East Texas race relations: revolution, evolution

Race relations evolution in East Texas since the 1960s has been an interesting process to watch. Particularly riveting were the late 60s and early 70s in Cleveland and racial tensions were back in the headlines there recently.

In the first half of the 20th Century, Cleveland (in Liberty County) was a typical East Texas sawmill town. The pine forests literally teemed with such operations, generally white-owned and black-staffed. History records the importing of blacks from the sawmills of Alabama to work in the newer ones springing up in Liberty County and the rest of East Texas’ pine forests.

Old-timers used to tell me tales of the rough-and-tumble sawmill tow n Cleveland had been. Perhaps those times were a portent of the current situation.

Recent headlines reveal some new racial tensions that tend to overshadow past progress.

On Jan. 1, 1968, my partners and I bought and began to operate The Cleveland Advocate and we purchased an old bank building to remodel into offices for the newspaper. Additionally, we acquired a shell of a building across the street, formerly a movie theater with the intent to rebuild it and open a new “walkin” theater for Cleveland. While Cleveland had a thriving drive-in theater, it hadn’t had a “walk-in” for more than a decade. And, we set about rebuilding the theater structure.

Both purchases propelled us into the middle of potentially volatile changes in race relations and rights for African-Americans. And, it was seething in those first days of 1968.

There was a meeting that week of the Cleveland school district board and the principal agenda item was the initial integration of one CISD school.

As publisher, I assigned our very knowledgeable, longtime editor, Roy Bolin, to cover the meeting. The next day, a resident brought us a white sticker that had been carefully attached to every African-American owned car at the meeting. The message, in red letters, said: “The Klan is watching you.” I called one of my brothers, who was then an FBI agent. He gave me a number to call and within 24 hours we had an agent on the scene investigating. The agent told me they knew who’d placed the stickers. He also told me the man had possession of a printing press owned by the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK official turned out to be a police chief in a neighboring town. The FBI continued for some time to maintain a watch on that person and anyone associated with him as they sought to monitor and limit Klan activities in the area.

We wrote editorials applauding the school board’s moves to follow the law of the land and to begin to integrate the Cleveland schools. We also condemned any covert groups, such as the Klan, in their efforts to stop or delay the legal process.

Things got quieter and integration was quickly achieved in the schools.

Court rulings and law also dictated that public facilities, even commercial ones, could not separate the races. That meant our soon-to-open, rebuilt movie theater would be integrated, something we knew and endorsed before we ever bought the building site.

At one point, there was a rather silly rebuke of that fact by a young black man. He was “picketing” the theater for “equal rights and access.” It was so stupid and misinformed, that I got very angry and literally dragged the young man into my office. “Who do you think has made it possible for you to be in my lobby much less picketing? And, who do you think has printed stories and editorials encouraging peaceful integration of the schools as the right thing to do?”

He wa s bew i ldered for a moment and then smiled. “You have.”

“So, why are you picketing us?”

“I shouldn’t be. I’m sorry,” he said.

“Thank you,” I replied.

“No. Thank you,” he said.

Even though things got markedly better for some time after that, it seems that the ugly head of discrimination still rears up. On both sides. And, too often in the same places.

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2012-04-19 digital edition

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