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Jefferson Bank demonstrations: a civil disobedience movement like no other in St. Louis area

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. Georg
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The 2600 block of Washington Boulevard is still remembered as the spot marking the beginning of what would become the largest civil disobedience demonstration for economic equality in St. Louis. Launched on Aug. 30, 1963, the protest involved about 150 blacks and whites who gathered outside of what was then the headquarters of the Jefferson Bank & Trust Co. The goal was to prod the bank to hire blacks for white-collar jobs.

But two other events that year predated the bank protests, and 50 years ago this month African-American groups were planning how to clearly show the discrimination in hiring and accommodations in St. Louis.

On June 20, the NAACP staged a demonstration by 500 against segregation in the city’s public school system. And on Aug. 1, following several weeks of picketing, operators of the old Chain of Rocks Fun Fair Park agreed to integrate the park’s swimming pool.

Hear Bill Clay talk with his son, U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, about the Jefferson Bank demonstrations. -- St. Louis Public Radio

But the Jefferson Bank protest was different because it focused on civil disobedience, a tactic new to St. Louis. On the very first day of protest, a group picketed for about 60 minutes, then in late afternoon, nearly two dozen locked arms and sat down to block the front entrance to the bank. They defied a court order against such demonstrations, and those eventually taken into custody included former William Clay Sr., who went on to serve in Congress; attorney Charles Oldham and his wife, Marian, who later became a member of the Board of Curators at the University of Missouri; attorney Robert Curtis; and Norman Seay, who later became an administrator at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

Also happening in May 1963: A federal appeals court ruled that "Whites Only" and "Colored Only" signs at bus and train stations in Jackson, Miss., were unlawful.

Eventually 19 people served jail terms ranging from 60 days to a year and were fined amounts ranging from $500 to $1,000. At the end of March 1964, the protest organizer, the St. Louis Committee on Racial Equality, ended the demonstrations after the bank quietly hired five black clerical workers. As is its custom, the bank hasn’t commented on its employment policies or on this year’s 50th anniversary of the demonstrations. The event is said to have helped open the doors wider to clerical and sales jobs for blacks in major St. Louis businesses.

The movement triggered other type of nonviolent protest. Less than three months after the start of the bank demonstrations, a 28-year-old activist named Percy Green took the first step toward becoming the gadfly that the old Globe-Democrat would call a "habitual troublemaker.” In support of the bank demonstrators, Green began a hunger strike in front of the office of then-St. Louis Treasurer John H. “Jack” Dwyer to demand that he remove city tax money from the bank. The tactic was part of a new phase in the demonstrations. Green was arrested within three hours on trespass charges.

Within a year Green had gained national attention when he and another protester climbed about 125 feet of one leg of the Gateway Arch in an effort to push for black employment on the landmark construction project. He also became the face of the civil rights group ACTION, known for a long-standing protest against the Veiled Prophet Ball and against certain employment policies by companies ranging from Laclede Gas to McDonnell Douglas, which fired him about a month after his Arch protest.

A decade after the bank demonstrations, an employment discrimination court case Green had filed against McDonnell Douglas resulted in a unanimous Supreme Court ruling that, among other things, placed the onus on employers to prove that their employment policies weren’t discriminatory. The ruling set a new national standard of proof in a worker’s favor when alleging racial bias in the work place.

Over the years, other types of demonstrations protested social and economic issues among blacks on the north side. One such protest was sparked over the eventual shutdown of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, a landmark facility that was a health safety net and a major employment base for blacks. Another was the Highway 70 blockade to protest the low level of black participation in highway construction projects.

Perhaps the largest social justice demonstrations following Jefferson Bank turned out to be peaceful. It occurred on April 7, 1968, when tens of thousands of blacks and whites marched together in St. Louis following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. But even that event isn’t recalled nearly as often as the Jefferson Bank incident, the granddaddy of civil disobedience in St. Louis.

Former Rep. Clay summed up the event as “a fountainhead in the advancement of progressive movement toward elimination of employment discrimination in a city pretending it had no racial problem.” In his book "The Jefferson Bank Confrontation," Clay argued that the struggle was about more than getting white collar jobs or sale positions in retail stores. “It was more about destroying a mentality that members of the Negro race were not entitled to the same rights as others.”

Remembering 1963

Wikipedia Clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. George Wallace, on the same day as the president's address, blocks the doorway at the University of Alabama.

During the next several months, we’ll look back and point to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are.

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