Remembering the Tulsa Sit-ins
An Interview with James W. Russell
Originally published in The Nation's Longest Struggle: Looking Back on the Modern Civil Rights Movement by the D.C. Everest school system of Wisconsin. This interview was conducted and edited by Junior and Senior High School students of the Everest system. For more information, see D.C. Everest Oral History Project.[
James W. Russell (RussellJ@easternct.edu) graduated from Tulsa, Will Rogers High School and attended the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s. He was active in the Tulsa civil rights movement and the first editor of New Left Notes, the national newspaper of Students for a Democratic Society. His most recent book is Escape from Texas: A Novel of Slavery and the Texas War of Independence. He is working on a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Tulsa sit-ins to be held in 2014. The following interview was conducted by Jon Hefron and Dayton Dunbar, students in the Civil Rights Oral History Project at D.C. Everest High School in Schofield, Wisconsin.]
Interviewer: Would you tell us something about your background.
I was born in Bronxville, New York in 1944. When I was eleven years old after the death of my father, my mother, sister, and I moved to Muskogee, Oklahoma. Then a year later we moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. My mother was from the south. In a way she picked up her children and returned home after the death of her husband.
Oklahoma was part of the border south. Tulsa had been the site of the worst race riot in U.S. history in 1921, which killed dozens to hundreds of people. The true casualty figures are still not known.
When we arrived, Oklahoma was still very much a segregated state. Restaurants, water fountains, restrooms, and many schools were segregated. I remember my mother telling us to be very careful around it, that it wasn't like the north, and that we should not challenge it.
Thank you. Next we would like you to tell us your story of what you experienced in the Civil Rights Movement.
I first became involved in 1962, shortly after graduating from high school. There was a youth committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that was doing surveys of segregation in eating establishments in Tulsa. We went around from restaurant to restaurant, asking the owners whether they would serve a Negro (the word that was used at the time). The responses ranged from very hostile to willingness, with most being more like the former.
Later the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) entered the Tulsa black community and challenged the NAACP's approach to desegregation. CORE was much more militant and wanted to engage in sit-ins while the NAACP had a more cautious approach.
In March 1964 I was coming back from a conference of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) with striking coal miners in Hazard, Kentucky to Norman, Oklahoma, where I was a student at the University of Oklahoma. I saw a newspaper headline that sit-ins had broken out in Tulsa. I immediately headed back to Tulsa and took part in the second sit-in at the Apache Circle Restaurant. That was the first of two arrests for sit-ins in eating establishments.
On July 2, 1964, the first Civil Rights Act was enacted. It, among other provisions, outlawed segregation of restaurants. The charges against us for the sit-ins were then dropped. Our sit-ins had come at tail end of the restaurant desegregation movement. They, along with many actions elsewhere, had helped to encourage passage of the Civil Rights Act as the final debates over it were coming to a climax.
I spent that summer in Sand Springs, a suburb of Tulsa. My mother had just moved there to be closer to her job. I noticed that its school system was still completely segregated despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision which outlawed school segregation. There was an ultra-modern white high school and a black school built in 1898 which housed all grades from kindergarten to high school. Every day white students would pass the black school to go to the white school.
I looked at that and thought that this should be our next project. I brought it up at a CORE meeting and everyone agreed.
Wow, that is very interesting. What circumstances and events in your past impacted your decision to get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?
It is hard to pinpoint them. When I arrived in Oklahoma I absorbed some of the prevailing attitudes on race as a result of peer group pressures in junior and senior high school. Toward the end of high school in 1962 I became very interested in politics. The Civil Rights Movement was already going on at that time and I became very sympathetic with it.
How did you first get involved?
It was, as I stated, by joining the NAACP Youth Group and then moving from that into CORE. Also when I went to college I became very active in organizing a chapter of SDS, which in a lot of ways a northern arm of the southern Civil Rights Movement. A lot of people who were in SDS were also active in civil rights.
Did you ever question what you were doing? Did you ever have any doubts of what you were doing?
Let me pick up the story at Sand Springs again because it links to the substance of your question. After CORE gave us the go ahead, a committee of three of us did a survey of the Sand Springs black community. We went door to door asking people whether they were interested in integrating the schools. Almost all the parents said yes. But black teachers were understandably worried that they might lose their jobs. That led to organizing a meeting of the whole black community to discuss the issues.
Seventy to eighty people, mainly parents, attended. We explained CORE's proposal to pressure the Sand Springs School Board to integrate the schools and then opened the meeting up for discussion. A young black man stood up and spoke about how wonderful their school was and why it shouldn't be integrated. A community member whispered to me that he had been sent by the white school board to say that. At the end of his talk he said that the school had a really famous graduate, Marques Haynes. Haynes was the star dribbler of the Harlem Globetrotters, a 1940s and 50s black comedy basketball team during the period when professional basketball was still segregated. The Globetrotters actually defeated the NBA champions in s special exhibition game.
At that point a man in the back said he wanted to speak. He came forward to the front of the room and said, "I am Marques Haynes. It is true that I graduated from the school and went on to a lot of success. But I never wanted to be a basketball player. I wanted to be a printer. The white school had a program in printing, but our school did not have a program in printing."
So Marques Haynes then joined forces with us and completely swayed the whole meeting to support the proposal because he had so much prestige. He went with us to the school board, which refused the integration proposal. We then filed a complaint with the Department of Justice and the desegregation of the Sand Springs schools began that year.
Getting back to your question about having second thoughts about what I was doing, all of the controversial public exposure brought a lot of heat onto my household. For one thing I was fired from a summer steel mill job. But that was the least of our problems. There were a lot of threatening phone calls to the house. My mother was eventually driven out of town and had to move back to Tulsa. At the end of the summer I returned to college, leaving my widowed mother to face all the problems that I had caused. She took some of the consequences for what I had started. I had some mixed feelings about that, but not enough to have abandoned the Civil Rights Movement.
What was your methodology and philosophy of the movement that what you were a part of?
Nonviolence as espoused by Martin Luther King was at that time embraced by most people in the movement. He had been influenced not only by Gandhi in India but also the pacifist movement in the United States. At that point I was a sponge, reading everything I could, including the pacifist magazine, Liberation and the essays and novels of James Baldwin.
Who are some of the people that were always be your side and supported you and what you were doing?
There were people that I knew through CORE in Oklahoma and the national connections I had with SDS.
Now you said that you were very involved with CORE. Could you tell about some of the leaders that you associated yourself with? Tell me about their personalities and why they were ineffective or effective as leaders.
Most of our involvement was local through the CORE chapter. It is true that in 1964 I and others went to the CORE national convention in Kansas City. I heard national leaders such as James Farmer speak. But that was really on the side. Everything was on the local level. I don't think that there was a dynamic local leader like that. Rather, we were just swept up by the times, because the Civil Rights Movement was going on and had very much captured national and international attention.
Here is a footnote that you may not know that I think is very important. You always hear that the first lunch counter sit-ins were in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1960. That is not true. The first ones were in Oklahoma City in 1956. They were led by a woman named Clara Luper, who just died this year, 2012. You can look up her obituary in the New York Times. Even though Oklahoma wasn't the Deep South, it definitely had its own kind of indigenous set of struggles around racial issues. Clara Luper came up from Oklahoma City with a number of her followers to participate in and perhaps help to instigate the first Tulsa sit-in on March 30, 1964.
Were you ever harassed by people you knew or didn't know?
Absolutely. There were the threatening phone calls I mentioned. It was just a very different time. In 2012 racism still very much exists, but few people will publicly admit being racist. Back then people openly admitted it and would argue with anyone who thought differently. If they heard if anyone was one of "those Civil Rights people," they would get very angry.
It was very common for people to throw anticommunist stuff at us, such as yelling, "Go back to Russia." It was a very weird combining of those issues, as if to say that only communists supported civil rights, which was not at all true.
Now how did you feel at that time about the President and his actions with regards to the Civil Rights?
There was a notion that Civil Rights was being embraced at a national level at the beginning of the Johnson administration. His name was sometimes invoked in opposition to local segregationist politicians. But the attitude of civil rights activists turned more critical toward him during the 1964 Democratic Party convention. The party refused to recognize the integrated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (FDP) as representing the state rather than the all white official party. Johnson was clearly behind the scenes lining up the votes against recognition of the FDP for political reasons.
That was a great moral issue for all of us. Mississippi was where the worst violence against blacks and civil rights activists was occurring. The northern Democratic Party had been in an unholy alliance with the southern segregationist Democratic Party since the Civil War. All that has changed since then.
I know that the movements that you were in were successful at least in the schools. What were the benefits for blacks and society in general?
There is still enormous racial inequality in this country. There is no way that the Civil Rights Movement solved all those issues. But now and then are very different historical periods. There definitely has been some advances in the level of discourse. There is a notion that there should be racial equality in the country.
There have been some unintended consequences of the Civil Rights Movement. In the case of Tulsa, the success of the Civil Rights Movement let the black middle class move out of black areas, leaving a social vacuum. I have heard blacks make the argument that in Tulsa the black schools declined for a while because of integration. During segregation black professionals had to take jobs as teachers because they couldn't get them elsewhere. The segregated black schools thus had some excellent teachers. But when other opportunities opened up, these school teachers started to leave and the quality of the schools deteriorated. I don't want to push that point too strongly, just to say that it was an unintended consequence. There are definitely many more opportunities for blacks today because of integration than there where at that time.
Did women play a role in the movements that you where apart of?
Definitely. Half or more of the civil rights activists in Tulsa where women. A number had informal and formal leadership roles.
Did you experience the split in the Civil Rights Movement around 1966?
If you mean the emergence of the Black Power movement, yes. By 1966 I was more involved with the movement against the War in Vietnam through SDS. All of us were watching the Black Power development because it came out of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which SDS was close to, with Stokely Carmichael as its initiator. There were a number of whites still involved in SNCC at that time and they ended up leaving because of the Black Power Movement. It was an issue of the need for black self determination that conflicted with the well meaning participation of educated whites from the North in those organizations. I think that it was understood that it was not a hostile situation between whites and blacks in SNCC but rather the need for self determination.
What does Black Power mean to you?
It came out of a very historical context of the civil rights and black movement centering on the need for self determination. At the time I saw it positively. It was logical that after hundreds of years of being exploited and oppressed by slavery and racism blacks needed to come together as a people and not have that diluted by the presence of others, no matter of well intentioned. I do think at some points it could go off in not so good directions, but the general thrust of it I saw as positive.
How did the assassination of Martin Luther King impact the movements you were involved in?
The King assassination was the final straw for many people. It created a sense of desperation. The ghettos exploded in rioting. There was a week in 1968 when there were more American troops deployed in black neighborhoods than in Vietnam.
A lot of people will say that the riots were destructive and accomplished nothing positive as opposed to the nonviolent tactics of the earlier Civil Rights Movement. While not condoning them, the riots may have added a significant push to expanding welfare reforms such as anti-poverty programs in this country. The riots scared a lot of people in the white establishment who were then more willing to make concessions.
Now I know that you talked about this before but do you think there is still segregation here today?
Definitely. I now live in Connecticut which is still a very segregated state in many respects. During the 1960s we made a distinction between de facto and de jure segregation. Connecticut is an example of the former. Its schools and neighborhoods remain substantially segregated in de facto terms. It capital city, Hartford, for example, is mainly Black and Hispanic and surrounded by some of the wealthiest suburbs in the United States which are mainly white.
How did your life change because of your experiences?
Those where really wonderful times in a lot of ways. I was 18, 19, and 20 years old and those are times when you go through your own internal changes in thinking. Everybody does because you are leaving your family. You are trying to figure out what is going on in the world and where you stand. To have come of age during the Civil Rights and antiwar movements was very significant to who I became. I continue to carry a lot of those formative experiences with me.
What advice would you give our generation on racial relations?
First, don't assume that the racial problems of the United States were solved by the Civil Rights Movement. There remain enormous problems of inequality. The Civil Rights Movement ended de jure segregation. De facto segregation remains. The next step of the movement was supposed to be achieving economic equality. In many respects the war in Vietnam disrupted that progression by diverting to focus of our energies. True racial equality still not been accomplished.
Second, get involved with issues of social justice, even if it puts you in a minority position. Today's minority can be tomorrow's majority if you're successful. Your state, Wisconsin, is at the center of a national struggle over the rights of working people. You have a lot of opportunities to get involved in it as well as the Occupy Wall Street movement nationally.
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