Saint Al

Will he die in prison for the sins of the plantation?

Two other black council members, one current and one former, are targets of the same federal probe. But neither Don Hicks, who sits on the council now, nor Sandra Crenshaw, who occupied Lipscomb's seat for one term, elicits anything like the intense emotional support felt for Lipscomb.

It's a feeling that is understood and even shared, in some degree, by people who have dealt with Lipscomb from the other side of the city's racial divide. A former mayor of Dallas, who asked not to be identified, says Lipscomb's position in city politics was always especially perilous because he suffered the one strike even more unacceptable to the white power structure than being black.

He was poor.
"Al was a pauper," the former mayor says. "There was a big, mean, racist system in Dallas in the 1950s and '60s, and black leaders were not permitted to express their feelings.

"Most people in Dallas dealt with the system by staying on their own side of the line. White people lived their lives deep within the white community, and most black people stayed deep within the black community.

"But there was always that edge, that place where the two worlds met. And that's where Al lived. Al was always at the seam."

A pauper at the seam. Ferryman on the River Hate.

To understand the history of racial politics in Detroit or Atlanta or Houston, a cynic might say, "follow the money." Here the cynic would have to say, "follow the groceries."

In 1985, a few months before her death, Juanita Craft, the "Mama of the Civil Rights Movement" in Dallas, struggled out into the dimly lighted front room of her small frame house on Warren Avenue to talk to a writer.

Frail, speaking in a whisper, she told of her role as an NAACP youth organizer in the 1960s. "I was the reason there wasn't violence here," she said. "I kept these young people under control."

She wanted the writer, who was white, to understand that powerful white people downtown knew how important she had been. "They know," she said, with a significant nod of her head. "Mr. Schenkel [Pete Schenkel, CEO of Schepps Dairies] knows. He always makes sure I have eggs and bread and fresh milk. He sends them right to my house."

In Dallas, the traditional Southern commerce of eggs, bread, and small favors--the rope bridge across the racial divide--was unbroken by the turmoil of the 1960s.

"There was no movement per se in Dallas," says Janice Winkley Gore, a longtime leader in the African-American community. "Of all the big cities, this is clearly the city that the movement passed by."

It wasn't that the movement didn't try to penetrate Dallas. And when it did, Al Lipscomb, the pauper, was there to welcome it with open arms, unlike the Dallas black middle class, which shunned the movement like a poison.

In 1970, two years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a prolonged and carefully organized boycott of Safeway grocery stories in black Dallas, led by King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC accused Safeway of failing to hire any black employees above the level of floor-sweeper and of refusing to do business with a single black vendor.

Peter Johnson, the SCLC organizer who ran the boycott, had mixed feelings at first about Lipscomb.

"Albert was a waiter at one of the private clubs for rich white people downtown," Johnson recalls. "They had him involved in this thing called 'Block Partnership,' which was a creation of the Dallas power structure under the Dallas Council of Churches."

Block Partnership was designed to link people in white North Dallas with people in black South Dallas. Van-loads of earnest churchgoers visited each other's services. Blocks of whites sat in the pews in black churches, and blocks of blacks sat in white churches, like card sections at a football game. Civil rights organizers such as Johnson saw Block Partnership as a make-nice strategy for avoiding change.

"We used to call the Block Partnership the 'fire department,'" Johnson says. "They were there to run around and put out all the fires that we would start."

Those times in Dallas were frightening and genuinely dangerous for black activists in a way that may simply not be fully understandable to people who were not here then.

Former Dallas legislator Paul Ragsdale, then a young social worker just up from Austin, recalls the look and feel of the place: "They still had John Birch Society billboards all over and billboards saying 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Black folk were just overwhelmed with paranoia, talking about how the whites could come in with tanks and seal off South Dallas and kill us all."

But the worst fear activists in the black community had to deal with, because it was the most immediate, was the threat of betrayal from sold-out black power brokers. The most feared of all the sold-out preachers was the Rev. S.M. Wright, who bragged he could get the white boys downtown to yank the mortgage on the church of any preacher who crossed him.

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