What's Your Beef: The Kids Who Fought For Civil Rights

The Civil Rights Movement, or “the movement” as we referred to it for most of my adult life, embodies the history, actions, defeats and victories, the glory and grievous injustice, and, yes, the tragedies, of that portion of America’s Human Rights journey which ultimately succeeded in, at least officially, granting the same rights to people of color as we white folks already enjoyed.

Imagine our children as African American (still referred to at the time of the movement, as Negroes) born and raised in Alabama. We are all hard working American citizens, but despite our diligence in working to provide comfort for our family we are poor, live in somewhat rundown neighborhoods, shop where almost all the other shoppers are also Negroes, where products are often inferior, prices higher and food not as fancy - or nutritious - as that found in stores and neighborhoods where white folks live. Our kids’ elementary and high schools are dilapidated and the books from which they study are short in number, torn with pages missing, having been discarded by the white schools, which had the resources to purchase new ones.

Imagine that our family goes on a trip to visit relatives in another town. We get thirsty after some time on the road, decide to stop for a drink of water and a sandwich, to use the rest room. We are turned away from the restaurant, told it serves whites only. The water fountain at which we stop for a drink says “whites only.” The one around the corner says, “colored.”

The rest room we approach says “whites only.” The one around the corner says “colored.” As one of the kids approaches the store, a white man shoves dad for no reason. Dad is angry and embarrassed that it happened in front of his wife and children, but he knows to ignore it and move on. He knows that black men have been beaten and killed for responding or, worse yet, retaliating.

It is important to understand that all this is going on almost 100 years AFTER President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Almost 200 years AFTER the United States Constitution proclaimed that “all men are created equal.”

The 1960s civil-rights movement was fueled by youth leaders and student activists. Often college students were leading the marches, voter-registration drives, and social-justice actions. Yet in lesser known, equally defining moments, younger students of color were spearheading efforts to tackle inequalities and systemic factors that worked against them.  

Here is my own life-altering Civil Rights story, it has many moments illustrating the role of a young African American student activist with whom I became friends. It turned me in the direction of the path that I would follow for the rest of my life. It is a story which illustrates that the goals of civil rights - of Dr. King’s repeated proclamation, “Now is the time” - had not yet been fulfilled.

In 1969, 15 years after the Supreme Court, in “Brown v Board,” had ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional, the schools in Houston, Texas, the largest city in the South, were far from being desegregated.    

We - old and young citizens throughout Houston - decided to set out to change that, knowing full well that it would not be an easy task.
Turning out the African American vote was clearly the goal. We were sure that the votes of the large numbers of African Americans who did not usually vote, could turn the tide.

It was well known in the South that black Baptist ministers were a powerful force. My first task was to get invited by pastors of some of those churches to come on Sunday morning and speak to their congregations about the necessity of voting. My own kids, then five and eight, sometimes came with me, all dressed up for church. We sat in the back row of the church until the pastor called me to the pulpit, from where I spoke to the congregation of the urgency of voting and of the availability of voter education. We then moved on to another church.     

My friend, Mickey Leland, a young black college student at the time, redefined the word charisma for me. When Mickey walked through Fifth Ward - the neighborhood in which he grew up - kids followed, older folks came out of their houses, all wanting to talk with Mickey. He knew that this popularity gave him the influence to convince fellow citizens in the black wards of Houston of the importance of their votes, and to teach them to help in the turning out of other votes. So Mickey and I made a plan.

We outfitted a bright red convertible with a powerful speaker system. I drove and Mickey sat up on the back ledge of the car and we drove up and down every street and alley in the African American part of town wide enough to permit our passage. Mickey had the microphone and repeated over and over, “Beautiful people of the black community, it is time for us to take back our lives and our destiny. Please, for the sake of your children, in the interest of justice, please remember to vote on Tuesday.”

On election day, more than 90% of eligible voters in the black community did indeed cast their ballots. Those votes were crucial to ousting the four-person majority of the racist school board. Two years later, we got rid of the other three. Important steps were subsequently taken to improve the schools for those youngsters living in Houston’s black communities. I have long imagined Dr. King having expressed great pride in Mickey Leland, and in the community.

Mickey was soon elected to the state legislature, then to Congress, where he became chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, continuing his life’s work of seeking justice and equality for everyone, black or white.
Do I have a motive in dwelling on this role of young people in the achievement of justice, equal rights - “Civil Rights?”
You bet I do. I can’t stress enough the importance of young people like those we all know, becoming part of the process, rather than just watching events go by.

It’s never my place to tell them what to believe or which party to prefer or which issues might or should  move them. But as they decide what it is that they consider to be their dream of justice, their version of a moral society, their under-standing of progress towards true equality for all, I want them to know that there are precedents for them to follow, that they are not too young to speak up with passion and to stand up for their principles, and that no man, as Dr. King said in Birmingham, can ride one’s back unless it is bent.

Dan Lourie is a local activist and writer who got his start in Civil Rights in the sixties, working to integrate schools in Houston, Texas. He cherishes the memory of getting stink-bombed with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Houston as Aretha Franklin and Harry Belafonte sang, raising money for civil rights activities.