Volma Overton read aloud from “Black Like Me.” The Rev. Wesley Sims selected books, including Lamentations, from the Bible.
Other Austinites, black and white, joined the civil rights leaders inside and outside the City Council chambers, firmly insisting that they be heard.
For six days in April 1964 — while the U.S. Congress debated what would become the 1964 Civil Rights Act — protesters from President Lyndon Johnson’s old home district held up city business by staging what was called a “read-in” or “speak-in.”
Almost 100 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, which ended slavery in the South, was first read in Texas, these demonstrators demanded an anti-discrimination ordinance with teeth. The mood in Austin that year was tense, sometimes hopeful, but not violent.
“Along with everybody else, we were anticipating what was going to happen,” said educator Charles Akins, who taught social studies at the old L.C. Anderson High School at the time. “The students were aware. We had many engaging conversations. They were eager to find out what it would be like to have a new civil rights law, how they would be affected and how everybody would be affected.”
This week, a historic summit at the University of Texas salutes the passage of that 1964 act. Four presidents, including the country’s first African-American leader, are scheduled to speak at the LBJ Presidential Library.
Prominent among the planned topics is the crucial role played by the late president from Central Texas, who, 50 years ago, faced down fellow Southerners to pass and, finally, sign the bill that outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.
The summit also takes the city back to 1964.
Long before the bill became law that July, Austinites had been pushing for an end to Jim Crow practices that had segregated blacks and whites in schools, restaurants, theaters, neighborhoods and public accommodations since the late 19th century.
The protracted — and rarely remembered — April 1964 protest pitted the proponents of voluntary integration against those who supported binding legislation.
The orderly demonstrations forced Austin Mayor Lester Palmer, and Overton, the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s local chapter, to seek medical attention for exhaustion.
That phase of the struggle ended with a tentative agreement that would create — much later, on Oct. 5, 1967 — the Austin Human Rights Commission, which still protects citizens against unlawful discrimination in employment, housing and other areas.
A century of Austin segregation
Soon after Texans learned of slavery’s end on June 19, 1865, an informal segregation emerged in and around Austin. Former slaves formed freedmen’s towns in places such as Clarksville, Wheatville, Masontown and Brackenridge (now in Bouldin).
By the 1870s, Texas had joined the rest of the South in enforcing separate public facilities for the races through Jim Crow laws.
While few racially charged incidents were recorded in Austin, the City Council, in 1928, accepted nonbinding advice of the City Planning Commission that proposed segregating blacks to one district. The main strategy: Withholding infrastructure from those old freedmen’s towns.
Some racial wounds healed during the 1930s and ’40s, but in 1946, Houstonian Heman Sweatt was turned away from the UT Law School by UT President T.S. Painter. In 1950, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Sweatt’s favor, making UT the first integrated professional or graduate school in the South.
The university, then the city’s overwhelmingly dominant cultural force, slowly opened up its housing, clubs and athletics to African-Americans.
While most local businesses remained segregated in the 1950s, Austin integrated its libraries and Lions Municipal Golf Course as early as 1951.
When the Supreme Court struck down “separate but equal” schools in 1954, the Austin school board ordered racial barriers removed. The city, however, continued to fight over the best way to desegregate schools well into the 1980s. (Using different language and tactics, the battle goes on today.)
During the late ’50s and early ’60s, civil rights leaders such as Overton, Sims, Arthur DeWitty, Willie Mae Kirk, Bertha Means and Ada Collins Anderson led often multiracial protests against the ongoing segregation of public accommodations and services.
One white leader, restaurant owner Harry Akin, integrated his Night Hawk eateries in 1958 and 1959. Later elected Austin mayor, Akin tried to persuade the rest of the business community to follow in his footsteps.
After multiple protests, the city’s parks, pools and playgrounds were smoothly integrated during the summer of 1963.
And in late 1963, Akin and others — backed by 27 local organizations — formally proposed solutions to segregated private businesses.
The year it all changed
“In the spring of 1964, the black students were praying that LBJ could pass the Civil Rights Act,” recalled Edwin Dorn, now a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. “And (they) were holding demonstrations to protest the slow pace of desegregation at UT. Some of the dormitories had been desegregated, but on a floor-by-floor basis to limit race-mingling. Minor sports such as track had been desegregated, but UT didn’t have its first black football player until 1970.”
The question of 1964: Would the city act on integration before the federal government did?
“The situation has presented itself nationwide,” Sims told the City Council. “It seems a shame that the capital city of Texas would be referred to as being unwilling to be fair to all of its citizens or treat all of its citizens alike. Austin could be embarrassed.”
In January 1964, the Austin City Council appointed a committee, chaired by restaurateur Akin, to study the matter. In March, that group recommended a commission with anti-discrimination enforcement powers.
The council was divided on the issue. Member Emma Long supported an ordinance. Others, such as Ben White, Travis LaRue and Louis Shanks, pushed for “voluntary” integration.
Mayor Palmer, who agreed with the latter group, generally acted as peacemaker.
City Council minutes preserved at the Austin History Center, Overton’s published memoir, “Volma: My Journey,” and David C. Humphrey’s “Austin: An Illustrated History” record the tense stand-off that followed.
The council dismissed its own commission and proposed a body without enforcement authority.
“This is more than I had expected,” Overton said, as quoted by Humphrey. “But less than I wanted.”
Meanwhile, the NAACP released a statement to the press: “There can be no doubt that our rights have been reluctantly recognized by the City Council; the recognition of remedy and speedy relief are now in order and should be effected now.”
The council, with Long dissenting, turned down that first half-step anyway.
At the time, the body allowed unlimited citizen speeches. That gave Overton, on April 2, the opening for what was called at the time a filibuster.
The speaking and reading by protesters continued unabated for two days, then resumed the following week for four more days.
“We would be stupid to let the city fathers go along with the idea of volunteerism,” Overton said. “The city fathers should quit giving aid and comfort to those who practice segregation.”
Sims concurred: “The NAACP will not compromise on any human dignity.”
The council minutes show that Palmer, who counseled waiting until the U.S. Senate acted, tried to keep emotions from boiling over.
Palmer: “Let’s have order in this room so we can hear Mr. Overton.”
When Palmer was hospitalized with exhaustion, both sides hoped aloud for his return. At one point, when the council adjourned in frustration, the Rev. Sims was appointed Mayor Pro Tem by the protesters.
The threat of violence in the streets haunted both sides. Terrible riots rocked American cities during the mid-’60s.
Sims warned city leaders: “Listen long and hard before ‘turning a tiger loose on the city.’”
“You get up there by ballots, not by bullets,” Shanks said. “If they don’t like the way we run this council, they ought to turn us out at the polls.”
The Rev. Luther Holland tried, instead, to appeal to civic pride.
“The progress in civil rights in Austin is far in advance of other states and cities,” he said. “There is still a long way to go and there is a cultural project, a program of learning and understanding of one race to the other.
Meanwhile, pickets formed outside City Hall. Activist musician Joan Baez sang protest songs. Future Mayor Gus Garcia watched from across the street.
“One afternoon, when I went to coffee with some of my colleagues, I was on my way back to the office when I saw Joan Baez sitting outside of City Hall singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’” said Garcia, who had experienced housing and employment discrimination but was not yet politically active. “I went home that evening and told my wife that I was going to begin the process of leaving the firm to look at what I could do to work on civil rights issues.”
After six working days of protests, City Council leaders walked out of the chambers on April 9 and revised the speaking rules.
“For the council to be accused of not listening was the understatement of the year,” Shanks said. “The misstatement of the century.”
Ben White on the walkout: “It’s high time we took the action we did.”
Eventually Palmer and the NAACP called a truce. In May 1964, Council agreed to create a human rights commission, but gave it no money, staff or real authority.
“It’s the weakest thing I ever saw,” said Long, quoted in Humphrey’s history. In fact, the group remained toothless, even three years after LBJ signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Reports continued in 1965 of African Americans refused service in public accommodations.
It was not until Oct. 5, 1967, that the Human Rights Commission convened with enforcement powers to deal with discrimination in employment and accommodations, bolstered in November by the first Fair Housing Ordinance in the state.
Among those named to the commission were Garcia, Overton, Kirk and former Rep. Wilhelmina Delco, the first African American to serve on the Austin school board.
“A lot of people were telling us to do some different things,” Overton later told the Daily Texan. “But that was my show, so we stuck to it. I am proud of that because I feel the commission was a direct result of my efforts.”
The fight far from over
On the national stage, some of the worst was yet to come. Despite further federal legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, anti-integrationists resisted. On April 4, 1968, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Deadly race riots followed nationally.
Austin remained relatively quiet. Demonstrations continued. Protesters supporting Latino, women’s and gay rights borrowed the language and methods of the desegregation movement, as did opponents of the Vietnam War.
The war over school desegregation remained hot well into the 1980s. In 1970, the federal government brought suit against the school district for failure to comply with desegregation orders. Some black students had been bused to white-majority schools as early as the mid-’50s, but “two-way busing” was met with virulent opposition. Latinos, sometimes counted as whites to dilute integration efforts, became increasingly vocal.
In January 1980, U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts put that phase of the desegregation effort to rest with a consent degree settling the federal suit.
For those who had been pushing the idea since the 1940s or earlier, the long road to integration seemed well worth it.
“When you fight for something you believe in, you never get tired of it,” Overton, who suffered death threats and other abuses, told the Daily Texan. “I always felt that if I ever get in a position to do something for my people, I’d do it.”
While many feel the civil rights struggle is far from over, others who lived through the crucible of 1964 recall it as a time of fundamental change.
“So many outstanding people wanted to make inclusion work,” educator Akins says. “That seemed to be a primary focus during that time. A feeling of what was to be. A start of an onward, upward focus on desegregation. It was a glorious time to anticipate what was yet to come.”
ROAD TO DESEGREGATION IN AUSTIN
June 19, 1865: In Galveston, Union troops announce the end of slavery, 2½ years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863.
Late 1860s: Former slaves founded freedmen’s towns such as Clarksville, Wheatville, Masontown and Brackenridge on the verges of Austin.
1870s: Jim Crow laws mandate separation of public facilities in the South, including Texas.
1896: U.S. Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson allows state-sponsored segregation in public accommodations.
Feb. 12, 1909: Founding of the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights group.
1919: After a race riot in Longview, the state attorney general subpoenas the NAACP’s records. The group’s national secretary, John Shillady, comes to Austin to investigate, where he is beaten by a gang that includes local officials and then is put on a train to St. Louis.
1920s: Revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Racial tension high. Klan marches on the Capitol and Klan-backed candidates win in the legislature.
March 22, 1928: City Council accepts non-binding recommendations from the City Planning Commission that suggest segregating blacks in one area of Austin. Withholding infrastructure one strategy for achieving that.
1930s: Some Austin businesses desegregate work forces, but housing, restaurants, theaters, water fountains and public accommodations still separate.
1940: Arthur DeWitty becomes the first African-American appointed to a Travis County grand jury.
February 1946: Heman Sweatt applies to the University of Texas Law School. President T.S. Painter turns him down because of his race.
1950. After the U.S. Supreme Court rules on Sweatt v. Painter, UT becomes the first integrated graduate or professional school in the South.
1951: City Council abolishes racial segregation in the Main Library and Carver Branch as well as Lions Municipal Golf Course, the first public links in the South.
August 1953: Myrtle Washington refuses to give up her seat on the Camp Mabry bus, predating the more famous actions of Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Ala.
May 17, 1954: With its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court strikes down segregated education nationally. Austin school board orders the removal of racial barriers, but the fight for integration lasts for nearly 30 more years.
1956: UT Inter-Co-Op Council votes to accept African-American students into cooperative housing. Also, a few black students integrate Austin, Travis and McCallum high schools.
Late 1950s and early 1960s: Demonstrators regularly protest segregation in Austin, including at landmarks such as Barton Springs and the Paramount Theatre. Among the leaders are Arthur DeWitty, Bertha Means, Volma Overton and Ada Collins Anderson.
1958: Owner Harry Akin, later mayor of Austin, integrates his Night Hawk restaurants and tries to persuade the Austin business community to accept “voluntary” desegregation.
1960: Travis County grand jury indicts two UT students for setting off a bomb outside an integrationist meeting.
1961: Hundreds of demonstators mark Lincoln’s birthday by staging a “stand-in” at the city’s major movie theaters.
Summer 1963: Integration of Austin parks, pools and playgrounds, including Barton Springs. Joan Means Khabele, daughter of Bertha and James Means, among those who had led protests against segregation of the iconic pool.
June 1963: Austin Chamber of Commerce endorses complete integration of all public facilities.
Late 1963: Akin among business leaders who propose an anti-discrimination ordinance to City Council. Member Emma Long among the supporters. At UT, James Means, son of Bertha and James Means, becomes the university’s first black athlete.
January 1964: The Council appoints a Committee on Human Relations.
March 1964: The committee recommends a commission with anti-discrimination enforcement powers. Later, the committee is dismissed.
April 1964: NAACP leader Volma Overton leads a six-day marathon protest before City Council, insisting on a desegregation ordinance and a commission to back it up it.
May 1964: City Council agrees in principle to a human rights commission. Also UT Board of Regents votes to desegregate dormitories.
July 2, 1964: President Lyndon Johnson, who once represented Austin in the U.S. Congress, signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
August 1964: Charles Akins becomes one of the first black teachers to begin faculty desegregation in the Austin school district. He is the namesake of Akins High School.
March 1965: Austin leaders on all sides shaken by violent responses to the peaceful protests in Selma, Ala.
July 1966: Austin contracts with Austin Equal Citizenship Corporation to handle human relations.
Oct. 5, 1967: Austin establishes a Human Rights Commission to deal with discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. It continues with expanded functions today.
November 1967: City Council passes a Fair Housing Ordinance, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color or religion.
April 4, 1968: Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis. Race riots follow nationally.
1969: Austin school district’s desegregation plan rejected for a third time by federal government.
1970: Federal government brings suit against Austin school district for failure to comply with integration guidelines. Two-way busing advocated at a public forum. Another plan would classify Latinos as white, diluting integration numbers. Meanwhile, Longhorns football team accepts its first black player, Julius Whittier.
1971: A U.S. District judge orders immediate implementation of a school desegregation plan. “Forced integration” raises racial tensions on Austin school campuses.
1970s: Almost monthly clashes continue in court and on the Austin school board about the rate and progress of school integration.
1978: Two Latino groups team up to unify their community around integration issues. Increasingly, their voices are heard in school desegregation cases.
December 1979: Anderson High School students storm school district building while waving signs and chanting anti-busing slogans.
January 1980: U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts gives final approval to a consent decree settling Austin’s school desegregation suit.
1980s: Anti-busing protests continue and remain an issue in school board elections.