason I didn’t want them to know I felt that way. It’s not a good way to behave, but it was hard for me to entrust my feelings to anyone. I guess I was afraid I’d lose the courage to go through with it if I broke down my defenses in any way.

Most of the fear came from not knowing what was going to happen. The man I live with was the only one I could communicate even a part of this fear to, and that’s mostly because since he’s not a woman, he can only imagine what it’s like to have things like this done to your body. He could offer infinite comfort and courage – and he did. But another woman would know what I felt, and because of my defenses I could not let that happen.

So I just pretended – to myself and others – that it wasn’t going to be such a big thing.

Arriving at the Clinic

My friend Annie went with me to the clinic that Monday morning. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything before the abortion, so I was sleepy from no coffee and hungry from no breakfast. I guess my fear woke me up enough, though.

Pickets Outside Preterm Clinic: 1972

Anti-abortion pickets outside Preterm clinic March 24, 1972. Anonymous did not face pickets when she entered the clinic earlier in the year. Photo: Rosemary Martufi, courtesy DC Public Library Washington Star Collection @ Washington Post.

I was surprised to see about ten other women in the waiting room when I got there. Some were with their mothers, who looked calm and accepting, although I’m sure some mothers wouldn’t be, and some fathers would pretend like the situation didn’t even exist.

Some women were with their husbands, who looked sort of concerned but mostly as if they didn’t understand that abortion is not an easy thing for a woman to go through. And some women were alone – one of whom, I found out later, was a college student from the Deep South, had secretly flown to D.C. the night before, and planned to be back in school the next day. They don’t allow abortions in most places.

After about a 20-minut wait, the receptionist accepted my payment and asked for my medical history and a few other details.

Pelvic Exam

Then I was given a preliminary pelvic exam. In case you’ve never had a pelvic examination, here’s what they do. You lie on a table with your feet in some things that look like stirrups, and you spread your knees apart. You feel sort of vulnerable in this position. (You are, but nobody’s going to hurt you.) The thing is to relax. The more tense you are, the more uncomfortable it will be.

I keep telling myself this, but I always get tense at the beginning. Then the doctor takes a metal instrument called a speculum and gently puts it inside your vagina. It feels weird, but it doesn’t hurt. When the doctor presses on the handles of the speculum, the part that’s inside you spreads open the walls of the vagina so the doctor can look inside. It never takes much more than a minute – usually not that long.

It sounds horrible, but it’s not. Women in the D.C. area are learning to do their own pelvics so they can learn more about themselves.

Counseling & Birth Control

After I had the pelvic exam, they sent Annie to the friends’ waiting room, where, she said later, a lot of the people got into good discussions about abortions and women’s rights in general.

Meanwhile, a clinic counselor named Judy took me to an office down the hall. She was so friendly and reassuring that I began to relax a little about what was going to happen.

We talked about birth control, both of us laughing a little about my ignorance in thinking that foam alone could keep me from getting pregnant. It’s really not funny, though, when you think of the millions of women who know precious little about birth control, and therefore can’t control what happens to their bodies.

Lippes Loop

The Lippes Loop IUD that was recommended for Anonymous.

We discussed what kind of birth control I would use after the abortion. I didn’t want a diaphragm because it’s a hassle. Pills scare me because they can have bad side effects. She told me that I could have an intrauterine device (IUD) put in right after the abortion, while I was still on the table. If you’ve had a baby before, it’s relatively easy to adjust to, so we agreed on an IUD called a “Lippes Loop”.

If you’ve never had a baby before, or if you’re susceptible to infections, don’t let them talk you into an IUD immediately after an abortion. Six weeks is a safe time after an abortion to get an IUD . . . meanwhile you must let your body rest and recover from this physical trauma, not even having sex during that time. If you have had a baby, it’s still a good idea not to get an IUD for a while. In women who have not had babies, IUDs cause very severe cramping and bleeding, and lots of times your body rejects it and it comes back out.

After the birth control rap, Judy described for me, using an anatomical diagram, exactly what would happen during the abortion. This helped to ease my mind, but the misgivings were still there. They needn’t have been, though, because everything happened just as she said it would.

Into the Room

By now it was about 10:00, time for it to actually happen. The counselor brought me into a room that looked like any doctor’s examination room.

I was ready, the doctor came in. He was the first man I had seen there – most of the staff were women. He told me his name (Alexander, I think), and we spoke lightly for a few minutes.

The first thing he did was to put the speculum inside my vagina, only this speculum was the kind that stays open so he can have his hands free to work.

The next thing that happened was one of the things I had been most apprehensive about: three anesthetic shots in my cervix. When Judy had told me about this, I had freaked because it sounded so awful. As it turned out, I was just lying there on the table, with the speculum inside me, wondering what was going to happen next, when Judy said, “You’ve had your anesthetic – did you feel it?”

I was amazed that anything had happened, because I hadn’t felt it. The reason is – there are hardly any nerves in your cervix, so it can’t feel things like that.

The next part of it hurt a little, like minor menstrual cramps. The doctor placed a series of instruments, graduating from pencil size to finger size, inside me to dilate the opening to my uterus so that he could do the abortion. It hurt, but not very much. I’ve had worse pain with menstrual cramps. All this time, Judy was telling me what was going on, and the three of us were talking about other things not even related to what was happening. This helped me to relax and take my mind off the abortion.

The Procedure

Now we were finally ready to do it. They use a machine with a long tube attached to it. The doctor placed the end of the tube inside my uterus and, in less than a minute, I wasn’t pregnant anymore.

Drawing of “Vacuum Aspiration” Procedure: 1972

Drawing of vacuum aspiration procedure by Anonymous for Montgomery Spark, 1972. Reprinted with permission.

The machine sits on the floor, making a low, humming noise, generating suction while the doctor guides the end of the tube inside and around the wall of the uterus, making sure to get all of the embryonic material out. (Many women have been fucked over by quack doctors who leave some of this material behind, causing severe infection and often death!)

After it was over, the pain diminished immediately to regular cramps. The doctor put the IUD in (I didn’t feel it at all) and then left for his next patient. I felt dizzy when I got up from the table, so I sat on a chair for a minute.

Judy took me down the hall and we said goodbye in the recovery room where I was supposed to remain for a half hour.

I lay down on a couch, still feeling kind of dizzy. The other women who had come in when I had at 7:30 were there, and we all felt very close in sisterhood because of what we had all just gone through. And all of us felt relieved that it was over. After a few minutes the dizziness went away, and after ten minutes the cramps were gone.

At Home

When I was ready to leave, one of the clinic women took my temperature to make sure I had no fever (a sign of infection). She also told me to come back in a week for a checkup to see if everything was all right.

Then I went and found Annie and we went home. We’d been there for only three and a half hours, but in that time the clinic had given me two new kinds of freedom. I was no longer pregnant, and I was protected (by the IUD) from getting pregnant again.

When we got home, I ate a light snack and slept for a few hours. After that I felt really good. The only evidence of something different was the bleeding. The bleeding was constant, but always very light, for about two weeks, and then it came and went for two more weeks.

I guess I was lucky not to get an infection or have bad cramps or bleeding. A lot of women have these problems after abortions, but they’re easily curable if a doctor is consulted right away.

Abortion Obstacles

Abortions are definitely needed if women are ever to gain control over their own bodies. But there are three big problems in our way:

  1. They cost money. What happens to women who aren’t lucky enough to be able to get $150 -– or more – together? The government condemns them for having so many children, but forbids them abortion and birth control . . . or else sterilizes them.
  2. Abortion is illegal in most places. D. C. and New York are the only places on the East Coast, or even near it, where abortions are legal. This forces many women to have dangerous illegal abortions or, even worse, try to do their own abortions.
  3. Too many women don’t know enough about abortion facilities, counseling services and clinics, and too many women don’t know anything about birth control. How can we control our bodies and our lives if we don’t even know these basic things?

We have to get ourselves together and learn all we can about our bodies and what we must do to take care of them. We have to protect ourselves from this system that forces us, by keeping us ignorant and helpless, to remain in submission to whatever disaster that may befall us.

If you think you may need an abortion, go to a counseling center as soon as you can to get a pregnancy test and find out what to do next. The D.C. Free Clinic has a good pregnancy counseling service.

Obviously a lot of women need abortions. The clinic I went to does 50 every day. A lot more women need birth control counseling so that someday abortions won’t be necessary.

Meanwhile, if you are going to have an abortion, I hope this article has helped to ease your mind. You are not alone – your sisters are with you at counseling centers and clinics and everywhere around you. Sisterhood is powerful!


Reflections After 40 Years

by Anonymous

Court Voids DC Abortion Law: 1969

The DC law limiting abortion was struck down in 1969 by a District Court, but it wasn’t until 1971 that a US Supreme Court ruling essentially legalized abortion in Washington DC.

The abortion experience account I wrote in the February, 1972 issue of the Montgomery Spark provides a pretty good picture of the mentality and conditions of the times. Some things are different now, and some haven’t changed. In case you weren’t around in the early 70s, or even if you were, here’s a bit of perspective.

Washington, D.C. was one of the few cities in the U.S. where abortion was legal in 1972. It wasn’t until January 22, 1973 that the Supreme Court in the Roe v. Wade decision affirmed the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion.

Back Alley Abortions

Much more prevalent than legal abortions were the brutal, toxic, often lethal procedures performed by unethical or untrained people on women who – for whatever reason – felt they must end their pregnancies.

Back then, much more so than now, unwed motherhood was a huge crisis in a woman’s life. Parents disowned their daughters, schools expelled pregnant girls, and society in general viewed them as stupid trash, unworthy of acceptance in their social world.

In the early 70s the women’s liberation movement had just begun to have an impact on the general perception of women’s rights and equality. People were beginning to realize that sex was happening a lot more than anyone had been admitting, and that something really needed to be done about birth control. Sadly, birth control education was far from reaching the saturation point needed for it to effectively prevent unwanted pregnancy.

Reflections on 1972

When I wrote the Spark article I was active in the women’s liberation movement and didn’t have concerns about what the world would think about my pregnancy. My reason for seeking an abortion was more centered on my ability to care for a child and provide for his or her upbringing.

My boyfriend and I loved each other very much, but we were not ready to commit to each other for the rest of our lives and neither of us had any reliable financial resources.

DC Demonstration for Women’s Rights: 1970

1970 march for rights in Washington, DC on  50th anniversary of women’s suffrage. Photo: Paul Schmick, courtesy of DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

My choice would have been for me to continue with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. I had already done that, though, four years before, and I didn’t ever want to go through that emotional pain again.

In retrospect, I’m sure we would have found a way to raise that child if we had decided against the abortion or adoption. I became pregnant the first time because I was completely ignorant about birth control. No clue. This time I was only slightly more knowledgeable, believing that contraceptive foam would prevent pregnancy.

At the time I didn’t see anything morally wrong in ending my pregnancy, as long as it was well within the first trimester. Neither my boyfriend nor I believed we were taking the life of a human being.

Present Views on Abortion

This, of course, is where the current controversy becomes heated. When does a fetus become a human being? What do we mean by “right to life”? What about the mother’s life? What if the child was conceived during rape?

The best exploration of the whole question is in an article by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan, “The Question of Abortion: The Search for Answers.”

Sagan and Druyan explore the meanings of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” and delve into the science, morality and legality of all the shades of meaning that are involved. In their introduction they present the dilemma:

In the simplest characterization, a pro-choicer would hold that the decision to abort a pregnancy is to be made only by the woman; the state has no right to interfere. And a pro-lifer would hold that, from the moment of conception, the embryo or fetus is alive; that this life imposes on us a moral obligation to preserve it; and that abortion is tantamount to murder. Both names–pro-choice and pro-life–were picked with an eye toward influencing those whose minds are not yet made up: Few people wish to be counted either as being against freedom of choice or as opposed to life. Indeed, freedom and life are two of our most cherished values, and here they seem to be in fundamental conflict.

They lead into their detailed exploration with these questions:

If we do not oppose abortion at some stage of pregnancy, is there not a danger of dismissing an entire category of human beings as unworthy of our protection and respect? And isn’t that dismissal the hallmark of sexism, racism, nationalism, and religious fanaticism? Shouldn’t those dedicated to fighting such injustices be scrupulously careful not to embrace another?

Reading this article helped me to refine my own position on the question of abortion. Before I read it I had some gut-level feelings but hadn’t reasoned it out logically and without bias. The result is that I believe a woman has the right to choose to end her pregnancy in the first trimester and after that there are shades of morality involved. I believe every case should be considered individually. I believe every woman has the right to control what happens to her own body.

Back in Time?

Now I’ve lived forty more years since I wrote the Spark article, and I sometimes think about what I would do if I could go back in time knowing what I know now.

I wouldn’t give my first child up for adoption because now I know that I could’ve found a way to take care of him. It’s okay, though, because I later found his adoptive parents and learned what joy he brought into their lives. He is happy and has four beautiful children of his own.

I probably wouldn’t have an abortion now (if it were physically possible for me to even get pregnant), and I think my boyfriend and I could have managed to raise a child if I hadn’t had that abortion in 1972. Maybe we took the situation too lightly, but it seemed to be the right decision at the time.

The debate continues, and there will continue to be many perspectives on the question. We all agree that abortion is not a very good method of birth control. It would be a better world if we could reduce the number of abortions, just as it would be better if we could reduce the need for heart transplants and chemotherapy. A lot depends on education and the availability of birth control.  Sagan and Druyan again:

“Our Bodies Our Selves”: 1971

1971 cover of Our Bodies Our Selves that sold 250,000 copies largely by word of mouth.

By far the most common reason for abortion worldwide is birth control. So shouldn’t opponents of abortion be handing out contraceptives and teaching school children how to use them? That would be an effective way to reduce the number of abortions. Instead, the United States is far behind other nations in the development of safe and effective methods of birth control–and, in many cases, opposition to such research (and to sex education) has come from the same people who oppose abortions.

If you have an opinion about abortion or if you’re still struggling with it, I recommend that you read the Sagan and Druyan piece.  For in-depth information about women’s bodies, reproduction, birth control, women’s physical and mental health and much more, I recommend Our Bodies, Ourselves, a book first compiled and published by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective in the spring of 1973 and updated periodically up to 2011. It’s available at Amazon.com. You can also visit Our Bodies Ourselves, a huge and valuable global resource for women’s health issues.

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