Saint Al

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

The basic mechanism of racial control was an old Southern tradition. In a centennial history of the Dallas Park Department published in 1976, the author explained how all black institutions in Dallas, from colleges to churches, were ultimately dependent on white power. Therefore the "colored sovereigns," as author Marion Barnett calls them, knew better than ever to lose control of their own people.

"If the Negro leaders were politically astute," Barnett wrote, "they also probably resisted attempts by any local blacks to build a power base, because their influence and their machine power would be feared and hated...and would certainly have resulted in white reprisals."

Of course, there were systems like that in every city in the South into the early 1960s. The peculiarity of Dallas is that the system was still in place well into the 1980s.

In 1987, when Annette Strauss was running for mayor, S.M. Wright was still the principal conduit through which money was passed from white power brokers to the black community, distributed by him through a network of ministers. Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant who helped run Strauss' campaign in 1987, says she was instructed by a top Dallas County Democratic Party official "to just go down and give a check to Rev. Wright."

"That was how the black vote was still handled, even at that time," Bartos says. "Just take the check to Rev. Wright. I was never sure what they got for that. Generally what you get is the right to do the rounds of the churches and stand up in the pulpit and make your pitch."

When Bartos refused to carry "walking-around money" to Wright, she was criticized not by whites but by black power brokers who wondered what was holding up their checks.

"I've been called a racist because I refused to pay walking-around money," she says.

People in the community now speak frankly about Wright and his role. "S.M. was strictly about taking bribes," Cottrell says. "The white power structure protected him."

The loyalty of white power brokers to Wright endured even after his death: He became the first African-American citizen of Dallas to have a freeway named after him, putting him right up there with John Stemmons, whose grandfather came to Dallas to evade arrest by Reconstruction authorities.

Wright's connection to white power in the early 1970s was already clear and frightening. Robert Bowen, a Dallas businessman who was a young SCLC activist in the early 1970s, remembers the Sunday morning he and other organizers attended services at Wright's church, People's Baptist, and rose from the audience afterward to confront him about his ties to white power.

"We were asked to leave," Bowen says. "Somebody looked outside, and the place was surrounded by riot police. There were at least 50 police cars there. We were strictly nonviolent, of course, but S.M. made sure we knew where he stood."

Peter Johnson says the SCLC succeeded in negotiating a hiring and contracting covenant with Safeway, after which he returned to Atlanta. But when he arrived there, breathless SCLC officials told him there had been big trouble the night before back in Dallas, where armed goons had made an assault on his apartment.

"As soon as I got back to SCLC headquarters, Rev. [Ralph] Abernathy was waiting for me, and he said, 'Peter, you better call Dallas.' He said, 'Last night, men in hoods with automatic weapons kicked your doors in and tried to get the people staying there to tell them where you were.'"

Johnson says S.M. Wright had been so infuriated by the SCLC's success with Safeway--an affront to Wright's power--that he had insisted white Dallas power brokers persuade Safeway to abrogate the deal. Even though it had signed a series of covenants with the SCLC, Safeway backed down under pressure from the local Dallas power structure and broke the deal.

"I have always assumed that the business with the men with guns kicking down my doors was arranged by S.M. Wright and the white power structure," he says.

The Rev. Abernathy and the leadership of the SCLC instructed Johnson never to return to Dallas, arguing that the problem there was not so much the hostility of the white power structure as the hostility of the black community.

"We had a meeting, and I convinced them that, if we let a bunch of white minuteman brown-shirts and black Uncle Tom preachers run us out of Dallas, we would never be able to hold our heads up again in any city in the South," Johnson says.

The SCLC relented and allowed Johnson to return. It was in that atmosphere--doors kicked in at night by gun-bearing white men, S.M. Wright angrily fingering the targets--that Johnson, an outsider, went back to Safeway and reinstated the picket lines.

What he needed badly, however, in addition to young movement stalwarts like Bowen and Paul Ragsdale, who had come to Dallas from elsewhere, was someone black from the city itself at his side.

"And that was Albert," Johnson says. "Al Lipscomb was a hero of that battle."

Lipscomb did not merely join the reinstated picket line on impulse. He agreed to travel to Dorchester, Georgia, to attend Septima Clark's famous citizenship education school, making him one of very few African-American activists in Dallas ever to receive the formal civil rights training that imbued the core values and techniques of the national movement.

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