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The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A new era

July 11, 2014

 

Dr. and Mrs. Charles N. Atkins and their sons, Edmond, 10, and Charles, 3, of Oklahoma City, pause for a glance at a segregation sign, November 25, 1955, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. These types of signs were common in the south.  – AP Photo

Dr. and Mrs. Charles N. Atkins and their sons, Edmond, 10, and Charles, 3, of Oklahoma City, pause for a glance at a segregation sign, November 25, 1955, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. These types of signs were common in the south. – AP Photo

Cody “Tick” McElroy
Managing Editor

“God  had answered our prayers,” said Lee Dell Francis of Jonesboro on the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Francis was 39 years old and a barber at the time the act was passed 50 years ago on July 2.  Francis, who is black, said things are much different now than they were then.

“You’d have to go to different fountains to drink, go in the back of cafes to eat.  It was terrible,” Francis said. “We weathered the storm. Young folks don’t understand what we went through.”

The act was signed into law July 2 by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
The act contains 11 sections or Titles, many of which bans discrimination in areas of people’s everyday lives.
Titles III and IV address the desegregation of public accommodations and facilities, respectively, places like the fountains and cafes Francis mentioned. The law banned segregation in such places the old Dixie Theatre in downtown Ruston which had a separate entrance and upstairs viewing area for blacks during the segregation years, known as the Jim Crow era.
The theater is now home to the North Central Louisiana Arts council which now uses the former blacks-only entrance, bathrooms and ticket booth as an exit way and storage space, and the separate balcony viewing area is now used for lighting equipment.

“Today’s generation, they don’t know how it used to be,” said Glenn Lewis, photography and yearbook coordinator at Grambling State University.

Lewis is white and a 1967 journalism graduate of Louisiana Tech.
“The act really changed the picture,” Lewis said. “Nothing’s perfect, but people can vote nowadays, go to the same restaurants, the same hotels.”

The entrance to the balcony at the Dixie Theatre where African Americans were seated for shows. –Photos by Devon Dronett

The entrance to the balcony at the Dixie Theatre where African Americans were seated for shows. –Photos by Devon Dronett

Mildred Gallot, who worked at Grambling State at the time, looked forward to the bill’s passage so she could attend Louisiana Tech University for her master’s degree – something she achieved in 1968.
Gallot is a former trustee on the University of Louisiana System board of trustees and the retired head of the history department at Grambling, also her alma mater.

She said this new law did not open things up right away and did not lessen hostilities toward blacks.
Gallot was reminded of a trip she and her husband took to visit his sister on the East Coast. They had to drive through the part of Mississippi where three young civil rights workers were killed in 1964. These young men, three whites and one black, was participating in what was called Freedom Summerregistering blacks to vote in Mississippi and the south.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know what would happen, if someone were following us and decided to do something,’” Gallot said. She said this was a fear that many blacks had traveling during that period.

The view from the balcony high above the stage.

The view from the balcony high above the stage.

Gallot said her husband told her because she was light skinned, she would drive and he would ride in the back. It was dark at night, so anyone looking might think she was white and not bother them.

When they stopped in Atlanta to stay the night in a hotel, Gallot and her husband stayed in a black-owned hotel, even though Title II of the Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations.

“White places were not open to us,” Gallot said. “They were supposed to be, but we weren’t sure if we would get in trouble.”

Gallott

Gallott

said it was near the end of the 1960s before changes became evident.
“It was more like a dream not actually happening,” Gallot said. “Nobody was pushing forward.”
In December 1964, Grambling students James Potts and Bertha Bradford (now Robinson) submitted applications to transfer to Louisiana Tech, according to a 2010 Louisiana Tech master’s thesis in history written by Jenna Steward. Potts received a letter January 11 that denies his application, but the school encouraged him to filed suit.  He filed under Title IV of the civil rights that mandated public school desegregation and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file suits to enforce the law.

Seven months after the civil rights act became law, February 2, 1965, Grambling student James Potts, now deceased, was the first black student admitted to the university. That summer, Bertha Bradford Robinson became first black female student at Tech.

“It was inevitable that we were going to have to deal with (integration),” said Dr. Virgil Orr, academic vice president of the university at the time. “So I welcomed the opportunity to get it moving forward. We just did our best to deal with (Potts) in a forthright manner.”

Orr said he, Potts, Potts’ dean and others gathered at the south end of Keeney Hall on campus late on the afternoon before classes started to register Potts, away from the main student body.
“I was excited those in power finally recognized something needed to be done,” said Shirley Hicks, born 1942, a retired Chicago school teacher and sister to Potts. “(The civil rights act) was just not as effective as we thought it would be.”
Hicks moved back home to Jonesboro where she and Potts where she and Potts grew up.
She described the difficulty for Robinson and Potts in integrating Tech.

Virgil_Orr_(1966)

ORR (1966)

“They had to go through so much. Bertha had a heart attack at one point,” Hicks said. “(The Deacons) literally guarded my mother’s house where they couldn’t do anything.”

The Deacons for Defense and Justice was a group of black men in Jonesboro that protected civil rights workers.
“They were out there to kill,” Hicks said of some white aggressors at the time.
Francis and Lewis said the Act’s passing was something that needed to be done. And Hicks said appreciation is the best thing that has resulted from the Act.

Francis, 89 years old now, sums up the struggle and the progress:
“I’ve gone through rough days. We’ve got a piece to go yet. It’s better, but it’s not over yet.”

to a 2010 Louisiana Tech master’s thesis in history written by Jenna Steward. Potts received a letter Jan 11, 1964 that denied his application, but the school encouraged him to filed suit.  He filed under Title IV of the Civil Rights Act that mandated public school desegregation and authorized the U.S. Attorney General to file suits to enforce the law.

Seven months after the Civil Rights Act became law, February 2, 1965, Grambling student Potts, now deceased, was the first black student admitted to the university. That summer, Robinson became the first black female student at Tech.
“It was inevitable that we were going to have to deal with (integration),” said Dr. Virgil Orr, academic vice president of the university at the time. “So I welcomed the opportunity to get it moving forward. We just did our best to deal with (Potts) in a forthright manner.”

Orr said he, Potts, Potts’ dean and others gathered at the south end of Keeney Hall on campus late on the afternoon before classes started to register Potts, away from the main student body.

“I was excited those in power finally recognized something needed to be done,” said Shirley Hicks, born in 1942, a retired Chicago  school teacher and sister to Potts. “(The Civil Rights Act) was just not as effective as we thought it would be.”
Hicks moved back home to Jonesboro where she and Potts grew up.

She described the difficulty for Robinson and Potts in integrating Tech.
“They had to go through so much.  Hicks said. “(The Deacons) literally guarded my mother’s house where they couldn’t do anything.”

The Deacons for Defense and Justice was a group of black men in Jonesboro that protected civil rights workers.
“They were out there to kill,” Hicks said of some white aggressors at the time.

Francis and Lewis said the act’s passing was something that needed to be done. And Hicks said appreciation is the best thing that has resulted from the act.

Francis, 89 years old now, sums up the struggle and the progress:
“I’ve gone through rough days. We’ve got a piece to go yet. It’s better, but it’s not over yet.”

Email comments to cjm048@latech.edu

 

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