This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 22, 2008 - During his 32 years of representing Missouri's 1st congressional district on the north side of St. Louis, Bill Clay, now 77, was a lightning rod of criticism, a gadfly against the political right, and a persistent opponent of the foreign and domestic policies of the Nixon and Ford administrations.
Clay's activism began with the protests that culminated in the most successful civil-rights movement in the city's history: the Jefferson Bank demonstrations, starting in August 1963. Clay wound up serving 105 days in jail because of it. Ultimately, though, the demonstrations by blacks and whites opened up employment for blacks in banking and other industries. St. Louis activist Norman Seay called those protests a plus for St. Louis because they ushered in a non-violent social revolution.
We caught up with Clay, who lives in Silver Spring, Md., when he was in town last week for the dedication of a North County post office in his honor. He was also here to promote his latest book, "The Jefferson Bank Confrontation: The Struggle for Civil Rights in St. Louis."
Welcome home. Before discussing your new book, could you give us a sense of what, if anything, the rise of Barack Obama says about race in America?
Clay: It means that you have a new level of education among the electorate that has decided that Obama is right about making change from the bottom up instead of the top down. And I don't think the electorate is impressed by this Mickey Mouse candidate, Sarah Palin. I was an elected official for 42 years, and I've never seen anything as inept as this McCain-Palin campaign.
You were part of the first wave of blacks elected to Congress where you co-founded the Congressional Black Caucus. Did any of you anticipate the relatively swift rise of a black candidate like Obama in national politics?
Clay: Oh, no. I don't think anybody expected it. But you never know what can happen. We never thought what would happen after the Jefferson Bank demonstrations. We had hopes, but nobody, white or black, realized that through those demonstrations there would be a level of leadership that the power structure would have to respond to.
So how might an Obama presidency play out for blacks and people in general?
Clay: We've been in a holding pattern and have had to fight like hell against a retreat on civil rights and human rights during the last 25 or 30 years. (If Obama is elected) you certainly wouldn't have to worry about the instrumentality of the government being used against every program created to guarantee and enhance our rights. You certainly wouldn't have to worry about new people on the Supreme Court who would be committed to ignoring the laws of the land and the Constitution of the United States.
Back to the Jefferson Bank, what triggered people at that point in St. Louis history to turn to direct action?
Clay: The Jefferson Bank confrontation began two days after a quarter of a million people took part in the historic March on Washington to demand passage of civil rights legislation. So what happened in St. Louis was part of a national movement.
Given the times, this was a pretty strong response to discrimination, wouldn't you say?
Clay: Blacks in the civil rights movement were very cautious. They weren't cowards. But they knew the capacity of white America with power to inflict pain on those who got out of line. But young blacks who weren't aware of this history and really didn't give a damn just decided that they weren't going to take it anymore. This was a complete change in the mood of black America. There also were older black people who were waiting for somebody to provide a different kind of leadership, a more militant leadership, than what had existed.
Were there times when you wanted to give up because of the pressure and fears about losing your livelihood?
Clay: No, no. There was pressure, yes. But I was surrounded by other people with the same kind of commitment. Ivory Perry, Percy Green, Marian Oldham and Bob Curtis -- these were people who weren't going to give up, and I certainly wasn't going to give up. We'd been challenging the system for 10 years before Jefferson Bank through demonstrations at other sites in St. Louis, so we had never felt like giving up.
The cover of your book includes a photo from the Jefferson Bank demonstration of your now-grown daughter, Michelle, looking barely big enough to carry that sign that says, "Give My Mom A Job." Do she and your son (U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay) remember much about your activism?
Clay: All my kids were involved in the civil rights movement even before Jefferson Bank. They were with us on the picket line at places like White Castle, so they were always involved and knew about demonstrations. But there's something very interesting in the last page of the book about Michelle's experiences after Jefferson Bank. There still is a bitter taste in this community about the demonstrations. Some people still resent what happened. When Michelle, 20 years later, took the bar exam for Missouri, they asked her about her involvement with Jefferson Bank, and they were serious!
How would you sum up the demonstrations?
Clay: During the Jefferson Bank demonstrations, we were up against the whole power structure and the black leadership that it could influence. We had to fight that for 3 and 1/2 years. What helped us was that the black community, the rank-and-file black community, rose up and sided with the demonstrators, not just on Jefferson Bank but at the department stores, bread companies, insurance companies and a lot of other places. We took all of them on. We were successful also because the black ministers sided with us; the black press sided with us. Unfortunately, the white press was terrible. Their reports were inaccurate and biased. And you'll notice in the book that I have no nice things to say about them or about black leadership that tried to undermine the movement.
What will be the next civil rights struggle?
Clay: I don't know what it will be, unless it starts two weeks from now if there's a concerted effort to deny votes to a lot of people. That could be the next struggle. But the most important thing for us to do is consolidate whatever political power we have and use that influence to make sure we become part of the mainstream of American citizenship.
This is your third book in recent years. Will it be your last?
Clay: No, I'm working next on a book that's a lot more controversial than Jefferson Bank. It will be about (Supreme Court Justice) Clarence Thomas' dream and our nightmare.