Sunday, February 18, 2001

Through Spokane's eyes

The Lunch-Counter Sit-ins and the Freedom Rides
Other news events overshadowed civil rights in local news coverage

By Scott Sines
Managing editor

The Lunch-Counter Sit-ins

Click photo to enlarge
Whites pour sugar, ketchup and mustard over the heads of sit-in demonstrators at a restaurant lunch counter in Jackson, Miss., in 1963. (AP photo/Jackson Daily News/Fred Blackwell)

Spokane had a lot on its mind in the early 1960s.

The city was bitterly arguing about changing its form of government. Front-page stories in The Spokesman-Review detailed claims of questionable work by a consultant hired to assess the impact of the change.

And Washington Water Power was petitioning the state public service commission for a 10 percent increase in electricity rates.

The Cold War and the actions of world leaders took center stage. The front pages of both Spokane newspapers consistently featured new Roman Catholic president John F. Kennedy, volatile Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and new Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.

On Feb. 1, 1960, in Greensboro, N.C., four black students tried to buy lunch at the counter at a Woolworth's department store. They were refused service. The students persisted and their numbers grew. Word of the "sit-ins" spread, and students in northern states started picketing local affiliates of national chains known to practice segregation.

On Feb. 7, an article in the entertainment section of The Spokesman-Review reported that popular jazz musician Dave Brubeck had refused to take his integrated band on a 25-day trip through the South because most universities and colleges on the tour insisted on an all-white band. "We simply cannot consider it. It would be morally, religiously and politically wrong," Brubeck said.

On Feb. 26, low on the front page, The Spokesman-Review reported that in response to the lunch-counter sit-ins the Virginia Legislature hustled three tough anti-trespassing bills to Gov. J. Lindsay Almond Jr., who quickly signed them into law.

The next day a gang of white teenagers attacked a group of sit-in students in Nashville, Tenn. The attackers went free and the sit-in students were arrested and held for trial. A conservative black lawyer named Z. Alexander Looby agreed to defend the students.

While the attack on the Nashville students was not reported in the local papers, a March 1 headline on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle states, "1000 Negroes Gather, March to Statehouse." The story reports that the peaceful rally was in response to the arrest of 80 people for trying to integrate a lunch counter at the Alabama capitol. The story goes on to report that several automobiles full of whites circled the group blowing their horns.

Violence began to spread through the South.

On March 6, a Page-two story in The Spokesman-Review reported that "About 50 Negroes battered cars at a white drive-in at Columbia, S.C. A white woman in one car was injured by flying glass after the Negroes, wielding clubs and bricks, invaded the restaurant. Four Negro students were arrested but later released. Police said no evidence was found to connect them with the incident."

On March 8, a Page-two story in the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that the sit-in protesters "claimed a victory" when they were served lunch while seated at "a traditionally segregated lunch counter" in Salisbury, N.C. The headline for the story reads, "Negroes Claim Integration Win."

On April 19, a Page-two story in the Spokane Daily Chronicle told of a bombing attack on Looby's home in Nashville. Looby vowed to continue his fight for desegregation. "When I can't do that my time is ended," he said. Later in the article, former President Harry Truman said, "he wouldn't be surprised" if the sit-ins were inspired by communists.

While the lunch counter sit-ins rarely made Page 1 of Spokane's newspapers, by the time the sit-ins ended in August 1961 more than 70,000 people had participated and over 3,000 of them had been arrested.

The Freedom Rides

On May 4, 1961, Alan B. Shepard Jr. manned America's first successful space flight. The news dominated the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. Congress wanted to award Shepard the Medal of Honor, and many stories were written about the promise of technological advances growing from the space program.

The move to casual dress had already started, as an ad for Thomas & Gassman proclaimed "Busy Men Heartily Endorse: the cool comfort of short sleeve shirts."

A 2-pound loaf of Velveeta cost 65 cents. A bar of soap cost 8 cents, and pork chops sold for 59 cents per pound.

The "Absent-Minded Professor" was showing at the Fox Theater. The Billy Tipton Trio was performing at Allen's Tin Pan Alley along with La Verne La Marr, an exotic dancer, and Al Kluber, the "rubber-faced-man."

Also on May 4, an interracial group of civil rights activists boarded a bus in Washington, D.C., and headed for New Orleans.

John F. Kennedy had narrowly defeated Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election and many people attributed Kennedy's win to his appeal among black voters. However, once Kennedy was in office civil rights activists began to question his commitment to the civil rights movement.

The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), headed by James Farmer, organized interracial groups to ride buses through the South to test a Supreme Court ruling that made segregation of passengers on interstate routes illegal. And, to test President Kennedy's resolve to enforce laws banning segregation.

During the Freedom Rides, blacks sat in the front of the buses and whites sat in the back. At rest stops blacks would try to eat in the "whites only" areas and whites would try to eat in the "colored only" areas.

The tension that had been building in the South was about to boil over. The Freedom Riders made Page-one news in Spokane on May 14, 1961. The dominant headline in The Spokesman-Review was, "400 U.S. Officers Sent to Alabama to Restore Order." The focus of the main story was the controversy over federal law officers interfering in a state matter. A photograph shows a white policeman and some white civilians beating a black student. The caption read, "Negro Student Caught and Beaten; several white men chase a Negro student in Montgomery, Ala."

Lower on Page 1, a story reported, "A bloody race riot left at least 20 persons beaten after a white mob greeted a busload of "freedom riders The mob which at times numbered about 1,000, attacked the racially mixed bus riders within an instant of their arrival from Birmingham."

Suspicious of local officials, President Kennedy called in the Justice Department. He told his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, to "take all steps necessary to prevent further race violence." The Attorney General ordered 400 federal marshals to Montgomery.

On May 21, the situation in Montgomery exploded.

Alabama Gov. John M. Patterson's threat to arrest the federal marshals dominated the front page of The Spokesman-Review. An editorial in that day's paper urged the Kennedy administration to call for an investigation of CORE and suggested that communists might be inspiring the protests.

Once again, the conflict between states' rights and the federal government had erupted in violence in the South.

News from the South also dominated the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle. Beneath the headline, "Fixed Bayonets Quell Violence," was a report that a mob of whites had surrounded the "Negro" First Baptist Church where a rally was being held in support of the Freedom Riders. The mob held the group hostage inside the church while the guest speaker, Martin Luther King Jr., told the crowd that Gov. Patterson was responsible for allowing the violence to happen.

King went on to call for legislation to end desegregation and stop the violence. “We hear the familiar cry that morals cannot be legislated. This may be true, but behavior can be regulated. The law may not be able make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me,” King said.

Fearing for the safety of the people in the church, King called the Justice Department. Attorney General Kennedy's top assistant, Byron White, met with Patterson, and Patterson was forced to call in the National Guard to disperse the mob. In the news report, Patterson calls the Freedom Riders "agitators" and said, "they were to blame for the race rioting because of their insistence on testing bus station racial barriers."

An editorial in the Spokane Daily Chronicle agreed with Patterson and blamed the protesters for their own bloody beatings.

Suggesting that the civil rights movement was a communist plot was inflammatory during those Cold War days. Blaming the victims of racially motivated attacks because they exercised their constitutional rights was equally outrageous.

On May 25, the front pages of The Spokesman-Review and the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported the arrival of the Freedom Riders in Jackson, Miss., where they were arrested and jailed.

Many civil rights historians believe Attorney General Kennedy made a deal with Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett: If there was no violence, Kennedy would withdraw the federal law officers and let the state handle the Freedom Riders. That theory seems validated by news reports in the local papers. The arrest of the Freedom Riders and the withdrawal of the federal marshals were both reported on the same day, on the front page of the Spokane Daily Chronicle.

The Freedom Riders were tried in Mississippi, convicted of violating local and state laws, then sentenced to 60 days in the state penitentiary.

They were unable to finish their trip to New Orleans as planned, but they did manage to force the Kennedy administration to take a firmer stand in support of civil rights.

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