Monumental protest: Activist Percy Green's battle for fair hiring at the Arch
Updated 1:13 p.m., Oct. 28 with "St. Louis on the Air" audio - The Gateway Arch was just halfway to the sky on July 14, 1964, when two St. Louis civil rights activists climbed 125 feet up a construction ladder on the unfinished north leg to protest the project’s lack of African-American workers.
It would become an iconic moment in city history.
As St. Louis prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the completion of the 630-foot monument, Percy Green says he and Richard Daly didn’t expect their protest to attract national attention and become a part of the historical record.
“The only thing that we calculated was that it would be effective,’’ says Green, now 80. “If you are going to engage in civil disobedience, it has to do at least two things: One, convey the message. Two, bring pressure upon those who are responsible for making change.”
The Arch protest came just days after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. Green and Daly belonged to the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which began picketing the Jefferson Bank and Trust in 1963 to convince the bank to hire African Americans for white-collar jobs.
“After that, we had a dispute over what would be the most effective means in pressuring companies,’’ Green says. “Would the groups continue to use civil disobedience or would the protest groups change? So, we split. Most of the more progressive element in the organization went with me and the use of direct action protest.”
Green, who had been chairman of CORE’s employment committee, formed the Action Council to Improve Opportunities for Negroes (ACTION). In 1972, ACTION had its own iconic moment: Members of the group infiltrated the Veiled Prophet Ball -- an annual event of the city’s upper crust -- and unmasked Tom K. Smith, a Monsanto executive who was the prophet that year.
The Arch protest prodded officials of the National Park Service into pressuring construction companies to hire more African-American workers and contractors for the Arch project, though Green describes that effort as mostly “tokenism.”
Green, a lifelong St. Louisan, grew up on the near south side of the city. He graduated from Vashon High School and was drafted into the Army, where he worked on the Nike Ajax and Hercules missile systems that dotted the nation during the Cold War. He says his activism cost him his job at McDonnell Douglas.
Green will speak about his fight for jobs for African Americans Thursday at the Missouri History Museum.
He recently spoke at length with St. Louis Public Radio. Here are excerpts from that interview:
While many St. Louisans saw the Arch construction as a sign of progress, you were sending a different message to the city.
Green: We noticed that there were not any black workers or black contractors on the job. We researched it, and we realized that an enormous amount of federal money was being spent. And we felt that as taxpayers that blacks should have a sufficient number of jobs.
I pursued a meeting and talking with the president of the [MacDonald Construction Company], the company building the Arch. MacDonald seemed to feel there weren’t any qualified blacks to be employed. We felt that was the typical mindset of most of the businesses when we began to talk to them about jobs. And, mind you, the military was full of blacks, and blacks were operating all types of equipment, including construction equipment.
After two meetings, we gave him 10 days to hire blacks -- especially black males. Otherwise, we would engage in some form of civil disobedience. Of course, he didn’t take us seriously. And CORE was not that happy about engaging in civil disobedience after 19 people were arrested [in the 1963 Jefferson Bank demonstrations]. The demonstration that we eventually conducted in climbing the Arch we did it in the name of CORE. Shortly afterward, we had the infrastructure in place to form ACTION.
So, on July 14, 1964, you and Richard Daly staged a bold sit-in on the Arch that was obviously very well-planned.
Green: Daly and I decided to volunteer to climb the Arch since at the time my work schedule allowed for me to do so. I was working at McDonnell Douglas from 12 o’clock to 7 in the morning. Dick Daly -- at the time he was a student. We had to do a dry run first to see whether it was possible. About a week or two later we decided to execute it.
We were successful in climbing to about 125 feet. Now, a lot of people want to know why didn’t we go higher. At the time, the Arch was only about 350 feet and the men were working up there. I didn’t think it was appropriate for us to go any further because in the event of an accident occurring they would have tried to make it out as if we were responsible for endangering the workers’ lives.
What time of day did you make the climb?
Green: We did it right at lunchtime, at noon. That was when most of the workers were in the most relaxed state, eating their lunch. And we decided to walk right on past the workers. Of course, we looked just like the workers with the exception of me being black. But by the time they discovered we were protesters we were already on the Arch, and there wasn’t anything they could do because we were already in place and they didn’t want to run the risk of trying to remove us.
Were there workers on the Arch at the time?
Green: Yes, but they were up at the 300-foot mark. And there were other workers on the grounds.
We told them at the time that we were going to remain there until they hired 100 blacks on the Arch job, but in terms of the construction industry we wanted 1,000 blacks to be hired across the board.
They didn’t know that I was going to come down because I had to be at work that night. We remained there five hours. We knew about the arrest process, being arrested and fingerprinted. We had the bonds person in place to bond us out, so I could go to work and be at work on time. I didn’t want to give McDonnell Douglas an excuse to fire me. Little did I know. I was fired about 30 days after climbing the Arch. I was unjustifiably fired. I lost my employment there even though I took care in not letting my outside activities interfere with my work.
After being laid off, I immediately filed a complaint of racial discrimination with the federal government. The president’s commission on civil rights didn’t have enforcement power. So, I was just out.
Did anyone try to talk you down?
Green: They sent a policeman up. There was an elevator up the side of the Arch. They had a policeman try to talk us down. He said, “You all have made your point, now it’s time to end this demonstration." We didn’t listen to him.
It was July. It had to be hot up there. Did you take water with you?
Green: The only thing I remember having was binoculars because we had to signal to the people that were picketing at the Old Courthouse that we were successfully on the Arch. At the Old Courthouse, they had binoculars where visitors could look at the workers building the Arch. We crafted the demonstration to have a picket line at the Old Courthouse to bring the press out to cover the picket line. They told the press, “We have two protestors up on the Arch.” And they took off running.
Did you secure yourself in some way so that you wouldn’t fall?
Green: No. The ladder was like a cylinder -- like a cage going up. But there were openings on the sides. The front portion was like a regular ladder. There was enough space on each side that if we had a misstep we could have fallen off.
So this was dangerous …
Green: Oh, it was dangerous without a doubt. Neither Daly nor I had ever climbed that high before. And the wind was blowing.
There was about a 4-foot space between where we were on the ladder and another portion of the Arch -- a flat surface. We were debating on whether we were going to jump over on to that portion and just sit there. We could have been more relaxed. If we were going to spend the night, we may have decided to jump over.
A lot of things could have occurred. We were mindful of that. We felt that some demonstrations and some things you must do are risky, but the risk is worth making the point that needed to be made.
The biggest risk was when we were in the hands of the police. But with the television and news media being present that offered us a certain amount of security.
Interestingly, the federal government dropped the charges against Daly and I.
What was your job at McDonnell Douglas?
Green: I was a research and development technician working on the Mercury project. I had spent seven years in the union and had recently transferred from a union job to a nonunion job. That kind of speaks for itself. At the time I was naïve. I was thinking that these companies would be fair-minded. As long as I spent my off time doing whatever I want -- as long as it didn’t interfere with my work time -- then they had no reason to interfere with what I did on my own time. If the boss wants to go fishing on his off time, then so be it. I felt that if I wanted to demonstrate to support people who were less fortunate then myself, I should be able to do that. As long as it didn’t interfere with my work.
Little did I know that the real world doesn’t operate like that. They terminated me on my 29th birthday.
McDonnell was still running ads in the newspaper for personnel for a job classification I held for seven years. I go and reapply, and they refused to hire me. That led to the Green vs. McDonnell case. At the time, the only way you could prove racial discrimination was if the perpetrator admitted that they had discriminated. If they never admitted it, you couldn’t prove racial discrimination. My case made it possible for circumstantial evidence to be brought into the fray.
Were you surprised by the amount of attention the Arch protest received?
Green: Yes and no. I knew it was going to be an effective demonstration, but I never thought that it would be as enormous as it was.
We had no idea it was going to go national.
What was driving you?
Green: Being effective. There is some form of profit to be made in racism, which is why it still exists. I felt as if the demonstrations were making that type of behavior more of a liability than an asset. If the racist practice becomes a liability then there is good reason to be believe that the business-minded person will move toward what is an asset rather than what is a liability.
I would like to think that we still have fair-minded people in decision-making that can see the logic of practicing in a way that they can be fair-minded and still do business.
Fifty years later, what do you think the Arch protest accomplished?
Green: The accomplishment was increasing the tokenism. Back then, they would bring on two or three blacks. They’re still not doing in construction or any other form of employment what they need to do.
We wanted to show that black males were being discriminated against. The system was destroying the family fabric. If the companies were going to discriminate against black males, eliminating them from the possibility of making decent salaries, then they were destroying the family unit. We can see signs of that today. Had they done what I was advocating about more and better-paying jobs for black males at the large companies that paid nice salaries, then the dynamics would have went a long way to reduce welfare. Instead, they tokenize the effort. We never had black phone installers or meter readers. Now, you see some. But not to the extent that there should be.
We have to rattle the cage of the rich. There are some opportunities. But it’s still tokenism. There is some improvement, but it’s not the type of improvement to say it’s a cure.
As the city prepares to note the Arch’s golden anniversary, what is your take on the celebration?
Green: People lived there [the 47 blocks on the riverfront that were cleared for the Arch site in 1939.] It was a community. That whole area was blighted. The politicians claimed they were going to do this, and the business people claimed they were going to do that.
I would rather have not seen the Arch but have seen those people have their community and made a decent salary.
Would you want to be included in the city’s celebration?
I’ll take the Fifth on that.
What: Activist Percy Green will speak about his civil rights efforts at “The St. Louis Arch: An Unfulfilled Promise of Employment.” The event is free and open to the public.
When: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 24
Where: Missouri History Museum, Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park.